Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

President Martha Pollack speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall on Nov. 12, 2019.

August 27, 2020

President Pollack, Cornell Admin Discuss COVID Readiness and Anti-Racism as Unconventional Semester is Set to Begin

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Editor’s Note: The Sun spoke with President Martha Pollack, Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi, Vice President of Facilities and Campus Services Rick Burgess, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Presidential Advisor for Diversity and Equity Avery August and Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina about Cornell’s reopening plan and anti-racism initiatives. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar. 


[ps2id id=’reopening’ target=”/]Reopening Campus

The Sun: We’ve talked about how reopening is the safest option going forward. What are the parameters that we’re looking at? Especially when we’re seeing if it’s still the safest option?

Martha Pollack: So we’re monitoring every single day. Every single day, we look both at statistics and at our operational procedures to make sure everything is going on track. We are putting together a dashboard which I believe will be out [Tuesday], the next day at the absolute latest, so that we can share the data with the community and the whole community will be able to see the data. The four key factors that we monitor our number of infections amongst our Cornell community are: capacity in quarantine and isolation, a hospital, local health system capacity — we’re working in very close collaboration with Cayuga Health System and its CEO Martin Stallone — and then finally, testing capacity. Do we have the supplies we need to continue to do the rest of testing that is at the core of our whole approach?

The Sun: So does this testing capacity mean just Cornell’s centers or does this also factor in the Tompkins County Health Department’s?

Martha Pollack: No, we’re not using up capacity from the county — we’ve created our own testing capacity and that’s what we’re monitoring.

The Sun: Provost Kotlikoff, I also wanted to ask you a question; we heard that 250 cases per week was the threshold. And I wanted to ask for some clarity on that. How was that number arrived at?

Michael Kotlikoff: Yes. So, modeling uses things like the prevalence of infection in people coming into the community and predicts how many cases we would have and it does that, in a sort of best case scenario and then our worst case scenario, and then a very extreme scenario.

The fundamental thing that we want to control is community spread of the virus, so the thing that we’re most important in focusing on is that we know we’re going to have people that are coming back positive, so our testing strategy is really designed to identify them quickly and get them in isolation before the virus can spread. If the virus starts to spread, then that’s indicated by this figure R0, or how many people each individual who is infected spreads the virus to. Rather than do something sort of a little less easy for the community to understand the R0, we asked Prof. Frazier to identify the number of cases over a seven day course that would indicate we’re moving out of the best case scenario into the nominal scenario is modeling — and that was 250 cases.

Provost Michael Kotlikoff speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall on Nov. 12, 2019.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Provost Michael Kotlikoff speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall on Nov. 12, 2019.

At that point, we’re starting to go into an area where we’re seeing community spread and if we don’t do something, we need to move that back and that’s where we chose that as a sort of golden red sign to tell us we need to think about that and figure out whether we had to take the most extreme step, which would be a [shut down].

Martha Pollack: I do want to add two really important pieces of context to what the Provost just said. The first is, as I say, we’re looking at four factors and anytime one of those factors hits a threshold and, thresholds are needed to be defined, then we are committed to having a discussion with Tompkins County along with Cayuga Medical Center, about whether to go to the next elevation level on the dashboard from green to yellow to orange to red. We’re not abdicating our responsibility and putting everything into an algorithm.

So let me give you an example; I told you we were going to look at testing supplies, and let’s say that the trigger was less than two weeks of testing supplies. But, let’s say we knew that they were testing supplies en route and we expected them in hand the next day. We might not pull the trigger. We might wait till the next day and see what happened. On the other hand, maybe none of the triggers would have been hit, but all four of them are creeping up in ways that are alarming. Then we might pull the trigger anyway. That’s the first thing to understand — I’m a computer scientist but this is not something you can abdicate to an algorithm, you need to be looking at the overall context.

The second thing that is so important for our community to understand is that most of the testing numbers that you’ve seen out there for Tompkins County, for the country, for various states — that’s based on testing that’s done for cause. So people are tested, either because they have symptoms or because they’ve been in direct contact with a known positive. And if you look at the literature, but when scientists go in and do things like antibody testing, what they see is that we may be missing as many as nine or 10 positive cases for each case that’s actually reported. So when we talk about numbers of 250 in a week, that sounds enormously large, but remember we’re going to be testing every single student multiple times a week. We’re going to be testing every faculty and staff, either every week, twice a week, once a week or every other week. We hope to catch almost every case, all these cases that would otherwise have been missed. It’s a little bit apples and oranges, to compare our numbers to the numbers you often see in the press and I don’t think people have quite understood that so I wanted to stress that.

The Sun: Yes, thank you. I also wanted to ask about the pronoun “we.” Other schools have a chief health officer and I’m wondering who might the “we” be in this context at Cornell?

Michael Kotlikoff: We’ve consulted a number of people. We have a public health expert that’s on our committee that’s advised us, we’ve asked Cayuga Health Systems CEO Martin Stallone about his view on what local medical capacity wouldn’t be needed. Of course individual epidemiologists like Peter Frazier, our Cornell health director, Sharon McMullen, as well as Gary Koretzky who’s a physician, and an immunologist. To Martha’s point, as the situation arises or changes, we will continue to consult people about this and get expert advice about what we should do.

