Opportunities for feedback on campus reactivation

Dear Cornellians,

The extraordinary spring 2020 term is now behind us. The COVID-19 pandemic that turned our world upside down three months and a lifetime ago is now a fact of our lives: one that affects every decision in our day, and every plan for our future. We find ourselves making calculations and compromises that were once unimaginable, as we seek new ways to move forward, and even thrive, in this new reality.

From the moment the university administration made the decision in March to close our campuses, we recognized that reactivating Cornell would not be a matter of simply reopening our doors. The “three C’s” that we now need to be aware of — close contact, crowded areas and closed spaces — are inherently part of life on a residential university campus. In the age of COVID-19, our traditional classrooms, dining halls, extracurricular and co-curricular activities, campus and off-campus housing, laboratories and public spaces all carry new risks. In order to find a safe path forward for our community, all of those risks need to be considered, and the life of our campus reimagined, in a way that preserves what is essential about Cornell: the world-class education, research and public engagement that are the reason we are here.

This challenge is vast, complex and unprecedented — and I can think of no community better equipped to tackle it than our own. Over the course of the past month, our planning committees have been deeply engaged in exploring ways to return to campus life and in-person teaching; reactivate our campus research operations; and prepare for the potential need to teach some or all of our classes online. We’ve gathered ideas from faculty, staff and students across Cornell, from our colleagues at peer institutions, and from the state government and public health experts whose guidelines and protocols continue to inform all of our thinking. We’ve come to understand the boundaries of what is and is not possible — and the boundaries, in this time of uncertainty, of our own ability to plan. As we move ahead with the hard, practical work of preparing for the fall semester, we do so with the realization that there will be no perfect solutions. Our task is to employ all of the intellectual, professional and research resources at our disposal to find the best solutions possible.

In order to find those best possible solutions, we will need the continual input and the collaboration of our community. We need to know your concerns, your observations, your priorities and your thinking. Every member of our community needs to be informed and updated about reopening progress. For that reason, throughout the summer I will be sending regular messages that share opportunities for input, describe our progress on reopening plans and provide information about what to expect as we return our campuses to activity.

For now, I am glad to share the following news:

  1. Multiple channels are being made available for faculty, staff and students to give their feedback on reactivation planning. The Employee Assembly has already held a number of forums, with more planned, which I will attend when possible. The Faculty Senate has also held a number of forums to seek input and feedback from its constituents, with more scheduled; in addition, Provost Michael Kotlikoff is convening weekly town halls for faculty, beginning yesterday and continuing with a meeting on June 3, in which I will also participate. Faculty should also have received, earlier this week, an email requesting their feedback for fall instructional planning, and later today students will receive a similar email from Vice President Ryan Lombardi and Vice Provost Lisa Nishii requesting their input regarding the fall semester. I ask that everyone make it a priority to respond to these surveys.

  2. Guided by the recommendations of our research reactivation committee, and in accordance with New York State Phase 1 guidelines, Cornell’s non-COVID-related campus research operations outside of New York City are preparing to begin the first stages of their phased restart. Research that is related to health and disease, agriculture and food, and national defense, as well as research that supports essential businesses, has been cleared to begin as soon as May 29. (As the pandemic has impacted different regions of the state to varying degrees, research reactivation in New York City will happen a bit later.)

  3. Before we can restart our research (PDF), our buildings must be safe and ready, with college-approved plans in place to ensure the safety of everyone in them. As of last Friday, that process was already well underway in the 20 most heavily used Ithaca campus research facilities, with all water systems flushed, building HVAC programming reset and cleaning in progress.

  4. The number of new cases and hospitalizations related to COVID-19 is continuing to decrease in New York City. Weill Cornell Medicine has been utilizing telemedicine and has begun ramping up clinical operations to accommodate the needs of our patients.

It is important for all of us to recognize that, as much as we all crave certainty, the path of this virus is unpredictable and the best way to reopen is not yet clear. Living with this uncertainty is difficult and the challenges we face are real — so I am immensely proud of the commitment and intensity with which our committees, our faculty, our students and our staff have dedicated themselves to the task of moving forward and to the goal of bringing our community together again.

Stay well, take care of yourselves and take care of each other. I’ll be in touch again soon.