Skip to main content

Leadership Q&A: Cornell readies for a changed world

Students are adjusting to an abrupt departure, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a range of circumstances.

Faculty are modifying their curricula for online learning and pausing their research; staff are working on campus under social-distancing guidelines or settling into remote routines. But whatever the specifics of our situations, we’re all facing the same reality: Our lives have drastically changed.

As Cornell’s Ithaca campus readies for its first day of virtual instruction April 6, the Chronicle spoke with university leaders about their perspectives on this altered landscape.

Are we ready for virtual instruction to start Monday?

Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education: I think we’re in remarkably good shape. I’ve heard from faculty who are itching to get back to teaching. They miss their students; they really want to reconnect with their students see how they’re doing and just get back to what they love. Some faculty are coming up with really awesome ways to teach the material in this remote format and are excited to try.

Of course, there are also faculty who have never been on Zoom before, making this transition overwhelming. But they too are doing everything they can to get online, often with one-on-one support from an incredible team of tech experts. I think it’s OK, even helpful, to admit we are going to run into challenges we could not have foreseen. We just have to iterate together and communicate clearly and often.

We have the advantage, in a way, of moving to an all-online environment a little bit after some of our peers, and from some of the early feedback, we see two challenges. One is keeping students engaged in this kind of environment, so we’ve been thinking a lot about that, and the other is, not surprisingly, relating to issues of internet connectivity. So we’ve been actively been reaching out to students through multiple channels to make sure they’re ready.

And are students ready?

Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life: What I’m hearing from students is that they’re ready to get back into some semblance of rhythm. But they don’t know what that’s going to feel like or be like, or how they’re going to able to really focus. There’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty attached to that. But we just put out some information, both on academic support and extracurricular support – opportunities for them to engage, to build community, to stay active. And so I think we’re as ready as we can be.

I think having these three weeks has been really helpful. I can’t imagine the students having the head space a week or two ago to jump right into virtual instruction. This has been so disruptive for everybody. But I think the way that the calendar worked out and the decisions the president made were about as good as they could have been for our students.

How are we helping students continue to feel connected?

Lombardi: Our catalyst for this community is often through our student organizations and, admittedly, they’ve been largely on a bit of a hiatus for the last couple of weeks. So we’ve started talking again with different organizations about hosting virtual events, and a few of our units that are particularly student-facing have tried to jump into that space really quickly, doing online fitness or virtual career advising. But I really do think that this is going to be something we have to put a whole lot of energy into for the remaining weeks of the semester, because this can be lonely and isolating.

How are staff adjusting to new work expectations and routines?

Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer: We still have essential work being done on campus, and we have really dedicated people continuing to feed our students, keep our buildings clean and manage our campus systems that keep utilities operating. We have police officers making sure our campus stays safe, and people working hard to move us to virtual instruction. We also know a lot of people are finding their rhythm in remote work. It’s challenging to work remotely if you’ve never done it before.

Managers are finding ongoing ways to reach out to their teams, to move work along and make sure they have regular check-ins. In a time of incredible uncertainty, staff have questions that we don’t have the answers to yet. And sometimes the best way to fill that gap is to just be present, listen to our teams and focus on the work we need to accomplish. I hope managers find time to check in on how their folks are doing personally. We all need that.

How is this affecting facilities and campus services?

Rick Burgess, vice president for facilities and campus services: The Facilities and Campus Services team is providing essential services. We’ve taken measures to reduce energy usage: for the labs that are not going to be used, we come in and “hibernate” fume hoods, to reduce the air flow.

Other people on our team – engineers, architects, maintenance planners and finance specialists, for instance – are working remotely. And maybe this presents opportunities to improve our use of space. Can we take this moment to streamline our processes? It’s always challenging when you’re hard at work on something to also improve the process; you can’t redo the plane while you’re flying it. But we’re not exactly flying the plane right now. So we’re thinking about how to reengineer some aspects of our business so that they would actually work better.

How do you think these changes will affect research and teaching?

John Siliciano, deputy provost: There is some research that is able to continue; someone working in the humanities with books probably hasn’t been deeply affected, but on the science side, most of the research has been put into dry dock. But we’re already working on contingency plans to start things up as that option becomes available. We’ve just begun thinking about how we turn the lights back on.

On the teaching side: People did not ask for this. But I think faculty have been teaching in the same way successfully for many years, and now all our faculty are thinking, how do I put my pedagogy into a mode that I never thought about? So it’s forced everybody to go to the core of what they think is essential to their teaching, and even when we can return to classroom teaching, I think that deep exploration is going to have a really durable impact.

How is this impacting Cornell’s relationship with the community?

Joel Malina, vice president for university relations: People are very aware of the role that Cornell plays in our local economy. We are facing significant financial uncertainties, and we want to do what we can to support our Cornell community members, and at the same time be responsive to Tompkins County’s diverse needs and shared interests.

I think what we’re seeing as we have these conversations is the outcome of a significant effort over many years to engage with the community, to develop trusting partnerships. I think we are operating from a much stronger position today because of what we have all done, both Cornell and our partners, to invest in these relationships over time.

Has there been an increase in demand for Cornell Health services?

Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being: Many students continue to seek care for both medical and mental health concerns. While we are seeing a limited number of students in-person, mostly testing for COVID-19, the majority of visits are now taking place by phone or via secure messaging. So far, our team has been able to match the demand. Regardless of the nature of the student’s appointment – medical or mental health – COVID-19 has been a consistent concern.

While you might assume it’s a big shift to go from in-person to remote care, surprisingly, it’s been fairly straightforward so far. We had the necessary platforms available, although not yet fully implemented, and have delivered quality remote care in a few areas of our practice for some time, so extending it to other areas feels like a natural progression.

Do you think there will be long-term impacts on the university?

Nishii: I think there will be many, but two stand out to me right now. I think a lot of innovation is going to come out of this. It’s really pushing us to think creatively about how we teach and how we engage with each other and our scholarly work. It’s also brought us together in ways we couldn’t have imagined. One of the things I and others have always marveled at is the incredible diversity of activity at Cornell. This is the first time we’re all in the same position, trying to make sense of the uncertainty, adjust to a virtual world separated from others and prepare ourselves for the next new or tough decision. There is this really strong sense of connection and solidarity that people are feeling. I think a lot of good has already come out of that.

Siliciano: This is happening on a family and a societal level, but as a university it’s really been quite amazing to watch how a once-in-a-lifetime crisis is forcing people to think about their communities. It’s obviously been very difficult, but it’s also very affirming.

Media Contact

Abby Butler