The Sun: Are you guys coordinating with the state government in any way? 

Joel Malina: Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), as we’re aware, has been very involved in helping set the guidelines by which all sorts of sectors would be able to reopen. Martha, in fact, was a member of his reactivation committee. Mike was a key member of a higher ed focus activation committee, and that resulted in the release of guidelines for higher ed. Our requirement was to attest that our plan met the guidelines for higher ed which we did when we submitted our plan. And they are doing a pretty good job of keeping track of whose plans require what, but I can’t speak to a K-12 area of focus, but it is not as hands on, on a daily basis as it is with the county and our local municipalities.

Vice president for university relations Joel Malina speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall Nov. 12, 2019.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Vice president for university relations Joel Malina speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall Nov. 12, 2019.

On that front, we are engaged quite regularly not just with the elected officials from the major municipalities, but with the key leaders of the various constituencies the business community, the nonprofit community, the school board. Mike and I will be on a school board open forum tomorrow evening. We’ve been doing a number of neighborhood level town halls, we’ve done about a dozen, breaking down each of the various neighborhoods, giving the general public an opportunity to ask questions, for us to make sure that people understand our approach, and how what we’re doing is really with the public health interests of the whole community at heart, every day. Among the most important partnerships, as Martha and Mike referenced, are the Tompkins County Health Department and Cayuga Health System. They are really intricately involved in our discussions, each and every day.

[ps2id id=’monitoring’ target=”/]Monitoring and Closing Campus

The Sun: How has the series of university closures and basically just rapid shifts in the past couple of weeks — especially with Ithaca College and other Ivies changing course — how does that impact your decision-making?

Martha Pollack: We’re watching them very closely. We’re looking to see what numbers are coming out of different universities, but of course, every university is in a different context, every university has its own plan. The very aggressive surveillance testing program that we’ve put into place — I don’t want to say it’s unique; there are schools that have surveillance testing programs in — but many of the schools that you’ve seen have had to close, have not had that. You have to take into account the local prevalence. So we watch it and we pay attention. But we have to make the decisions that are right for now.

Michael Kotlikoff: If you look at each one of those, there are factors underlying those and we’re, we’re very concerned about that. Notre Dame, for example, had a very low initial prevalence when people came in, but they just tested on the way in and then they converted to testing for cause or symptomatic testing, and that’s where it started to spread. We hope that our plan takes into account this.

The Sun: So, I’m glad you brought up Notre Dame because they did a two week pause. What will Cornell’s initial reaction or action might look like or is that going to be context dependent? Also, do you have different threshold levels, behavioral changes that you’re going to be requesting?

Martha Pollack: Yes, when you see the dashboard tomorrow or the next day the latest, you’ll see different escalation levels, and there are different actions. We start in green, which is the new normal. If things don’t go quite as smoothly, but we’re not at the point where we might even need to begin to consider shut down, we might test some groups more frequently. We might reduce the size of group meetings and so on. And it goes up from there. It isn’t as if we’re either just open and things are as they are now or complete shutdown.

The Sun: This is more technical, but do you know how many students have said that they are [returning] or have returned to Ithaca based on your surveys and data collection?

Michael Kotlikoff: We don’t have that data. We know how many students have been tested and we know how many are going to come back and are in the dorms, but we’re still in the process of this arriving testing program.

Ryan Lombardi: I will be happy to share, we won’t know final numbers on residence hall capacity until the contract cancellation which is Aug. 31, but we are estimating somewhere in broadly 4- 5,000. I would guess it’s going to be more in the 4,500 to 5,000 out of just under 7,000 beds, including our Hasbrouck community and our graduate community. It’s about 6,500 beds of just undergraduates so I think we’ll land there; we’ve had about 2,200 students move in yesterday and today, cumulative. We’re getting up to with students, staff and all that about 3,000 students in the residence hall so far.

Vice president for student and campus life Ryan Lombardi speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall on Nov. 12, 2019.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Vice president for student and campus life Ryan Lombardi speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall on Nov. 12, 2019.

The Sun: And do you guys have the rates of students who have been tested so far in terms of the positive test results?

Martha Pollack: That data will all be in great detail in the dashboard tomorrow and then updated regularly, so I don’t want to give you an exact number, but I do know that as of last Friday, the positivity rate was significantly below a low 0.1 percent. So it was like 0.07 percent or something like that, but you can get the exact number tomorrow. We cannot rest, we can’t be complacent. Things could change, and even if they don’t change, all it takes is one person having a big party and spreading it and that could cause problems. But so far it’s been, less than a dozen students out of thousands who have tested positive.

Michael Kotlikoff: To put some context on Martha’s comment about the 0.1 percent positives, our assumptions, our modeling was at 2 percent, so an order of magnitude higher would be coming back positive from non-quarantine states and 4 percent from quarantine states. So we’re well, well below so far. Again, not to let up our vigilance, but it’s good news so far.

