Boris Tsang/Sun File Photo

In an exclusive interview, The Sun spoke to Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi (left) and Vice President for University Relations Joel M. Malina (right) about student safety, University statements and free speech during the Israel-Hamas war.

December 13, 2023

SUN EXCLUSIVE | Vice Presidents Lombardi, Malina Discuss Israel-Palestine Tensions at Cornell

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Last week, The Sun spoke with Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi and Vice President for University Relations Joel M. Malina about tension on campus since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October. 

The half-hour conversation included discussion on backlash to the University’s statements on the conflict, freedom of expression in faculty speech tested by Prof. Russell Rickford and the antisemitic threats made by a Cornell student that unsettled the student body and the nation for days.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Sun: Before we begin, I just wanted to state for the record what The Sun was told over email, which is that you are not able to comment on Patrick Dai’s legal process or the Department of Education’s investigation into either antisemitism or Islamophobia on campus. Is that still accurate?

Vice President Joel Malina: Sure.

The Sun: Vice President Lombardi, are you hearing concerns from students about how they feel in terms of their safety on campus? At The Sun, we’re hearing reports that both Jewish and Muslim students are feeling increasingly marginalized with instances of both antisemitism and Islamophobia. Just wanted to know what you are hearing?

Vice President Ryan Lombardi: I have been talking to a lot of students, as probably you have been hearing from a lot of students too. I think consistently, a lot of students are hurting. They are fearful. And when I say fearful, when I talk to students about this, they often talk about, that is, not being afraid that someone in the community is going to hurt them. But it’s an environment of tension right now. And that creates a sense of feeling unsafe and uncomfortable for our students. And I’m hearing that very consistently. 

There are things that are said or things that are done that are creating those conditions. From my seat in Student Life, we’ve been trying very hard. Our role, of course, on this campus is to focus on student support and trying to help create the sense of student safety, which we’re very, very focused on. We’re partnering with CUPD extensively on that and have been having them deeply involved in making sure that the community is safe, taking any reports of concerning behavior very, very seriously, investigating those thoroughly, to make sure that there are no threats that are perceived to be legitimate in that regard. 

That doesn’t minimize the discomfort and the concern that many students have. From my seat and having those conversations, I think it’s so important. What’s become obvious to me is, every student I’ve spoken with has strong emotions and has strong feelings but by no means wants to inflict harm, emotional or otherwise, on their peers. I have spent so much time with so many different students — Jewish students, Muslim students, Arab students — who see the war differently in a lot of different spaces. But there is a consistent thread — none of them want to see their peers upset or hurt or any of those things, and they all have been deeply committed to being peaceful and to not falling into having violence or anything along those lines.

So that thread is there. In the Student Life space, what I have to keep saying is, let’s think about our actions, let’s think about how we’re treating each other in this very difficult moment. And really try to continue to implore our community to stay focused on that. And then in the meantime, trying with the resources we have, from the student support perspective, to offer that support. I understand that sometimes that can feel unsatisfactory, because we can provide the emotional support we have listed, we’ve had many listening sessions, we’ve had CAPS come in and offer processing spaces. So some of this tension and discomfort is inherent to how difficult this issue is for our community to grapple with.

The Sun: I know you said you’ve met with a lot of students. For students who haven’t had a chance to speak with you, do you have a message, specifically to the Jewish community on campus, who may still be grappling with the fact that such hateful threats were made by a fellow student on campus?

Lombardi: I would say a couple of things. One, certainly the institution condemns those threats and aggressively pursued not only those, but anything else. We haven’t had other threats like that, but there have been other hateful, distasteful things that have been said and done. And we’ve taken those very, very seriously. What I would say to those individuals is first, absolutely let us know if they receive something and know that we’re going to take it seriously. Make sure they use the reporting tools. Make sure, especially if they feel like it’s threatening, to immediately work through the CUPD. 

In addition to that, really just again, focusing on thinking about how we want this community to be and how we want to treat each other. You would expect the Student Life person to be focused on that. And make sure that we continue to see the humanity in all of our students and all of our colleagues that we’re interacting amongst. Because again, I haven’t spoken with every student, as you rightfully point out, but many, many, many dozens, and I have heard these consistent and universal themes over and over — condemning violence, condemning awful things that have happened, condemning the threats that took place on this campus that you reference and a desire for peace even if we see things differently. 

A desire for peace and a desire for everybody to be able to pursue their education — we have to stay focused on that.

