November 16, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Do Better Cornell, Student Demands

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Below are Do Better Cornell’s demands in response to the events of Nov. 7 and Nov. 9. To preserve their original intentions The Sun has decided to publish their demands as they were given to us. As a result they have not been edited to conform with Sun Style. 

We, a collective of students from various parts and communities on campus, issue these demands to hold Cornell University accountable for its atrocious lack of action and leadership in the aftermath of events on Nov 7, 2021 and Nov 9, 2021. These events, including a bomb threat and an active shooter threat, lasted for hours and left students in panic with vague, inconsistent communication from the University. While students feared for their safety, trying to figure out what to do and where to go, many continued to receive emails from professors about assignments, exams, and classes scheduled for the next day. Empathy was nowhere to be found—especially as the Nov 7 situation failed to even receive the usual empty messages of understanding from top-ranking University officials, including President Pollack and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Lombardi. 

During both crises, the same dependence on broken mental health systems and resources were deployed as students were expected to sit in silence and rely on programs, such as CAPS, that have already continuously failed them. At the end of both crises, administrators deployed retroactive, empty responses that ultimately had students returning to “business as usual” as if they were not fearing for their lives just mere hours before.

The University’s failures in events of this manner are not new. These are the same failures that have overlooked student well-being in light of 7 student deaths since the start of the Fall 2020 semester, amid the countless traumatic events of the past years. Lack of transparency and communication contributed to high stress that left us to process these campus-wide losses largely on our own with only the same defunded mental health services to turn to. In other situations regarding students passing, the University has provided inadequate support and flexibility for its grieving student body.

While we recognize that many of the situations in question were not in the University’s control, the extremely poor and toxic responses in their aftermath were. Cornell is an institution that leaves its students traumatized by the end of their four years. It paints incidents as isolated and sweeps them under the rug while continuing to portray itself as an institution for “any person, any study.” Thus, we present  this institution with several demands for both today and the future. The University must prioritize students’ health, especially as we make the existence (and profits) of this University possible. Today, the University must take the first step in a proactive, not reactive, approach to student health. We will continue to act until we receive a response from the University addressing our demands.

Our Demands: Addressing Concerns Directly Related to November 7th and 9th, 2021 

We demand that Cornell create clear, transparent, uniform, and publicly available regulations for professors and other University faculty on what being “flexible” with students means. This policy should at minimum address the following: postponing/canceling prelims, refusing to have hard deadlines enforced for the upcoming week(s), offering the option to attend class with virtual options or no enforcement of attendance policies, building in emergency accommodations/flexibility for students as circumstances arise and inclusion of an S/U option for emergencies. Relevant examples of circumstances should include, but are not limited to, campus-wide emergencies and student/community deaths.

After Cornell issued its announcement on the evening of November 9, 2021, postponing exams for the evening, it left much room for professors to exercise discretion in how they would proceed with their courses. As a result, there was a very mixed response across campus. Some professors cancelled classes, some offered Zoom options, and others proceeded as normal, expecting students to attend class in person. In many instances, professors rescheduled exams without the input of their students while others gave very little communication as to next steps for exams. As a result, students were forced to worry about completing homework assignments while sitting in the very dorms and houses they feared the previous day. This assortment of responses could have been mitigated by the University taking a firm stance that would give professors a minimum standard to adhere to for students on campus who experienced these traumatic events. 

We demand that Cornell implement a system of accountability for professors and faculty who refuse to follow these regulations. This should include a platform for students to report incidents of unaccommodating professors (with the option for anonymity), and concrete repercussions in place to address such issues. The University should outline who will be overseeing such efforts, and commit to implementing this as soon as possible. 

A simple suggestion of leniency and flexibility is not enough when professors have shown time and time again that, if left to their discretion, they will prioritize course material over the mental health and wellbeing of students. It is unacceptable that how much empathy a student receives in the wake of traumatic events is left up to chance, leading to disparate impacts across faculty and departments. If Cornell is truly committed to alleviating students’ concerns, they must codify mechanisms of holding inflexible professors and faculty accountable. This must, at minimum, include a streamlined method for reporting professors who fail to comply with these regulations, so that action may be taken swiftly and negative effects minimized. 