The Sun: If there was a similar case like there was in March, and there was a need for a dramatic change, how would you be able to make sure that potentially-exposed students aren’t leaving campus and taking their exposure with them to their hometowns, while likewise remaining safe on campus?

Martha Pollack: I think that’s a really important point and one of the things we have been talking about doing just within the past few days is carefully modeling the differences between a complete shutdown of students in their room, asking everyone to stay in their room and sending everyone home quickly, and modeling out what what an intermediate path would be. How would we know when it’s safe for students to leave? How do we avoid mass chaos? How do we avoid the kind of transmission you’re talking about? We don’t have a complete answer to that yet, but it is absolutely something we are working on right now.

[ps2id id=’behavior’ target=”/]Behavior Enforcement on Campus

The Sun: There have been a lot of reports, I don’t know if you know, but on social media there are accounts that are highlighting behavior that might not be compliant with the behavioral contact on Facebook and Twitter, etc. Specific students have been called out. How do you monitor social media, are you aware of what’s happening on social media?

Ryan Lombardi: I haven’t had a lot of time to look at social media these past weeks, although you can appreciate my relationship with students. I hear from students quite a bit when things like you’re referring to get a lot of traction on social media, so I do know what you’re talking about. And our compliance and our enforcement mechanisms are in place. I think it’s important for me to share a couple of updates about that. We have a public reporting form that’s going live with the first day of classes, and that doesn’t mean that’s when enforcement and compliance begins. But, the C3T, the Cornell Compact Compliance Team, is working actively, following up on reports that come in and holding students accountable when necessary. One of the tensions frankly is that these are individual cases. These are not things that we’re going to advertise and publicize. We don’t do that ever, frankly, with students’ individual cases, but we do follow up and we will follow up on all the reports that come in and address those appropriately.

One thing that’s also important and I think you know this, but our behavioral compact monitors — also a group of staff that’s roaming campus. They’re roaming off-campus in Collegetown; they began last Thursday, Aug. 20 was the date, and they’ve been active, we’ve gotten reports from them too. They report generally good compliance on campus with mass mask wearing and they’ve had to do some reminders, but at least in the reports that I’m seeing, it’s been very positive; very, very appropriate. I don’t think they’ve had to call in for help or anything like that on any occasion. We’re aware of the reports that have come in already, we’re addressing those actively and we’ll continue to do so. It’s really our hope that, of course, we don’t have to do much of that, but we’re also not going to hesitate if it’s necessary.

The Sun: Just to clarify, but when reports come in, are those processed by the JA office?

Ryan Lombardi: No They’re initially processed by the C3T— they’re in the Dean of Students Office — and so they do the triage, and it’s really depending on the nature of the offense,the report and what kind of information is there; then they determine the escalation path. You can imagine there’s varying degrees of accountability, and so something that’s relatively low level, they’re just going to handle themselves within the Dean of Students Office, but when concerns escalate to a level that we worry about impact on the community and or it’s pervasive and consistent and repeated, that’s when we get the JA’s office involved.

The Sun: So Syracuse University suspended 23 students. University of Connecticut, as a punishment revoked housing. What’s the range of behaviors? I know you’ve said previously that you want this to be a learning-based model.

Ryan Lombardi: Those tools are in our toolkit as well and if we have to use them, we will. It’s not our desired outcome, and that’s why we lead with is that this is an educational institution and we want to try maintain the spirit of that and lift each other up and try to do that, but those exact same tools suspension from the institution, removal of access and privileges housing, etc. those are all tools in our toolkit and depending on again, the infraction and the level of recidivism and how intense and egregious it is it’ll escalate appropriately. My plea to students is, let’s not get ourselves in that situation where we have to be talking about that because that’s an outcome I don’t think anybody wants. The institution certainly doesn’t want it and I have to assume the students aren’t going to be too pleased with that either. But if we have to go there we will.

The Sun: Have you had to go there yet?

Ryan Lombardi: We’re not going to talk about individual cases at this point, but we’re prepared to use all tools in the toolkit. I’ll just say that.

Michael Kotlikoff: Let me just add that, you know, we’re trying to do something that is really a community effort, something that requires all of us to work together. I think the message that we all need to send is, individuals can jeopardize everybody’s well being. This is an effort that our community is very much involved with. We previewed a video today where we had leaders of the community thanking, welcoming students back, thanking Cornell for bringing students back. And it’s incumbent upon all of us for students, faculty, staff, to be part of this effort. If we don’t all work together, it’s not gonna work.

The Sun: I also wanted to ask you about the compact violation roamers. Are they students, staff? 

Ryan Lombardi: They’re actually staff. It’s all staff right now, so these are staff who have roles on campus that right now are not as busy, given the nature of their regular work, and so they’re shifting their jobs right now to do this monitoring for us.

The Sun: Are those people getting paid or is it volunteer-based?