The Sun: Speaking with Palestinian activists on campus, a lot of them tell us that they are being doxxed online — I know there’s some websites that are putting personal information, photos, contact information — and they don’t feel particularly supported by the administration in dealing with that harassment. Do you have any message for this community?

Lombardi: I think that behavior is deplorable. I think it’s really ugly and distasteful. I don’t condone it by any stretch of the imagination. One of the things I think you’re probably aware of is that on Nov. 1, the President announced that we would be creating an anti-doxxing policy. She reiterated that at the University Assembly meeting recently on [Nov.] 28. 

As we’re developing this, I have invited student perspectives to join us as that has developed not only the policy, which, frankly, will say that we don’t think this behavior is acceptable and we condemn it, and it’s against our policy. But more importantly, in some regards, because sometimes it’s very hard to understand or identify who’s done these things or who’s responsible for it, so really importantly too is what types of resources we provide to students who have been victimized in this way. That’s something that’s also under development. I have also invited students on campus to be part of its development and as we prepare for that. 

This is a process, doing these things. But I do want to say clearly that we condemn those things. I’ve said that directly to students. And I also encourage those to be reported formally — especially as we are developing new policies now and new resources. I have had conversations with students who reference past instances, and I don’t want to minimize those. But obviously, we’re intently focused on this now as we’re seeing that.

The Sun: I’m curious if you have any thoughts on why Cornell might be so particularly polarized on this conflict? Does it speak to any uniqueness of the University? I know Cornell is constantly being referred to by the national media as a campus that’s really struggling with this tension.

Lombardi: I want to offer that I actually don’t think that Cornell is unique in this regard. I think that, certainly, we have strong perspectives on our campus. But as I look around, and I talked to all of my counterparts at peer institutions, but also large public flagships and other institutions, and what I’m hearing from that population is every campus is struggling, and every campus is filled with some of this emotion and some of this passion and division at times over the perspectives that are in front of us.

So I actually think, to respond to you, I would say I don’t think we’re unique in that regard. I would even go so far as to say that while things have not been perfect on our campus, the way our students have conducted themselves during these difficult moments has, in fact, been substantially better than what we have seen on some of our peer institutions and on other campuses. Our students have been very committed to safety and have been peaceful. 

I know there are different perspectives about some of the things that have been said or the tactics or some of the things that have been used in these different debates. But I would actually argue that while again, not perfect, our students are doing the very best they can over this divisive issue. 

Malina: That was a lot of what I was going to say. I was going to offer two additional thoughts. Ryan and I and other leaders, we often talk about universities like ours as microcosms of society. It is one of the things that attracted me to come to work at Cornell. And if you look at society at large, these are not challenges, emotions, conflicts that are unique to university campuses, let alone unique to Cornell. This is part of what we are trying to do in providing an education in this type of a robust environment. Very much the same challenges and debates that are happening at large, are happening here. As Ryan said, our community has done a really good job of working through these really emotional challenges, but it isn’t anything unique to what is already happening elsewhere. 

The other thing I’ll add, which has certainly played into this narrative that things are particularly volatile at Cornell, is what we’ve already discussed — there was a very high profile, very scary, real threat that, thankfully, through the great work of the FBI and Cornell police, resulted in less than 48 hours of the individual responsible being in custody, and he remains in custody.

That event resulted in a lot of attention and a lot of opportunity for people to focus on Cornell. But what we’ve seen is you can pick up any paper any day and find half a dozen to a dozen other universities that are struggling with this. And I think this is just something that we recognize as part of the work we have to do.

Part of that work is to help people understand, as Ryan explained, all that we are doing to try to assist our students, to protect our students and to ensure that this conversation moves forward in a constructive way. We are not going to solve the Middle East crisis. But what we can do is ensure that we are in a campus that allows people to provide their perspective in a way without fear of retribution, reprisal, violence, etc. So far, we’re managing that.

The Sun: Going off what you were saying, Vice President Malina, how does the University decide which international conflicts to comment on and make statements about? How do we decide what to take a stance on?

Malina: This is a very important question that all of our peers are struggling with. President Pollack meets with her Ivy presidents, Ryan meets with his Ivy+ student affairs leaders, I meet with my communications counterparts. And this is a very real challenge. What is the appropriate voice? What is the role of a university president?

It is one thing to have a process, and we have one, which is very clear that the President will speak on matters directly related to Cornell, directly related to higher education. I look to Martha’s statement in June after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Harvard UNC affirmative action cases — that was an example of not only a valid opportunity, but a required opportunity for a university president to speak out. 

