Our Response to the President's Statement

July 22, 2020

We acknowledge that Cornell has chosen to enact tangible changes in response to our petitions, and are hopeful about the potential of these reforms. The University’s recent message sparks optimism about the antiracist work Cornell will undertake. We continue to believe, however, that there are areas where the University can and must Do Better, and where we will continue to push for systemic change.

In Response to the President's Statement

The strides achieved thus far were made possible not only by our campaign, but also by Cornell Students for Black Lives, Black at Cornell, and many other groups and individuals who share our goals and have worked tirelessly to improve our community. While we are grateful for President Pollack’s recognition in her recent statement, we do not want the work of these organizations to go unlauded. We would like to explicitly thank them for their work, partnership, and encouragement, lest their contributions be implicitly co-opted by our own.

The promise of a mandatory, for-credit diversity/universal learning course represents a step in the right direction. This course, however, will not fulfill its goals if it puts an undue burden on BIPOC students to educate their white peers. It must be implemented in a way that is not exploitative of marginalized students’ experiences. It should celebrate minoritized students and aid them in learning about their cultures and identities, while also building accountability and awareness and sparking transformation in classmates who do not hold the minoritized identities in question.

We also note that many of the demands discussed in the President’s statement are related to academics at the University and may fall in part under the purview of the Faculty Senate. We look forward to a response to the demands focused on empowering students with greater influence and ownership of their campus lives. These demands include:

  • an Alternative Justice Board
  • an adjustment in Residential Advisor training regarding protocol for marijuana in dormitories
  • more direct funding for Ujamaa and Black Students United
  • more funding for the Africana Studies & Research Center, as well as renovations and a better location
  • continuous, publicly available updates every 30 days and dynamic materials compiling these updates
  • the defunding, disarming, and disbanding of the Cornell University Police Department
  • involvement of student leaders in search committees for and the hiring of new faculty members
  • the abolition of the Student Contribution
  • support groups for victims of bias discrimination
  • the empowerment of Cornell’s service workers

We hope that this response moves past generalization, is concise, and gives community members a timeline of the actualization of the initiatives outlined in the President’s statement.

We appreciate the University’s desire to implement antiracist work in creative ways. Even so, we remain skeptical of the implementation of a “themed” semester during which Cornell will focus on racial injustice. Antiracism is not a theme. The University should be working and striving to be antiracist in perpetuity. We worry that a theme model suggests that an increased drive to be antiracist will end when the semester does, rather than be given importance throughout the rest of Cornell’s history. The prospect of dwindling energy is worrisome and counterproductive to the institutional change the Cornell community is calling for.

We commend the formation of a community response team, but are wary of its potential to place an undue, extra burden on Residential Advisors in implementing its practices. These students will already have many new challenges this coming Fall. They should not be expected to take on additional responsibilities, on top of what overseeing residents in the midst of COVID-19 will entail. It is also imperative that this committee does not take on another policing role, and thus disproportionately target or surveil BIPOC students, their communities, and the events they attend and host.

Areas Requiring Further Amendment and Improvement

Our campaign brought to light the fact that there were no Black Senior Administrative Officials at Cornell, and we are glad to see that Professor Avery August was elevated to this rung of leadership. It is, however, unclear whether his ascension to this space comes with added compensation, resources, or authority to set into motion the programs and initiatives necessary for transforming Cornell into an antiracist space. We note that he has been the chair of the Presidential Advisors for Diversity and Equity since 2019 and Vice Provost of Academic Affairs since 2018. We also note that no other Vice Provosts are Senior Administrative Officials. Too often high-level BIPOC officials are relegated to diversity, equity, & inclusion positions, and too often they are not provided with the capital and authority to be as effective in these roles as they can be. For true advancement and meaningful representation among Cornell’s senior leadership to occur, these pitfalls must be taken into consideration and avoided.

In discussing Cornell University employees, we also wish to comment further on David Collum, who remains a Cornell professor, even after numerous incidents where his speech and actions have served to threaten, implicitly and explicitly, marginalized students and marginalized people writ large. We entreat the University, administrators and faculty, to explore options that will hold Collum accountable for the harm and hate he has incited, aside from merely speaking out against him. We welcome the opportunity to discuss this further, and suggest barring him from teaching prerequisite courses or accepting graduate students.

Relatedly, in terms of free speech, we noticed that many of our organizers and active supporters’ Instagram posts tagging the University and calling for it to Do Better were untagged. Many of us became unable to tag Cornell’s and President Pollack’s Instagram accounts in subsequent posts. We expect Cornell, as an institution that claims to be interested in feedback from its community, to keep these channels open for its students to voice their concerns, especially now that a little over a month later, the President has utilized our hashtag in her statement.

We will continue to push for a more antiracist, thoughtful, and just Cornell. We remain open to dialogue with the University about their proposals and ours, and hope this dialogue will occur in a timely manner. Together, we can ensure that all of Cornell is continuously striving to Do Better.

Do Better Cornell