Ryan Lombardi: They’re still collecting salaries on staff. I don’t mind sharing with you a large percentage of them are some of our coaches in athletics, who you know that the fall Ivy season is canceled, so some of our coaches have less work, not zero work to do in their regular jobs, but less work obviously if they’re not holding practices and doing some of that, so we have about 100 total doing this job right now and a large percentage are staff in athletics which we’re very grateful for.

[ps2id id=’mental’ target=”/]Mental Health

The Sun: I’d like to shift a little bit to health, mental health, actually. This morning, The New York Times published a CDC report that noted that one in ten 18 to 24 year olds have said they’ve seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, and the same survey said that Hispanic and Black respondents had even higher percentages. So how is Cornell going to be expanding its telehealth or mental health services or at least making an effort of outreach this semester?

Ryan Lombardi: There are two things, but first I want to acknowledge and I appreciate you bringing it up. It’s such an important issue and I think, I assume, even for all of us we’ve had to manage this ourselves over the last four or five months. At least I’ll speak for myself and say that it’s been incredibly challenging for me and my family and so I’m acutely aware of that.

I think there are a couple of elements, though. There are two things I want to talk about: one is how we can try to continue to build community in this moment as odd as it is and how unique it is and then the second, I’ll talk about the clinical support a little bit.

Our campus activities team, I can’t give them enough praise for the work that they’ve done and they’ve done it in collaboration with a lot of student organizations and other groups. You may have seen their Q-week series for the kind of two weeks of quarantine, just a lot of virtual programming there. They’re also going to shortly announce something called the First 30 Days, which is a series of programs that will take place over the first 30 days of the semester. Part of the idea here is that we create a lot of opportunities for our students to engage virtually, since we know that physical engagement is going to be reduced this semester, and really try to help engender a sense of belonging and a sense of well being through the engagement of community which is a lot of the reason many of our students wanted to be back on campus or in Ithaca. So that’s one element I would categorize in the upstream approach to mental health.

Our team and Cornell Health has done a really good job to expand and actually change some of the way and the training that they do with our faculty members and are teaching folks around to notice and respond to this stress in a COVID environment, in a virtual environment. So they’ve updated a lot of those resources and shared those with the faculty and we’re hopeful that that will help. They also have a lot of new virtual opportunities for groups and other types of outreach and support for students. You mentioned telehealth and so, I want to focus on that. A lot of our therapy is going to continue in the telehealth modality for this fall, that was used almost exclusively beginning in March, it was used very heavily. Our students really didn’t skip a beat, in terms of using telehealth. That was, I think, a really good lesson for us, because I think before that there’s been a lot of conversation about Cornell Health and wait times and going in and doing all this stuff, but students really latched on to this telehealth, which I think increases access even further and creates a lot of opportunity there, so we will continue that robustly.

One of the challenges for us, frankly, is that our psychologists or counselors — they’re licensed by the state. And so for instance, they get licensed in the State of New York. In the spring and in the summer, a lot of the states — and there was some federal support for this — were relaxing the restrictions about practicing across state lines, those restrictions are starting to come back into place. So Cornell Health is also contracted with a third party provider to help make sure we can provide teletherapy to students who stayed remote and who aren’t in New York, they may be international they may be domestic in other parts of the country. So we’ve added that resource as well for students who are staying in a virtual environment and not in the State of New York.

Martha Pollack: There’s another panel that Governor Cuomo stood up, called the Reimagining New York panel, and it’s a group of citizens from around the state who are looking at ways for New York to come back better, with a particular focus on underserved groups. I’m on that panel and, in fact, I’m the co-chair of the Telehealth Working Group. There’s three working groups: one is looking at broadband access for everyone, one is looking at telehealth and one is looking at new ways of working.

I wanted to just say two things. One, what we’ve learned: we’ve spent a lot of time going out and doing sort of a virtual listening tour and meeting with both patients and providers from around the state — urban, rural, underserved communities and everything you can imagine — and the degree to which people have really taken to telehealth is amazing. Both providers and patients found it to be much more effective than anyone could possibly have hoped, so our students are in good company.

The other thing is that we are trying to put in place this committee, a set of recommendations to the governor, and they include regulatory and policy changes of the kind that Ryan mentions — having to do with things like payment payment parity for telehealth, coverage across state lines and so on. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes, and I think over the next few years, including over the next few months, I hope you will see continued expansion of telehealth services in New York and more broadly.

Ryan Lombardi: To add on, because you asked about the impact particularly of not only COVID, but a lot of racism in the U.S., and a lot of really public acts of racism in the U.S. on our students of color and the disproportionate effect that COVID has had on a lot of students of color, our Counseling and Psychological Services team is trying to also set up additional support groups and group opportunities for student populations that have been disproportionately impacted, not only by this pandemic, but our long standing pandemic of racism.

I think one of the really key elements of us moving forward is the ability for us to create those small communities here. It is going to be different — we’re not going to have the big Cornell communities, but the small communities mean so much to so many. When we’ve talked to students this summer and students wanting to come back, their ability to be around even a small group of friends. I think that was critically important to their mental health and well being and certainly that was the case for all students, but I think it was especially the case for our students of color.