We demand that Cornell be clear on what a “heightened police presence” entails and make all attempts to put an expedient end to said presence.

In response to the events of both November 7 and November 9, Cornell has informed the student body that there will be an increased presence of police officers on the campus. What this actually means has been unclear. Cornell has failed to describe what police departments will be on campus, for how long, in what capacity, and where this presence will occur. A heightened presence is especially troubling given the fears many undocumented, international, and students of color have expressed due to the historically strained nature of their relationship with the police. Thus, we demand more information regarding the presence of law enforcement on campus, in addition to an end to this increase in law enforcement officials.

We demand a consequence-free mental health week, wherein students will be exempt from classes, assignments, and deadlines in order to recover from the stress of preceding incidents without the overarching worry of academic consequences. Students should not be held accountable for the assignments and academic responsibilities of this week, and available accommodations through Student Disability Services (SDS) must be made clearer, and more accessible.

Despite unprecedented situations that included potential threats to safety, students have been expected to resume business as usual as if no disruptions occurred. After the loss of entire days to lockdowns and feelings of fear, expecting students to keep up with assignments and studying is both inconsiderate and unrealistic. Students need genuine time to process their feelings and decompress amidst traumatic  situations. This prospect is defeated if students are expected to play “catch up” and make up all assignments they would have been responsible for during the break. While certain accommodations are available through Students Disability Services, these services are highly inaccessible and are severely lacking in visibility on campus. Departments and faculty must acknowledge their syllabus and curriculum will be disrupted by the very same situations that have disrupted students’ wellbeing.    

We demand that Cornell provides more comprehensive mental health services for all students, particularly in the wake of campus-wide tragedies and threats of violence. Specifically, Cornell should commit to hiring a minimum number of mental health professionals (on a per capita basis), with the goal of resuming individual therapy sessions for all who need it and ensuring that wait times are no longer than one week between scheduling and the appointment.

At a school where emotionally taxing crises occur every couple of weeks, Cornell must deepen their commitment to the health and well-being of students, which they have acknowledged as “foundational for academic and life success”. The hiring of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ therapists must be prioritized, as they are best suited to provide appropriate care to marginalized students. To this point, Cornell Health should create an anonymous method for the reporting of uncomfortable, offensive, or otherwise unacceptable experiences with mental health professionals, with a commitment to frequently monitor and appropriately address complaints. Though we understand that this is not a quick or easy task, we also far too deeply understand that we are in the midst of an ongoing mental health crisis which has already cost the lives of multiple students. At the very least there should be a minimum number of therapists specializing in crisis management, who are readily available after traumatic incidents. Students should also be encouraged to check in with counselors in the aftermath of such events, to ensure we are taking proactive steps to protect students. 

Demands Addressing the conditions that exacerbated the toll of the events of 11/7 and 11/9

We demand that in future emergency events, University leadership communicate consistently and effectively. Messages need to be clear and detailed to prevent speculation and said messages should also contain clear instructions to prevent confusion on how to proceed. 

On Sunday, November 7th at 1:57 PM, the first CornellAlert went out instructing students to avoid certain parts of campus or to shelter in place. It would not be until 3:23 PM that the specific terrorist act would be named, leaving students to speculate what they were living through for approximately an hour and a half. The messages sent were unclear and hectic, one even containing no information at all. This confusion and lack of communication led to students being unsure on how to proceed in buildings unidentified in messages. Additionally, the University, on both November 7th and November 9th, sent less than 8 emergency alerts out to the campus – despite both events lasting several hours. On November 7th in particular, students went several hours without an update. This lack of communication also resulted in rumors circulating campus; Specifically, that an active shooter was on campus, which resulted in students experiencing unnecessary trauma and reacting in possibly dangerous ways. This speculation led students to wonder, where, if anywhere was safe on campus as they heard little news from the Cornell administration or law enforcement.