When you get beyond that, the reality is the silence — the absence — makes people angry, makes people emotional. So you need to consider additional layers that are guaranteed to please some and upset others. And that is the point that we’re in. We are really going to be, with Martha’s guidance and leadership, we’re going to have to think long and hard before a statement is issued. They’ve become, unfortunately, very divisive. They’ve been unproductive. The purpose of a statement is to provide clarity of position, to provide support — we’re always going to provide support. 

And it’s important to note that in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, the focus was on which students, faculty and staff are in the region, what do we need to do for those here on campus who’ve got families there — that will always be our primary focus. 

But it is no longer clear that a presidential statement on a global event is going to be impactful. So it’s an ongoing discussion that we have. I know that our trustees are very interested in it. And I’m not exactly sure where we’ll end up, but it’s an important discussion.

Lombardi: I would just add, I hear from a lot of students a desire for more statements, and the institution putting more of these things out. And I understand that, I do understand why that might be desired. But I think the focus again, at least from my seat in the Student Life space, has to be on that support component, and a statement is one thing, but then how do we actually dig in and provide that level of support? 

I would like us, as a community, to think more about that and less about statements as some kind of solution because I think the current issue notwithstanding, it’s shown us that, in fact, statements can be ineffective at creating [support] and can be more divisive than useful. So I think it’s important to focus on the support. But I do hear an awful lot about this desire for statements, and I know Joel was keenly aware of that.

The Sun: We’ve been hearing a lot of speculation that there was some backlash — potentially from donors, students, alumni — over President Pollack’s initial statement that led to a second statement being issued a few hours later. And then another statement a few days later. Any accuracy to that?

Malina: There is certainly accuracy in the fact that there was backlash. I would not say that it was backlash from donors. I think President Pollack tried in her first statement to make a very important point that as horrific as the events of Oct. 7 were, she wanted to call those out, but also to call out her inaction with other tragic events, where she was asked to make a statement and decided not to — those were referenced.

I think it was that, in retrospect, we heard a lot about moral equivalency. Of course, there’s no comparison from a terrorist attack to a natural disaster. But if there is an event that’s impacting students, we don’t want to be insensitive to those students, their feelings, their needs. So yes, that’s what resulted in a follow up. And we proceeded. There were many additional statements. 

Certainly, the last one Martha issued, which was very much focused on the path we’re taking to eradicate antisemitism and all forms of hatred on campus, I think provided the right blueprint for what we continue to do in these very difficult months. And that is a good example of a statement that provides a great value. Here is what we as a university must do to grapple with this challenge that is infecting society.

The Sun: As you mentioned, in an effort to combat the antisemitic threats perpetuated through an online forum, Cornell announced that they would be increasing efforts to combat antisemitism on campus, perhaps initiatives to incorporate lessons into classes or other initiatives. Can you give us any insight into what has actually been put into place and what the plans are going forward for that?

Lombardi: These are not going to be all immediate fixes. These are things that we’re looking at as we review and examine our approach to, for example, diversity, equity and inclusion — our programming efforts, our orientation processes, all those types of things. And as we look and review those, which we have begun doing, we’re making sure that we are adequately addressing antisemitism as a part of those.

And also, and this is where the President’s statement did focus on, also all forms of hate. I think it’s just as important that we look at Islamophobia, and that we look at anti-Muslim racism and other forms of racism very intently too and use this as an opportunity to review all of those. And I think that process is beginning and I think it will be an ongoing effort and journey with certainly the hope and the intent that as we enter a new school year in the fall, there’s orientation opportunities, there’s educational opportunities that we will certainly use very strongly, but also infuse opportunities between now and then as well.

Malina: The only thing I’ll add, and it goes back to Martha’s statement from Nov. 1, she provides a real good list of, you know, here are the different components of this. And it leads with making sure that when there are threats, that we’re responding rapidly, as we did with Patrick Dai. It means making sure that we are giving appropriate attention to antisemitism in our DEI programming. And that’s already in progress, as Ryan mentioned. 

Importantly, we’re an academic community. It means making sure that we’re bringing the speakers, that we’re providing opportunities for our faculty who have amazing expertise in these challenging, difficult issues, that we’re providing that level of programming, lectures, symposia — and that is something that will continue.

