Additional actions to create a more just and equitable Cornell

Dear Cornellians,

A little more than a month ago, I announced a set of actions to enhance our existing programs to promote racial justice. While it was important to take immediate steps in the wake of the racialized violence in our nation, we realize that there is much more to do.

I have heard from many of you over these past weeks, sharing ideas, advocating for change, and offering opinions on ways to counter systemic racism. It is clear that we must think and act holistically to change structures and systems that inherently privilege some more than others. We have not arrived recently at this place in history. Real change will require substantial effort and long-term, ongoing commitment.

I want to publicly acknowledge the advocacy and efforts of so many of our students who continue to champion a more just future for Cornell and for our society. Specifically, #DoBetterCornell has exerted great effort and mobilized broad interest in many important initiatives. Some of the appeals by that movement will be reflected in my announcement today, and a more detailed response will be sent directly to the organizers. I also appreciate those who have engaged on social media platforms to share their stories – often painful – of being Black at Cornell and in the Ivy League. Everyone should read these narratives and think carefully about the role we all must play in building a just, anti-racist world. Students, staff and faculty have long advocated and spoken out about racism and injustice, many prior to my arrival at Cornell, and it is important to acknowledge their work as well.

At the core of our institution lies our primary mission to provide the exceptional education, cutting-edge research and public engagement to shape our world for generations to come, and we must embed anti-racism across these activities. Our world-class faculty play the critical role in defining and advancing our academic mission. Several of the initiatives proposed by our students are the responsibility of our faculty, and, as such, I have asked the Faculty Senate to take the following up as soon as possible:

  • The creation and implementation of a for-credit, educational requirement on racism, bias and equity for all Cornell students.
  • A systematic review of the curriculum in each of our colleges and schools to ensure that courses reflect, represent and include the contributions of all people. Several colleges/schools and departments already have this work underway.
  • Amplification of Cornell's existing scholarship on anti-racism, through the creation of an Anti-Racism Center that further strengthens our research and education on systems and structures that perpetuate racism and inequality, and on policies and interventions that break that cycle. Cornell already has outstanding academic units and faculty that address these critical issues, including: the Africana Studies and Research Center; the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program (AIISP); Latina/o Studies, Asian American Studies, as well as programs within American, Jewish, Near Eastern, and Feminist Gender and Sexuality studies, and centers such as the Center for the Study of Inequality, the Cornell Center for Health Equity, the Program in Ethics and Public Life and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, as well as others that are not listed but contribute valuable scholarship. Our vision is to ensure that we are a national leader in this critical area.
  • Development of a new set of programs focusing on the history of race, racism and colonialism in the United States, designed to ensure understanding of how inherited social and historical forces have shaped our society today, and how they affect interactions inside and outside of our classrooms, laboratories and studios. All faculty would be expected to participate in this programming and follow-on discussions in their departments. The programs would complement our existing anti-bias programs for faculty, such as those from the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble, Intergroup Dialogue Programs for Faculty, and the Faculty Institute for Diversity.

In collaboration with the Faculty Senate, we will also:

  • Launch an institution-wide, themed semester, during which our campus community will focus on issues of racism in the U.S. through relevant readings and discussions. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we will consider the best semester to launch this initiative.

To hold ourselves accountable to these holistic undertakings, I have asked Professor Avery August, vice provost for academic affairs and chair of the Presidential Advisors for Diversity and Equity, to join my senior leadership team on a permanent basis, and to participate as a full member of the team in all meetings and deliberations. Dr. August already plays a critical role in all aspects of our academic programs, including promoting faculty diversity, and he will now be instrumental in helping us to ensure that we continually keep anti-racism front of mind as we set the future course for the university more broadly.