The Sun: I wanted to boil it down a little bit even more: If I’m a student and I am feeling a level of stress and I want to drop in to a mental health appointment, is that still something that I can do, or does it look a little different? 

Ryan Lombardi: Let me circle back to you on that. I think so, but admittedly, I don’t know the technical aspects of that.

Editor’s Note: V.P. Lombardi provided a follow-up addendum, writing:

“CAPS telehealth counseling is available by appointment, Protocall is available 24/7, and Let’s (Tele)Talk drop in will start next week.  

 Here’s how Let’s (Tele)Talk works: Check the website for available times (starting back up after 9/2).  If interested, please use the relevant link to access the Zoom meeting with a counselor. Students will be seen individually on a first-come, first-served basis. There may be a wait in the virtual waiting room if the counselor is seeing another student. Please wait and we will be with you as soon as we can.”

[ps2id id=’Residential’ target=”/]Residential Staff / On Campus Dynamics

The Sun: You talked about small communities, and I think RAs are intertwined in the building of small communities, especially for first-year students. So one thing that has come up a lot is that some RAs are saying that their staffs are understaffed, so I was wondering if you could speak to that.  

Ryan Lombardi: We have had some attrition with our RAs, and here’s why: When this all started in the spring and we started our recruitment process — under pandemic conditions — we also told all of the students, that we recruited as RAs, that they should absolutely not feel obligated to come back, if they didn’t feel comfortable. So they didn’t have to adhere to that contract, and so we did have some attrition in the RA ranks. There are some staff that have been impacted by this, we do plan to fill those gaps as soon as we get the semester underway. We want to get more students into those positions and fill them as much as possible, but we took a break during the transition, while we were focusing on getting the campus open — but we do plan to staff up the RA roles.

We’re going to be at a lower density this fall … so I don’t know yet exactly how that will shake out in terms of the RAs and their ratio for Ra to resident. But, obviously, we’re also operating under much different circumstances too. So it isn’t an even trade-off — I’m not suggesting that — but we do want to go back to replenishing some of those positions for students who didn’t feel comfortable returning.

The Sun: Another request of the RAs has been to renegotiate the contract; since it was set nearly a decade ago, is that also on the table? 

Ryan Lombardi: It is, in fact. We had a good conversation with the RAs last week. One of the things — and this is byproduct of, not only the pandemic, but the business in which we’ve all operated — we actually stood up a taskforce last January, an RA taskforce that was looking at the whole package, the roles, and the responsibilities for the RAs on how we could do better and make sure that it was a more sustainable role. As I said to the RAs last week, I was an RA a long time ago. But the roles and the descriptions of these things haven’t changed that dramatically over that amount of time, nationally speaking. So we started this process in January; there were RAs on that committee, there were residence life staff, other staff on campus. They actually wrapped up a set of recommendations in June, and submitted those recommendations to housing residents life, many of which encompassed some of the concerns that the RAs had raised last week. One of the challenges in trying to open in the pandemic is that we hadn’t connected that together yet, right? So we had the recommendations of this taskforce, but the whole summer was spent really trying to get ready for this fall. And so those issues of the package, and what it looks like, and what the role is, and the compensation are still very much on the table. A lot of those recommendations were in this task force, and that’s one of the things we’re going to do, and start sitting down with the RAs once we get through opening and figure out how we can make some adjustments there.

The Sun: There are some dormitories that are designed in a more pandemic-friendly way, like ones with pods or the townhouses; others are super communal. And so I was wondering how safety is being promoted in those areas, like kitchen spaces, common spaces and bathrooms? 

Ryan Lombardi: So a couple things. First of all, one of the things we’ll have to do is get fully open and have a good sense of our final occupancy, and where everybody is. If we have a lot of capacity in those places that may be, to your words, “COVID-friendly,” we may actually offer some of our students the opportunity to move into those spaces because they’re more aligned for that. We’ll just have to see once the occupancy all shakes out. But aside from that, all resident hall spaces where there are communal areas have been given information about how to de-densify those spaces. I was down on West Campus earlier, for example, and there’s signage on the doors that say, “how many people in this conference room, etc. etc.” Same with restrooms. That’s really how this is addressed — it’s not even, it’s not on a one-to-one basis. It’s not what it used to be. So that’s the way we’re trying to address that within the residences. It is quite variable, as you know, across the portfolio.

The Sun: Who would be responsible for enforcing that? Is there a peer-to-peer accountability method? 

Ryan Lombardi: It’s everyone’s responsibility in a community; that’s the way resident halls work. There’s not eyes on the ground 24/7, it’s just not feasible. Of course, if there’s an RA, or someone else, our behavioral contact monitors are going into the common spaces around floors and things like this, and so if they see that, they can address those things. But it really takes the whole community, as it does for many things that occur in the residence halls.

The Sun: My next question is about communal spaces, those outside the residence hall, across the University? How are those communal spaces being adjusted? Is it the same idea; that there will be signage, or will it be that students can no longer use [them]? 

