President Martha E. Pollack at her office in Day Hall in May 2019. The Sun spoke with Cornell administrators about the fall reopening plan and anti-racism initiatives.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

President Martha E. Pollack at her office in Day Hall in May 2019. The Sun spoke with Cornell administrators about the fall reopening plan and anti-racism initiatives.

September 1, 2020

Testing, Enforcement, Policy Changes: Cornell Administrators Outline the Fall Semester

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Thousands of Cornell students have endured the nasal swab test and for a portion of them, a two-week quarantine. When classes start Wednesday, students will tune into their courses from around the world.

But it took months of planning and policy-making to get here. Cornell administrators recently spoke with The Sun about the University’s reopening plan, anti-racism initiatives in light of the Do Better Cornell movement and other pressing campus issues.

In attendance for the interview was:

  • President Martha E. Pollack
  • Provost Michael Kotlikoff
  • Vice President of 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
  • Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina

Here are the highlights of that conversation.

COVID-19 and reopening campus

Cornell has almost finished the arrival testing phase of its plan to reopen campus, and it will shift to surveillance testing when classes start Sept. 2. The University has independently built up its testing capacity to about 50,000 people a week, allowing it to not burden Tompkins County’s testing capacity.

“We’re not using up capacity from the county,” Pollack said. “We’ve created our own testing capacity and that’s what we’re monitoring. … Do we have the supplies we need to continue to do the rest of testing that is at the core of our whole approach?”

One recent development came from a University Assembly meeting Aug. 21, when Kotlikoff announced 250 cases within one week could prompt a campus shutdown. This number is high compared to other regulations in New York State. Syracuse University said it will begin a shelter-in-place if cases exceed 100, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) announced that New York colleges that reach 100 cases must shift to remote learning for two weeks.

When The Sun asked about the reasoning behind the number of 250, Kotlikoff said it comes down to the model made by Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering.

“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 nominative scenario is modeling,” Kotlikoff told The Sun, “and that was 250 cases.” 

Pollack added that the administration’s four factors of monitoring campus safety and policies are the capacity of isolation and quarantine, hospitals, the health system and testing. She said that Cornell has a higher case threshold than other colleges because of its surveillance testing protocols.

“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,” Pollack said. “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.”

Cornell will test undergraduates twice a week and graduate students about once a week. Faculty and staff will be tested once every week, twice a week or every other week, depending on often they plan to be on campus.

Beyond testing and contact tracing, the University has already rolled out plans to enforce the behavioral compact, Lombardi said. Behavioral compact monitors have been roaming campus and Collegetown since Aug. 20, and a public reporting form will go live on the first day of classes. 

For an infraction that’s relatively low level, the Cornell Compact Compliance Team will handle it without involving the Office of the Judicial Administrator, but “when concerns escalate to a level that we worry about impact on the community and or it’s pervasive and consistent and repeated,” Lombardi said, the J.A. office will process these reports. 

Although he wasn’t willing to discuss if the University has used drastic measures — such as suspension or removing access to campus resources — in the interview, Lombardi said students have been suspended for behavioral compact violations in his message about the first COVID-19 cluster on campus.

Cornell hasn’t developed its reopening plan alone. The University has coordinated with the state government, local elected officials and businesses. They’ve partnered with the Tompkins County Health Department and the Cayuga Health System. And they’re watching other colleges, too. 

As cases have spiked at colleges across the country, Pollack said Cornell’s surveillance testing plan and local virus prevalence makes the difference. 

“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, has its own plan,” Pollack said. “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.” 

RAs

Lombardi responded to questions regarding recent tensions between the University and its resident advisers. RAs went on strike during the first week of on-campus quarantine to protest poor working conditions — the strike ended a day later because the University agreed to have more open lines of communication.

When RAs went on strike, they raised concerns about understaffing, which burdened current RAs with extra responsibilities. Lombardi attributed this to some staff members not returning to campus, which Cornell allowed due to health concerns.

“We do want to go back to replenishing some of those positions for students who didn’t feel comfortable returning,” Lombardi said.

He added that the University and RAs are in the middle of negotiating a new contract, a process that started January. Once students are settled into dorms, Lombardi said, Cornell may provide options for them to move to a more socially-distanced dorm if spots remain available.

Do Better Cornell

The University promised several anti-racist initiatives over the summer, following two petitions demanding anti-racist change at Cornell. Of those initiatives, the two that led the discussion was the creation of an anti-racism institute on campus and changes to RA protocol regarding marijuana.

Pollack said the anti-racism institute “will be a center for teaching and research about various policies on racism and on fighting racism.” Cornell has handed the reins to the Faculty Senate who will work with colleagues that do significant work in this area to create the institute, August said.

“A number of the centers and program area studies already exist here on the campus do fantastic work, their scholarly deep expertise,” August said. “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.” 

Pollack said the Faculty Senate did not make much progress over the summer, as faculty spent it preparing for the hybrid semester, but that they are now moving forward, as the Faculty Senate met with Do Better Cornell last Wednesday.

Additionally, Do Better Cornell demanded that the University adjust its RA policy for reporting marijuana in the dorms, and Lombardi said Cornell will not roll out this change in the fall as it focuses on carrying out the reopening plan. Current policy requires RAs to call Cornell University Police Department if they smell or see marijuana.  

Tuition

Pollack reiterated that a tuition decrease isn’t feasible for Cornell, as the University plans to cover projected increased financial aid and fund its testing program. Cornell will raise tuition by the same percent increase as last year. 

“Our pandemic costs have really escalated,” Pollack said. “We are still absolutely committed to being need-blind and to meeting the full needs of all of our students. 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.”

Because of these costs, Cornell previously projected a pandemic-related $210 million loss for the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses during the current fiscal year. The University is on track with these predictions, according to Kotlikoff, but University finances depend on how this semester unfolds.      

“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,” Kotlikoff said. “And we’ve predicted on that, but we don’t know that.”

Lombardi noted that Cornell has lowered housing and dining costs to account for the shortened on-campus semester. He also mentioned several cost cuts that the University is considering: a Student Assembly recommendation to cut the student activity fee by approximately 20 to 25 percent and using money from the CARES Act for a one-time reduction in the summer savings expectation — which is part of the calculation of the student contribution. Neither of these proposals have been approved yet.

Read the full interview here.