February 7, 2021

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: RE: ‘In 2017, Pres. Pollack Responded to Racist Incidents on Cornell’s Campus With a Task Force. Did It Change Campus Climate?’

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We, as former members of the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, write this statement with pained hearts as horrifying events unfold at our alma mater, and not for the first time. In the fall semester of 2017, several hate crimes took place on and off campus, prompting us to improve campus climate. We did not expect to be here three years since those events. President Martha Pollack appointed members of the Task Force to identify goals, strategies and values that would lend the university guideposts for how to respond ethically and effectively the next time racism would rear its ugly head. 

The administration has avoided taking direct actions in response to the “Racist, Misogynistic Harassment Strikes Cornell S.A. Members After Disarmament Resolution,” and this has dashed the last of any lingering hopes we had. We want to remind the Cornell administration that our work was not performative, perfunctory or superficial. We wanted better. We expected better. We labored for hours, weeks and months in that spring semester of 2018, only for us to now watch our peers, mentees, communities and BIPOC organizers threatened, harassed, racially vilified, bullied, doxxed and worse, not just from within the Cornell community, but from the outside as well. Those students have largely shouldered the burden of our recommendations much better than the administration that asked for them in the first place.

Our Task Force has been robbed of its purpose and been made obsolete. We chose to serve on the Presidential Task Force because we care deeply about systemic racism and other societal inequities. While the Task Force was always time-limited and charged with making recommendations for the Cornell community, not with overseeing strategy and implementation, we, as Cornellians, feel a sense of ownership and investment in how the administration lives up to our recommendations in both word and deed. In response to the attacks on Uchenna Chukwukere ’21, Moriah Adeghe ’21, Catherine Huang ’21 and other organizers, there has been only an opaque acknowledgement of the current campus climate from the University. How can students, staff, faculty and alumni from marginalized identity groups feel a sense of safety or belonging when Cornell’s response to blatantly racist, sexist and homophobic attacks is not explicitly anti-racist and action-based? If Cornell does not proactively cultivate conditions of safety, how can we as alumni, students, faculty or staff recommend Cornell in good conscience to friends, families or colleagues in our networks? Is it fair or reasonable to expect that of us?

So, we will speak to current students now, as individuals who were once chosen as community members responsible for putting forth recommendations for Cornell to Do Better

For the Campus Response report, the following recommendations were already made:

Recommendation B2: Frame bias, racism and discrimination not only as infringing on Cornell University values, but also as a public health issue. “To date, racism has primarily been conceptualized as a psychosocial stressor in the health science literature, and the strongest and most consistent evidence of its adverse health effects concerns mental health, as detailed in several comprehensive, systematic reviews. Self-reported racism was positively associated with increased levels of negative mental health, including all individual mental health outcomes except for positive affect (e.g., depression, anxiety, distress, psychological stress, negative affect and post-traumatic stress), and negatively associated with positive mental health (e.g., self-esteem, life satisfaction, control and mastery and wellbeing).” The Lancet, Vol. 389, April 8, 2017. 

Recommendation B3: Develop a standard, centralized procedure to address any type of bias incident (local/national/global). The steps in the process should be consistent across the university. The procedure should be easily accessible and transparent, and include a mechanism for tracking timeline expectations. (See Skidmore College example; emphasis added).

Recommendation C2: We recommend the creation of a diversity and inclusion communications director whose responsibilities would include the following: The creation, execution and periodic revision of a communications protocol for incidents related to bias. This protocol, which would be part of the general university response strategy indicated above, would indicate which university administrator is reaching out to which university community (e.g., the student body, the faculty, the entire university, etc.) at which stage of response.

The Hurtado Report, created between 2013-2014 and cited by the Campus Experience report, stated that, “Students, faculty and staff should be educated about different forms of bias, discrimination and harassment to empower targeted individuals to ‘name’ the offense and identify ways to respond.” This information is offered as a part of the Bias Reporting tool, presenting therefore as retroactively useful.

We acknowledge Cornell has made strides in fulfilling several PTF recommendations, including creating the new diversity, equity and inclusion framework, Belonging at Cornell. This definition of belonging requires a sense of security and support.  Therefore, when Cornell denouces racist, xenophobic and homophobic statements but avoids providing support, accommodations or protections for them, (especially when these three students and their families are handling veiled death threats and villification), the University tacitly condones bigotry and fails to promote a sense of safety and support for the students entrusted to its care. 

Cornell’s promise remains “Any Person, Any Study.” As long as students fear national retribution for the implementation of their ideals through shared governance, it’s clear that supposed “ideological diversity” is privileged above physical safety. Cornell is actually not for any person — it’s for any person who stays within the lines of political action that falls within neoliberal constraints. As President Pollack said in her statement in response to the “Recent Killings of Black People in America,” “Decent people and institutions cannot stand silent while such violence against our fellow citizens continues.” All of us signing this statement stand in resolute solidarity with students of color awaiting an action-oriented response from the University.

Brandon Cohen ’18

Shivani Parikh ’19

Jenna Kyle, Law ’19

Reem Abdalla ’20