After only three-and-a-half years, Dean Vijay Pendakur will leave his post as dean of students Sept. 25 to be the chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Zynga, a tech company that specializes in video game services. Marla Love, senior associate dean of diversity and equity, will serve as interim dean of students.
“I have been considering for a couple of years now the opportunity to use the breadth and depth of diversity, equity and inclusion experiences and skills that I have outside of higher education,” Pendakur said.
The tumultuous summer which saw a nationwide reckoning with race after the death of George Floyd also precipitated Pendakur’s decision to embark on a new path in the tech industry, he said, hoping to affect change in a completely different sector.
On LinkedIn, Pendakur received a message from a former student worker of his, telling him that Zynga was adding a new chief diversity, equity and inclusion position and that he would be a good fit for the job. For Pendakur, it was the perfect opportunity.
“Like many people, I think I felt a renewed sense of urgency and anguish about the need for change, and the need for structural change and systems of systematic change,” Pendakur said.
Pendakur was first appointed dean of students in September 2016, edging out two other finalists for the position. During a series of candidate forums at the time, Pendakur promised to be a dean for “all students,” hoping to foster a more inclusive and collaborative environment for students.
The Office of the Dean of Students is supposed to “[inspire] transformation and enriches the lives of students by providing opportunities for students to grow and learn as individuals and to develop as leaders and contributing members of a larger community,” according to the office’s website.
One of the hallmarks of Pendakur’s short-lived tenure was promoting more diversity and inclusion, particularly in providing more resources for low-income, first-generation, undocumented and DACA students through Cornell’s student empowerment team. The University’s student empowerment team aims to encourage student learning through co-curricular activities to create a more inclusive campus environment.
Currently, the team supports over 150 student organizations such as Black Students United and ALANA Intercultural Board and runs peer mentorship programs like Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service and Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate. According to Pendakur, in only three-and-a-half-years, the Office of the Dean of Students revamped the program, changing the staffing and modeling.
“It’s one of those areas where I feel like we were able to build a really strong partnership with student leaders at Cornell,” Pendakur said.
In 2018, Pendakur was also a part of the establishment of the Kessler Presidential Scholars program, a peer mentorship for low-income, first-generation students. The program supports approximately 20 students in each class, offering academic support and substantial financial aid to students throughout their four years at Cornell.
More recently, Pendakur had been at the helm of the dean of students office during the coronavirus pandemic, working to provide more resources to students during such a turbulent time. When campus abruptly shuttered in March, Pendakur was instrumental in helping to set up the Access Fund — $400,000 in emergency aid for pandemic-related expenses for low-income students — in an incredibly short period of time.
Even now, as Cornell tries to successfully remain open for the fall semester, the departing dean of students played a major role in the University’s COVID-19 public health campaign and creation of the Cornell Compact Compliance Team. The C3T enforces the behavioral compact — a contract that details the list of rules students must adhere to during the fall semester — through multiple levels of intervention and disciplinary action, depending on the severity of the violation.
The dean of students noted that he was proud of Cornell’s approach to enforcement, as it was tailored to be more educational than punitive.
“I really think our model as an institution has tried to avoid that pitfall of shame-based approaches and focus rather on a public health campaign that says we’re all in this together, and we know that you can make the right choices because you are brilliant young adults,” Pendakur said. “And I think that’s a much more noble way to pursue a path through this difficult time.”
At a campus that has seen its fair share of controversial speakers, Pendakur was actively involved in reimagining how the University grapples with free speech and protests.
According to Pendakur, Cornell sought to reconcile free speech and protests with the right to dissent, allowing controversial speakers and protests to take place on campus as long as they followed a series of rules and regulations. The dean of students said he’s noticed that students engage more in “structured dissent,” hosting teach-ins and sit-ins rather than forcefully shutting down invited speakers.
“That doesn’t happen everywhere across the country — I think that that’s something pretty special about Cornell,” Pendakur said.
Looking back at his time at Cornell, Pendakur said it was difficult to leave, but he expressed enthusiasm over his new endeavors.
“I am excited about the opportunity to move the needle in very measurable ways on the representation of women, people of color, people with disabilities and veterans and a number of other historically excluded groups in the tech sector … there’s a lot of work to do in the [diversity and inclusion] space in tech,” Pendakur said. “My excitement is not only that there’s good work to do but also that if we can do it, and I can succeed and make change that I actually think — much like higher education — that making change in tech has the chance to cause a ripple effect and affect our broader society.”