The administration has also failed to consider the impact such lack of transparency would have on its student body. In particular, the threat of an active gunman on November 9th instilled deep fear into North Campus residents. It would be remiss not to acknowledge the vulnerable population and composition of students on North Campus, which is home to Cornell’s first year population and a number of houses for students of marginalized identities (such as Wanawake Wa Wari Cooperative, the Latino Living Center and Ujamaa Residential College). Many of these students feared returning to North Campus because the vague description released by the police made them fear being targeted in the course of the search.

We compare the lack of transparency in CornellAlert’s to our Ivy League peers who experienced similar traumas this past week. Brown’s first message clarified what the threat was and what buildings were being investigated. Columbia also ensured they provided clear, transparent information. Yale’s alert on Friday, November 5th also provided this information to the student body.

It is clear that the Cornell administration failed the student body when they irresponsibly left students in the dark, letting us sit in our confusion, fear, and anxiety. 

We demand that there be a standardized protocol that outlines how staff and faculty should respond in support of students during crises. 

Firstly, professors should have a coordinated approach in how they relieve the workload of students during a crisis. The decision to acknowledge valid mental health concerns should not be left to the discretion of each professor, rather standardized at the University level. Sympathy and understanding for how the same crisis impacts different students should not be discriminately applied. Specifically, regarding crises that require a “shelter in place” order, there should be protocols as follows:

  1. All classes canceled immediately after order is placed 
  2. No assignment due dates within a week after the order has been lifted
  3. Acknowledgement of events and the toll these events have had on students
  4. Establish an open line of communication between students and key administrators including, but not limited to, the President of Cornell and VP of Student and Campus Life
  5. Transparency around actions taken for students to feel safe returning to campus

Secondly, Residence Hall Directors should be responsible for checking in on their student residents so that the onus does not fall exclusively on student workers. Although Resident Advisors can be asked to provide some support in times of crisis, they should not be the sole line of communication for students, and the only ones responsible for checking in on individual student well-being. For an RA on call, this number can be close to a hundred students, which is simply not feasible, not to mention that the RAs are students who need support themselves. 

Thirdly, there should be clear guidelines in place on how places of student employment should respond in a crisis. This would apply to places such as libraries, fitness facilities, resource centers, eateries, and all other locations on campus. It should be clear if operations should be shut down entirely, or just restricted to the Cornell community or those with ID card access. Additionally, student workers should be given flexibility, support and leniency in times of crisis, and in general. Specifically, they should be allowed the ability to miss a shift without penalty, and be able to use paid sick time off to recuperate and recover their mental health. 

We demand mandatory, periodic sensitivity training and check-ins for all students, faculty, and staff.

Taking into account Cornell University’s extensive history involving student tragedies relating to poor mental health, we are calling on the University to implement mandatory sensitivity training and check-ins for all students, faculty, and staff members. There have been countless instances when members of the Cornell community have harmed themselves and/or others without any intervention or identification from our community. Numerous students have recounted demonstrating clear identifiers of need, some to the extent of verbally calling upon University programs and faculty for help, but found themselves neglected by the institution. A death occurred every single month during the spring semester of 2021, but the University still has not released a public statement of acknowledgement of the University’s poor mental health climate or an updated plan of how the institution plans to combat this issue. To see a positive change, the University must make infrastructural modifications to allow our community as a whole to better understand and facilitate good mental health.   

Check-ins: We demand the University periodically survey all Cornell community members regarding their mental state. This allows Cornell to identify and provide resources to individuals who may not feel comfortable reaching out regarding their state as well as individuals who may be completely unaware of their current mental state. We ask that after each campus wide check-in, Cornell releases a summary of the student body’s results along with a list of accessible mental health resources in an effort to be transparent and communicative.

Sensitivity Training: To better identify and assist community members struggling with mental health related issues, the Cornell community must first learn and be cognizant of the signs. The second step is educating the community on the correct protocol when an individual is struggling mentally, especially if they may be at high risk of suicide or harming themselves. Protocols and responses are not discussed within our community and as a result students often find themselves distressed and unsure how to respond in these scenarios. We would particularly like to put an  emphasis on restructuring the administrative and faculty protocol when a student verbalizes their mental state to a professor. 

We demand the institution of University wide policy to give students grace when experiencing a personal crisis.

