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Pollack updates UA on campus climate, teacher-student policy

At a Nov. 14 University Assembly meeting, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack gave updates on issues involving campus climate and stressed the need for the university to adopt an official policy on teacher-student consensual relations by the end of the academic year.

On campus climate and diversity and inclusion at Cornell, “we have weathered, as a community, a number of awful episodes,” she said, referring to an incident of racial violence in Collegetown, a reported bias incident outside the Latino Living Center, and anti-Semitic flyers appearing on campus earlier this semester.

She noted that meaningful progress is being made and gave an update on the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate that she is convening. Cornell’s Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution just completed a series of open community meetings soliciting feedback on the nomination process for task force members, and nominations are now open.

“The task force is designed to ensure that there is continued attention to these problems from the highest possible level,” Pollack said. “I’m asking them to make actionable recommendations by the end of the [academic] year in three buckets: what we could potentially do immediately … what we could potentially do within six to 12 months, and then, what are some aspirational goals – that might take longer, but we should keep our eye on them.”

She said she also hopes the task force’s ultimate recommendations represent “a sustainable effort by this community. Because we’re part of a world that’s facing very difficult challenges, and we’re not going to fix this in a year, or two years. This is going to require significant attention for the foreseeable future.”

Pollack noted that the task force is just one avenue the university is pursuing when it comes to campus climate, and that other ideas and issues will be addressed and implemented as necessary – “but we want a holistic, overarching look at what we can do,” she said.

The issue of hate speech and free speech on campus is a critical area and one that deserves a careful and thoughtful conversation, she said. Pollack noted that her office and Cornell Law School are co-sponsoring a series on free speech, beginning with constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law at the University of California, Berkeley, who will speak about “Free Speech on Campus” at Cornell Nov. 20. “He brings a reasoned, scholarly perspective to a very polarizing topic,” she said.

Pollack also addressed UA Resolution 4, which has been submitted to her office and includes amendments to seven provisions in the Campus Code of Conduct, including a section on speech. Pollack said she wants to make sure the UA’s process regarding giving the university community the opportunity to comment on the proposed amendments was satisfied. In the meantime, she is reviewing the resolution.

Consensual relations policy needed

Pollack noted that Cornell University does not have an official consensual relations policy that governs student-faculty relationships. Guidelines that are not in the university’s official “policy deck” are vague about what is and is not permitted and about enforcement, she said.

Cornell needs to have an official policy, she stressed, to protect faculty, to protect students, and to protect the university. “Many, many of our peers have such policies,” Pollack noted, and “one could easily be adapted for Cornell’s needs.”

Charles Van Loan, dean of the faculty, and Anna Waymack, M.A. ’16, doctoral candidate in medieval studies and co-founder and president of Sexual Assault Network for Grads, are co-chairing a broad committee, at Pollack’s request, to draft a consensual relations policy for the university.

If a policy is not developed by the end of this academic year, Pollack said, she will present a policy adapted from another institution to the board of trustees.

“Part of my job is to protect against serious risk to the campus,” she said, noting that getting this policy implemented through Cornell’s shared governance model is her first choice. “That we don’t have this [policy], particularly in the current climate, is a huge risk. So I’m relying on consensual governance to get there. If we can’t get there, then I feel it’s my responsibility to do something about it.”

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Lindsey Hadlock