Another set of important initiatives that have been raised by many in our community concern methods of policing. Although I feel strongly that the Cornell University Police Department (CUPD) is committed to anti-racist policing and is a leader in supporting our diverse community, I recognize the effect that repeated examples of police violence in our nation have on our communities of color. It is therefore critical that we are even more transparent and committed to demonstrating our continued leadership in just and equitable law enforcement. I previously announced my intent to strengthen the Public Safety Advisory Board (PSAB) that provides recommendations to CUPD on its policies, procedures and training and will now take these additional steps:

  • Effective immediately, the PSAB will be elevated and report directly to Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Joanne DeStefano to ensure accountability for the implementation of PSAB recommendations and new initiatives; and
  • Vice President for Facilities and Campus Services Rick Burgess, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi, and CUPD Chief David Honan will work together to create and implement a new community response team. This team will support our residential life staff and become the first responders to reports of noncriminal offenses and nonviolent incidents that occur in our residential communities. Similarly, this team will monitor campus events, both formal and informal, to promote safety and well-being, and to monitor the application of university policy, allowing CUPD to focus on unlawful activity.

Finally, we recognize that staff are the lifeblood of Cornell, enabling us to deliver on our educational, research and engagement mission. The support that our staff provides is what makes learning possible. We must therefore enhance the commitment that we make to recruiting and retaining an exceptional staff that reflects the diversity of our students. Specific steps we will take are as follows:

  • Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Opperman will create new professional development programs with a focus on staff of color, including leadership development, mentorship, and pipeline and succession programs, to help diverse staff advance into key institutional leadership roles;
  • We will make work on diversity, equity and inclusion part of the performance dialogue process at Cornell;
  • All staff will be required to complete a series, being developed in partnership with eCornell, focused on equity and cultural competency that will become available beginning this September;
  • The Inclusive Excellence Network of programs will continue, including the Summit, the Academy and the Podcasts; and
  • Juneteenth will become a permanent university holiday.

All of these new initiatives are significant and will take substantial effort and time to complete, but their implementation will be a top priority.

Cornell’s resolve to be a more inclusive and equitable community is not new. Shortly after I arrived in 2017, and after painful incidents of racism and violence, we launched a comprehensive and inclusive process that identified 60 initiatives for implementation. To date, we have fully achieved 77% (46) of those priorities deemed most critical by our community, with many others partly achieved. I am proud of this progress and effort but recognize that the work must continue with the additional initiatives announced today. All of these institutional initiatives will complement and enhance those under development and already announced by our colleges and schools, a few examples of which include:

  • This coming year, the Rural Humanities initiative in the College of Arts and Sciences will center its theme on “Rural Black Lives,” which will include a focus on local history tied to the Underground Railroad;
  • The College of Arts and Sciences will increase funding for its Summer Experience Grants program which provides support for A&S students who take up unpaid or low-paid internships, with priority for underrepresented, first-generation and low-income students, with a view to promoting equity;
  • The Cornell SC Johnson College of Business has committed to redoubling its efforts to increase the racial diversity of undergraduate and graduate programs, guest speakers, and panelists, and recruit and retain more staff and faculty of color;
  • The College of Architecture, Art and Planning will work with students and alumni to develop a position of diversity and equity officer and an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the college. This person will enhance recruitment, retention and support of Black and other minoritized students; and
  • Weill Cornell Medicine, after extensive engagement with its academic community, has taken a set of immediate actions to combat racism and ensure greater fairness, equity and belonging for students, trainees, faculty and staff. A new Office of Institutional Equity was created to oversee programs and initiatives that advance equity at WCM, such as conducting anti-bias and anti-harassment training; ensuring equitable hiring, promotion and pay practices; and establishing a consistent framework for investigations of discrimination, harassment and bias.

The commitment to real change is the responsibility of all of us, particularly those of us in majority communities. It is our responsibility to read, reflect, learn, listen and then change the system that has disadvantaged our Black, Indigenous and other colleagues, students and friends of color for centuries. This will be a continuous journey, and I implore every member of the Cornell community to look deep within yourself and take active, regular and courageous steps to help create new systems and structures that move us toward a more just and equitable Cornell – and that will become part of our contribution to a different, more just and more equitable world.

With gratitude and in solidarity,