Rick Burgess: We’ve, in general, have tried to put up good guidance for folks so that they can be reminded of the need to distance themselves and mask policy. I don’t think, to Ryan’s point, that we are going to be able to put a sign up every square foot. There’s a point at which more signs doesn’t help. This is designed to be a reminder.  I think we are asking people to be conscientious about it. We have some specific things where, just like Ryan said, we’ll say, “you know, please no more than, you know, this number in this space.” And then we’re going to have people who are going to figure out what works; people will be looking for places to eat their lunch, they will be looking for a place to sit down and get on their laptop and get online. There are efforts to identify quiet study spaces, those are underway, being developed and will be rolled out. And then there’s going to be a certain amount that we need people to kind of figure out and do so conscientiously with community in mind.

Vice president of facilities and campus services Rick Burgess speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall on Nov. 12, 2019.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Vice president of facilities and campus services Rick Burgess speaks during an interview with The Sun at Day Hall on Nov. 12, 2019.

Ryan Lombardi: One of the things that’s important for us to remember is that, ‘what are the key elements of making this all successful?” And monitoring to an exact tee how many people are in this conference room or in this kitchen at any one time is not that metric. The keeping up with the testing, the good general mask wearing, the hand washing, the keeping of distance — those are the key things that are going to make this successful. Avoiding the super-spreader events, and those types of things, that’s what’s going to give us success this semester, not whether or not there’s, you know, seven people in this room instead of six. I know that there’s a lot of anxiety around it, so that creates a certain level of focus around those kinds of issues, but I also think it’s important for us as a community to remember what is going to drive success here and that we are putting our attention to really focusing on those elements.

Michael Kotlikoff: I was going to say the same thing Ryan, the science tells us that if you wear a mask, avoid distances of less six feet for a period of 15 minutes or so, if you’re in and out of closed spaces for short period of times while both have masks — the likelihood of someone infecting you, if they are infected, is very, very, very low. And our testing is designed to minimize the fact that the person next to you is, in fact. Because we’re surveilling people twice a week, all undergraduates twice a week, and as you emerge with infection, you’re in isolation. So, together, that’s a system that really should provide the kind of assurance that Ryan is talking about.

[ps2id id=’Pooled’ target=”/]Pooled Testing

The Sun:  You mentioned testing undergraduates twice a week; some graduate students have also asked why that hasn’t been the case for graduate students, as well. Could you explain your reasoning? 

Michael Kotlikoff: We’ve said that graduate students that are student facing, their families if they’re RAs and they’ve living in the residences, and faculty that are student facing — they can be tested twice a week as well, that’s their choice. We have other faculty that are occasionally on campus and less directly student facing, who are obviously not living in residences. They’re generally once every two weeks. And then we have faculty and students and staff who are not coming to campus at all, for whom coming to campus would probably be riskier, because if they had to take a bus to come to campus to get tested, so they’re able to opt out. So this is a bit more nuanced than that. But, in general, graduate students are once a week, undergraduates are twice a week.

The Sun: We’ve talked about how surveillance testing is anterior nares testing using a pooled method. And so I was wondering if that’s based on an existing model, or if that’s been a Cornell-developed initiative? 

Michael Kotlikoff: Well, it’s based on validation — we’ve done validation — but others have as well. There’s lots of places where you can get a saliva test, you can get a buccal test, you can take a swab and put it down your lower lip. You can get cells from the virus in the anterior narrows or front of the nose that could be impacted, or all the way back in the nasopharynx, which is what was the first initial testing and what the gold standard sort of is. So, we early on, decided that we wanted to do the gold standard for students coming in. But if we’re testing constantly twice a week, students are not going to put up with sticking a sharp stick up your nose. And so, this is something that is meant to be something you just put in your anterior nares, twirl around several times, and it’ll go in the solution. And we validated that as a very effective way to do this. We also validated the pooling, as you mentioned, Maryam. That way we’re going to test roughly 50,000 people a week; that allows us to do that with our testing capacity, and not burden, as Martha said, the local testing capacity.

Martha Pollack: I do think it’s important to note that, while we have done local validation, these are not techniques that are unique to us. Pool testing has had a long history, anterior testing is being done in other places … these are not sort of homegrown approaches to testing.

The Sun: Technically, if someone was to appear positive on the surveillance pool test, would they have to go back and get a nasopharyngeal test? 

Michael Kotlikoff: Yes. So the idea is that this is surveillance and then we want a final, definitive diagnostic test. So if somebody tests positive in that surveillance round, they’ll be asked to come in for a diagnostic test that will be definitive and that will notify them, and county health, that they’re positive.

Martha Pollack: I do want to bring up one other issue you didn’t ask about before … The other thing that is really going to make this successful is cooperation and contact tracing. So if you test positive, it’s really, really important that you cooperate and let us know who you’ve been in close contact with over the past few days. It isn’t a punishment; it’s a way of protecting these other people. If we don’t know who you are in contact with, we can’t break the chain of transmission, and they go on and transmit further. So that’s another way in which we need the community to be cooperative.

Michael Kotlikoff: And just to underscore, any and all contact tracing is done by the county health department; they’d be the ones communicating with those who have positive results, and it’s up to those people who, really, as Martha said, depend on those individuals coming forward with information on who they’ve been in contact with.