We demand Cornell grant every community member a 72 hour grace period, free of repercussions from missed obligations, no questions asked, upon the individual’s declaration of crisis. All deadlines, exams, and other obligations can be rectified when this grace period ends and individuals can declare that they are in crisis once a semester. This declaration should be made in a transparent, streamlined manner that protects the student’s information and privacy. One such way to do this is by having the student submit a form through Student Center or Student Essentials. Not everyone is comfortable disclosing their mental state or unfortunate circumstances. Other schools, such as Yale College, Duke, and Lafayette College have similar programs. Implementing a policy of this manner communicates to all that Cornell prioritizes their community members’ mental health. 

This policy will give individuals more comfort and security knowing that if circumstances ever feel insurmountable, school work does not need to be an immediate issue. Infrastructure for such a policy already exists in the University through both the office of Student Disability Services and Care & Crisis Services. For example, in the SDS office, a student can request short term accommodations for classes without requiring documentation from a doctor. In cultivating this policy, the University should consider expanding these additional programs by providing additional funding and making greater efforts to publicize the services available. 

We demand that Cornell improve the racial sensitivity & cultural competence of its Cornell Health medical professionals.

Black Students, and other members of marginalized groups at Cornell, have experienced misdiagnosis at the hands of Cornell Health many times. While Cornell Health claims it “strives to deliver high-quality, culturally sensitive care that helps all students thrive both academically and personally,” Black students routinely report a different experience than white counterparts. To prevent this, the University should conduct an inquiry into the current experiences of Black students and other students of color at Cornell health. This inquiry should not place the onus on Black student leaders to define the experiences of their entire community – especially when such conversations seldom lead to substantive changes. Such a review should be conducted by an external third party to the University. The results of the inquiry should result in tweaks to existing staff training and the creation of an accountability system for staff failing to provide adequate care to marginalized students. 

We demand the University create a universal way to make students aware of all resources available. 

Cornell is a very decentralized and bureaucratic University. There are several websites, different units, and it can be difficult to discern where to get information and support. We call upon Cornell to create a central hub for students to access relevant resources. Such a hub could take the place of a website and/or a module of freshman orientation. In creating this central hub, Cornell must also endeavor to bridge the gap between these services and students. Cornell could also do this by requiring professors in introductory level classes to spend course time discussing resources. Yale has already established a similar course.Additionally, Cornell should develop and implement a course on Wellbeing to be implemented as a requirement for students. Providing this information in introductory courses will ensure that all students are introduced to this very necessary information from their very first days as a Cornellian. 

It must be noted that publication without necessary comfort levels being established and outreach conducted does little for students. Thus, as the University rolls out its central hub, it must make every effort to conduct external outreach and meet students where they are so students can truly trust and turn to these resources.

We demand greater transparency surrounding the timeline and actions towards implementing the Mental Health Review recommendations.

 There have been no updates shared on the dedicated mental health review website for Fall 2021 since Aug 19th, 2021. The milestones released for Spring 2021 mention the creation of several working groups and sub-committees, but membership of these groups is not made publicly available, creating a lack of transparency surrounding how much time and (labor) “manpower” the University is devoting to the implementation of recommendations. There should be regular updates each time any referenced committees meet, as well as publicly accessible meeting minutes and notes to keep students informed on the processes.

Furthermore, the Spring 2021 provided a dedicated space for submission of positive comments about faculty through the “Bright Spots,” but did not provide the same, easily accessible space for any student grievances. A clear process for reporting faculty who specifically act against recommendations on reducing academic workload (as outlined in the Faculty Senate Resolution 85) must be made available and disciplinary actions must reflect tangible methods of accountability. Actions must move beyond “reminders and/or suggestions to consider mental health and wellbeing in the classroom” when communicating with faculty.

Any vague deadlines on the Updates page should be clarified and regularly communicated. For example, a report from the “advising working group [addressing] recommendations related to academic advising” was originally expressed as “due in late fall.” As we approach the end of the semester, a specific date for the release of this report should be provided, or publicly communicated if delayed. The same should be applied to other vague communications, followed with updates on the progress of specific initiatives.

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