Building community during times of struggle

Dear Cornellians:

Like all of you, I have been adjusting in the last weeks to our shared new reality, in which the mandate of social distancing drives new patterns of daily life. It feels like a very long time since I last attended an event, shook a hand or worked in my office at Day Hall. Phone calls, email and Zoom have replaced in-person interactions. And, like everyone in our community, I am finding new ways to forge and sustain the human connections that are so essential to us all, even while the current global health crisis has forced us physically apart.

To our Ithaca campus undergraduate students, I hope that you have found some time to unplug and relax before classes begin again online. To those graduate and professional students in Ithaca, at Cornell Tech and at other NYC-based programs who have already begun their virtual instruction, I hope it has been a successful transition. To all of our faculty and staff, these weeks have been an intense and exciting time of rising to – and supporting each other through – countless challenges that were once unimaginable. Words cannot adequately express the admiration I feel for the determination and ingenuity with which you have tackled the enormous task of shifting lectures, labs, discussion sections, office hours and instructional resources online, developing new tools and strategies to effectively teach students hundreds or thousands of miles away.

On all of our campuses across New York state, consistent with Gov. Cuomo’s order, virtually all in-person research has now been suspended. The exception to this directive is research aimed at understanding, treating or preventing COVID-19, along with work that involves essential care for animals and plants, the maintenance of costly equipment that cannot be done remotely and related activities. The overwhelming majority of our staff members are now working remotely, continuing to support the work of the university in every way possible. I want to thank all of them for their tremendous commitment and creativity during this difficult time, and to give a particular shout-out to those essential staff who continue to work on campus. Because of their dedication, we are able to continue providing food (takeout only) and a safe, clean, functioning campus to the students who remain.

Public safety is a particular priority as so many members of our community have departed the Ithaca campus, and I want to assure you that Cornell University Police, as well as the Ithaca Police Department, are actively patrolling the campus and surrounding areas, ensuring a visible security presence as well as the continued capacity to respond rapidly to any emergency. Many of you are aware of an appalling incident near campus last weekend, in which a graduate student was stabbed in the course of an attempted robbery. Thanks to the swift action of emergency services and the Ithaca police, the student is now recovering well, and several arrests have already been made in connection with the incident.

As the broader repercussions of the pandemic begin to reverberate across Tompkins County and New York state, Cornell is stepping up to help support our community’s residents and essential services. Across campus, departments and units have thrown open their labs and their supply closets, gathering for donation the personal protective equipment (PPE) that is now so desperately needed. Thousands of N95 respirators, masks, surgical gowns, viral specimen swabs and face shields have been collected for use by Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) and local healthcare providers. Bartels Hall is now the scene of a large-scale sewing effort coordinated by Cornell and CMC to produce more gowns and needed medical supplies, with tables, chairs and power cords appropriately spaced for the safety of each sewing volunteer. And as local food banks face their own struggles to remain open, Cornell Dining has partnered with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier and the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) to collect, assemble and distribute much-needed food supplies for food-insecure families in the region.

As you know, New York City has become an epicenter of this pandemic, with more than 20,000 cases as of today. Under unthinkable conditions, our Weill Cornell Medicine doctors, nurses and clinical staff are doing nothing less than a heroic job of caring for patients. Like so many of their colleagues, WCM staff are struggling not only with a shortage of ventilators, but with inadequate supplies of PPE. We are working tirelessly with all sources to try to address this so that our doctors, and those with whom they work, do not need to risk their lives and, in turn, the lives of their patients. Earlier this week, a Cornell C2C bus departed campus for Weill Cornell Medicine loaded with 700 N95 respirators, nearly 800 procedure masks and over 11,000 pairs of gloves. And I am enormously grateful to the Cornellians across the world who have sent their own supplies to Weill Cornell Medicine, or helped our administrators connect to sources of these items.

My leadership team is in near-constant video and phone contact as we develop plans for the coming months, and our board of trustees, plus a large number of emeriti trustees, held their March meeting by Zoom last week. Cornell is incredibly fortunate to have such a strong and supportive board, all the more so during this extraordinary time. And we are enormously grateful for the leadership of Gov. Cuomo, who has worked tirelessly to support New Yorkers across the state in this time of crisis – and done so in a way that has unified us and made us stronger. For, as he said earlier this week, “At the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day, and this is a long day, love wins. Always. And it will win again through this virus.”

As I remind my team, we’re in a marathon now, not a sprint. It’s going to be a long time before things return to normal. For now, it’s one step after another. It’s remembering to be kind: to our families, and to those with whom we study and learn. It’s staying together as a community, even when we’re physically apart. And it’s being creative and resourceful in finding ways to connect, ways to encourage each other and ways to find joy in these difficult days. In that spirit, I’d like to end by sharing this video, of people doing just that.

Stay strong and stay well, Cornellians. I’ll update you again soon.