[ps2id id=’antiracism’ target=”/]Anti-Racism on Cornell’s Campus

The Sun: I wanted to switch over to the anti-racism initiatives and, basically, the response to everything that’s happened in the last three months regarding institutional racism and police brutality in the U.S. My first question was, you’ve announced the development of an anti-racism institute — I was wondering what that is going to look like and what timeline that will have, because obviously there’s a lot going on? 

Martha Pollack: It’s a really good question, and I’m glad you mentioned the full set of things we’ve announced, because, of course, the anti-racism center is just one of a number of initiatives that we’re trying to take on — In a holistic sense, that looks at how we teach, how we do research, how we operate each day. In just a moment I actually would like to ask Prof. Avery August to address this. August is the Chair of the PAIDS — Presidential Advisors on Diversity and Equity. He is also the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and in his role he is now a full-fledged member of my senior leadership team. It’s also worth noting that he’s a very distinguished professor of immunology; he’s the Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, which is quite an honor,

What he works on is directly relevant to the current pandemic, so I’m going to ask him to say a few words.  But what I want to explain about the anti-racism initiative, it will be a center for teaching and research about various policies on racism and on fighting racism. As such, any university where shared governance is really important — in all good universities shared governance is really important. The development of the vision for the center has to sit with the faculty … the faculty are who guide our research and guide our teaching, and then the administration supports it. So we have asked the Faculty Senate to take this on to develop a vision to talk about what this would look like, and then to come to us to talk about resources, and they are taking this on …[however] they weren’t able to do much over the summer, first of all. The Faculty Senate doesn’t usually meet in the summer and, secondly, quite honestly, the faculty have been working extraordinarily hard to get courses in hybrid form, and so on. But they are now moving forward — in fact, I know that the students from Do Better Cornell are meeting with the Faculty Senate. I don’t know if it’s Wednesday or Thursday, but one day this week. So it sits with the Faculty Senate and they will develop a proposal. And then [they] bring it to us and then we can provide the resources and help them shape it. I don’t know Avery, if you want to add anything to that.

Avery August: That’s correct, President Pollack. The idea, really, is to charge the Faculty Senate leadership to work with our colleagues who do significant work in this area. We mentioned a number of the centers and program area studies that already exist here on the campus; they do fantastic work, their scholarly deep expertise. And so the leadership of the Faculty Senate will be working with the leaders of those particular units to start to think about the framework of what the Center for Anti-Racism looks like.

Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Presidential Advisor for Diversity and Equity Chair Avery August. August became a part of the administration's senior leadership team in July, as part of an effort to implement a slew of anti-racism initiatives at Cornell.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Presidential Advisor for Diversity and Equity Chair Avery August. August became a part of the administration’s senior leadership team in July, as part of an effort to implement a slew of anti-racism initiatives at Cornell.

The Sun: Thank you, nice to meet you. I also wanted to ask what might be happening for incoming students? In the past, there’ve been Intergroup Dialogue projects and other initiatives to kind of ensure that incoming students know what the values that we aspire to be are. I’m wondering how that might be maintained during this more bouncy entry?

Ryan Lombardi: Virtually all of our orientation events are going to be virtual this coming fall, just because, again, we think these first couple of weeks are really important … [which] are about to kick off, I just talked to the orientation leaders today. And I know that they’re committed to doing a lot of the same type of programming, even in the virtual space, that we’ve historically done in the past. But I also know one of the most important elements of that process is the small group interactions and the way that we talk about those issues that are facing society [and] many of our students right now. I know this high on the minds of many of our students, and we’ll be a part of those conversations. Sorry, Avery, if there’s other things you wanted to add.

Avery August:  I just wanted to sort of step back a bit and just remind us that we had the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate and the Provost Task Force on Faculty Diversity … and there were a number of proposals and initiatives that came out of it that we’d started to work on over the last year and a half or so. And so those continue, those are expanding; certainly, the events over the last few months have sharpened our attention to that. But our focus hasn’t changed: We’ve been working on a number of those initiatives. Our president has a website that tracks our progress in that, and so we continue to do that work, in addition to the more recently announced initiatives from the president.

The Sun: And then [I had] some policy-specific questions. One thing that has come up is the RA-necessary response to reports of marijuana, or the smell of marijuana, with calling the police department — is that adjustment, or other adjustments, like the Alternative Justice Board, in process or should those be determined later? 

Editor’s note: RA policy mandates that CUPD is called upon the smell or sight of marijuana. 

Ryan Lombardi: So we started working on some of these things. Rick Burgess, vice president Burgess who’s on the Zoom here, and CUPD reports up through him. So we’ve started to talk and put some ideas together of what this could look like. We’re not going to be able to roll this out in the fall, just given our needs to get ready for opening under pandemic circumstances. But we are putting together the pieces of a community response team that will add additional, student affairs-type staff that would be available to back up and support our residential staff and other parts of our community. Eventually, we hope that we might be ready for a Phase 1 in spring. Of course, some of that depends on how things go this fall, and how things go with the pandemic, but our current aspiration is that we could start to put something together this fall, and get a pilot program and Phase 1 of that ready for spring semester, where we can start to have some additional non-police community response folks in there. There’s still going to be a need for — I’ll let Rick talk about this — for police to support our community and our staff in a number of situations. But we do recognize the impact there and want to support our staff as much as possible.