We talked about anti-doxxing — Martha talked about that as well in the message. We need to develop a policy and to make sure that the support for those who are doxxed are as robust as possible. And then Martha is working with two advisory groups — one is comprising external experts, one is of trustees — and they are going to be engaging in some thinking around what else we should be doing as additional steps. I think this will help ensure that we are not thinking myopically, but rather broadly about this really important work that will help the University be on the right path for handling all forms of hatred going forward.

The Sun: We saw on Friday, Dec. 1 that there were pro-Palestinian students occupying various campus buildings through the weekend. As a result of the students occupying these buildings, the University has agreed to set up a meeting with them and the University CFO to discuss their investment concerns. Do you have any insight on if it is plausible anything results from this meeting? Would the University consider divesting from companies that support Israel, which could be seen as supporting the boycott, divest and sanction movement?

Lombardi: Let me clarify a little bit about the intent of that meeting as a person that was engaged deeply with the students who were protesting on Friday and over the weekend. When we talked about their interest in understanding more about our investment policies, I shared with those students that the institution has a pre-established and well established process by which it considers its investment decisions. This was a process that was put in place, I want to say back around maybe 2016 or 2017, when there were lots of calls for divestment related to fossil fuels.

At that time, the board and the investment office and the CFO at that time, who was a different CFO, created a set of procedures and processes by which those issues would be considered both in that moment, and then prospectively going forward. So when I was talking with students, I shared with them that those processes exist, there is an established framework for that, and that I would be happy to help coordinate this meeting with the CFO so that he could share that directly with them.

So that’s the intent of the meeting. Certainly the students can ask questions and will ask questions and all of that, but that was the intent of the establishment of that meeting. 

The Sun: These events, obviously out of everyone’s control, came in the year of the freedom of expression — the theme year. Where’s the line for free speech at Cornell? We saw Professor Rickford’s speech, which was very controversial and resulted in two statements from President Pollack. There’s been other events like the anti-Israel graffiti that was on campus. So how does the University determine what is free speech and what is not?

Malina: I think those two examples provide you with the answer. Patrick Dai’s online threats — clearly, unequivocally over the line. Professor Rickford’s remarks off campus outside the classroom, while absolutely horrific choice of words, did not cross that line.

Importantly, when we talk about hate speech, hate speech is protected under the First Amendment. There have been attempts in recent history for there to be hate speech codes that have been found to be unconstitutional. So it’s important to understand that line. And I think our recent experience provides that clarity.

But I do want to underscore that while that line with Rickford as compared to Patrick Dai was not crossed, there is a need and in fact, President Pollack saw that need and responded to that need, to speak loudly and clearly when such offensive language is uttered by a member of our community. President Pollack will note that she doesn’t do that lightly, has only done it twice. This is the second time in her administrative career in higher education. But it was important to speak out clearly around the horrific language that Professor Rickford used. 

The Sun: When was the first time?

Malina: I don’t remember the year but it had to do with Professor Collum in Arts and Sciences. It was in relation to Buffalo police action after George Floyd’s murder.

Lombardi: I might add, one of the things I’ve been talking with some students about, and I think this is something that the President was pretty explicit about at the start of this year, that these values that we have — of freedom of expression, and also belonging and inclusion — can come into tension. And I think we’re seeing that.

We’re seeing that where we’re trying to protect both of those things effectively. There are people and students and others saying this has made me uncomfortable. So how do we support them? And how do we make sure they continue to have a sense of place and a sense of belonging at campus while also honoring this free expression? 

This is a tension that I think everybody was aware of going into this. I think this is obviously a challenging moment. And it’s really exposing that tension, perhaps more than we even thought it would — or more than the average Cornellian, when we started this year, might have thought it would.

The Sun: Anything else you want to add before our time is up?

Lombardi: There is a lot of intensity right now. There is a lot of emotion and I cannot emphasize enough how consistent these threads are that I’m hearing from students who see this issue in a lot of different lights and have a lot of different perspectives, which is their desire for this community to stay safe, and to be one that’s about peace and one that supports fellow Cornellians, even if they disagree. I want to continue to amplify that because not everybody is privy to some of those conversations and behavior that we are seeing that’s very, very focused on that.

In the absence of them seeing that, they’re assuming that other things might be taking place, or there might be other intentions behind perspectives. So I just want to continue to underscore that and certainly encourage our community as we continue to struggle frankly with this, that we always keep in mind each other’s humanity. And each other’s right to fully be here and fully enjoy and appreciate this Cornell experience.