Rick Burgess: And if I could just add on to that, I think there’s a sense that not everything requires a police officer. And I think that’s justified, I think that’s accurate, I think to some extent. The police have been asked to do things, because they’re present, very capable. And so they’ve [CUPD] had some things kind of handed to them that they don’t have to do; we could have other folks do that. But we have to hire those folks, train them, and we certainly don’t want to have a scenario where maybe a situation goes sideways and you need the police in a hurry — and we think that could happen, so we want to be smart about that. Ryan’s team and my team, we’re going to work together to come up with this capability. It’s going to basically be one more tool in the toolkit, and we need to first get the tool and then understand how to use it properly, and when to use other information.

The Sun: When is other information, like demographic data, in response to incidents or calls, and, also, the use of force policy that students have requested and would like to see made public … Are there plans to make those public, and when if so? 

Rick Burgess: In terms of the actual format, we have had a couple of requests on that. And we are committed to providing the information that we can provide. I will say that we have a public safety advisory committee that has been a standing committee, and we are always interested in having conscientious members of the community as part of that. And so, we would hope that people who want to provide that advisory capacity would step up and participate in that … that’s an existing venue that we want to make sure we’re taking full advantage of.

Joel Malina: Just to extend again … I believe the invitation has been out there. Chief Honan has expressed a willingness to go into detail on the extent and all of the details of the policy with whomever from the Daily Sun. So we would encourage you to take him up on that and I think that would provide you and your readers with the information you’re looking for.

Ryan Lombardi: I just want to add one thing to what Rick said. He referenced that public safety advisory board; one of the shifts that you may remember that the president announced was that it will now report to the Executive Vice President Joanne De Stefano. Even though it was an existing body, sitting and working more closely with the Executive Vice President, Rick and I just wanted to mention that, as well, to the group. I wanted to amplify that.

The Sun: Just to circle back a little bit: Will disclosure of data — especially demographically stratified data — will that happen in the near future? 

Joel Malina: I would say that’s a discussion I would ask you to make with Chief Honan, in a discussion that I encourage you to have.

[ps2id id=’fees’ target=”/]Student/University Finances and Fees

The Sun: I just had a very quick question: Can you give me an update on the University’s finances. Are things doing better than projections, worse? Are cost-cutting measures planned to continue for the foreseeable future? 

Michael Kotlikoff: It’s a little hard to predict. We’re in the middle of the fiscal year that we projected with lots of uncertainty — uncertainty in terms of whether we’re successful for this semester (we certainly hope so). And we’ve predicted on that, but we don’t know that. [There are] lots of costs around this testing, what we’re doing to modify the campus. I would say that, so far, we’re on track with where our predictions were, but there’s still an awful lot of uncertainty there.

To your other point, our financial modeling — absent significant changes — is this year, fiscal year ’21. We’re not having pay reductions extend past this year; that was a one year effort estimate.

The Sun: So Princeton University said that they were going to be cutting their tuition by 10%, and other universities have also eliminated some fees. So, I was wondering if you were considering eliminating, specifically, the student contribution fee, [particularly] as the student contribution fee seems to disproportionately impact students of lower income. 

Martha Pollack: Most of our peers have not announced a tuition decrease, and we’re quite honestly not in a position to do that. The tuition increase was approved prior to the pandemic, and our pandemic costs have really escalated. In particular, by far the biggest increase comes from our projected increased financial aid needs; we are still absolutely committed to being need-blind and to meeting the full needs of all of our students. And so, there’s no way for us to reduce tuition and have the extra funds to cover that, as well as to cover the costs associated with things like the aggressive testing program and the modifications to buildings, and so on. We do want to remain committed to our students with need, and we are going to do that through financial aid. I believe there was a change to the student activity fee, which I don’t know the details of, I want to say … go ahead Ryan.

Ryan Lombardi: I can share a couple things I think you probably know we did. We did reduce housing and dining fees for the fall, given the shorter in-person semester. For those people that do leave, the student activity fee, the Student Assembly did make a recommendation to the president to reduce for the fall, as well — I think it’s around 20 to 25 percent, I’m sorry I can’t remember the number exactly.

The other thing I’ll mention though, and not my decision, but working with the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, who oversees financial aid, and the Provost is considering using some of the CARES resources that came in from the Federal government to do a one time reduction for the summer savings expectation. That’s being modeled right now, and seeing what might be able to be provided to support a reduction, at least for this year, given the economic impact this has had on so many individuals. That analysis is underway right now; I know that I’ve seen it, I think Mike is starting to see some early numbers on that. And we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to come up with something — both to do that, but also to set aside some additional emergency funding for students in light of all the pandemic circumstances that have occurred.