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University leaders including President Martha E. Pollack, at top right, discussed Cornell's fall semester plans and answered questions during a July 9 virtual forum sponsored by the Employee Assembly. Also shown are Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, upper left; Hei Hei Depew, Employee Assembly executive vice-chair, middle left; Joanne DeStefano, executive vice president and chief financial officer, middle right; and Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, bottom.

Pollack: Culture of shared responsibility key to fall success

If you’re not wearing a mask or practicing physical distancing on the Ithaca campus this fall, expect to be approached by a member of the Cornell community – perhaps a student public health ambassador – and asked to follow public health guidelines.

That’s part of the culture of shared responsibility that must complement an aggressive virus testing program to ensure the safest possible semester for Cornell and the Ithaca community, President Martha E. Pollack said July 9 during a virtual open forum sponsored by the Employee Assembly.

“We are working to build this culture of challenging one another and holding one another to a high standard of mutual responsibility,” Pollack said.

The Employee Assembly forum was the latest in a series of virtual discussions university leaders have hosted since Pollack’s June 30 announcement that Cornell would reactivate the Ithaca campus for residential instruction this fall. Earlier events answered questions from faculty, the Tompkins County community and international students.

On July 9, Pollack was joined by Joanne DeStefano, executive vice president and chief financial officer; Joel Malina, vice president for university relations; and Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer. Watch a replay or read a transcript of the forum here.

Pollack reiterated to nearly 1,800 participants that concern for public health drove Cornell’s decision to offer a mix of in-person and virtual instruction this fall. The university’s epidemiological modeling found that rates of coronavirus-related infection and hospitalizations would be lower in that scenario than if instruction were conducted exclusively online.

“That’s a surprising result,” Pollack said. “The reason is that our … reopening plan is based on a very aggressive virus testing program.”

Pollack went on to explain that the program would test students before and upon their arrival in Ithaca, and every five to seven days afterward to help catch asymptomatic cases early. Positive cases will be quarantined or isolated with appropriate health and academic support, she said. “It’s this testing with quarantine and isolation that lets us very quickly pick up and contain any outbreak,” Pollack said.

That requirement for regular testing, followed by isolation after a positive result, and a behavioral compact mandating observance of social distancing and other public-health measures, could not have been enforced were instruction only offered online, Pollack noted. University surveys showed that many students intended to return to their privately leased off-campus housing anyway; without an active residential semester, this capacity to monitor and control student behavior would have been greatly reduced.

The Tompkins County Health Department and Cayuga Health System, which will help administer the testing and contact tracing programs, both have expressed support for Cornell’s plan.

Pollack acknowledged it would be unrealistic to expect perfect behavioral compliance from students but, she said, reactivating the campus gives the university more leverage to influence behavior. If students do engage in repeat or flagrant behavioral violations, she said, they will face escalating sanctions, potentially including being withdrawn from the semester.

“If we see too much misbehavior, if we see infection rates growing,” Pollack said, “we’re going to have to reassess and we’re going to have to change the approach we’re taking.”

But Pollack said many students are embracing the seriousness of the moment. Some – including representatives from Greek housing – are volunteering with the Office of Student and Campus Life to serve as public health ambassadors who will encourage best practices among peers.

Malina said the university plans to launch a comprehensive public health campaign to reinforce standards and expectations for students, faculty and staff.

“We are strongly emphasizing our collective and individual responsibilities to engage and have conversations with all of our community members about appropriate behaviors,” Malina said, “and the risks of failure to abide by them.”

Provost Michael Kotlikoff amplified that point in a July 9 message emphasizing safety requirements on campus in Ithaca and at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. “It will be essential for all of us to model positive behaviors that help to reduce the spread of the virus,” Kotlikoff wrote.

Pollack did her part during the employee forum, donning a mask at one point to demonstrate behavior she said should by now be automatic. “It will reduce your risk, and it will reduce the risk of the community,” she said. “People just have to wear masks.”

Pollack reviewed the university’s financial outlook, including steps taken to balance a projected $210 million shortfall in the current budget year for the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses, a total that anticipates a sharply higher need for student financial aid.

Those steps include what Pollack said was an “extraordinary” decision by the Cornell Board of Trustees to approve a higher-than-usual payout from the endowment. After previously instituting salary, hiring and travel freezes, Pollack and Kotlikoff announced July 2 additional measures that included temporary reductions to retirement contributions for endowed employees and to salaries for contract college employees. That action will be reassessed in six months.

“No one wanted to do anything more than we absolutely had to,” Opperman said. “Maintaining our staffing to the best extent possible was a driving factor in this.”

A review of potential budget cuts across university functions is ongoing. DeStefano said the university is projecting deficits not just this year but in subsequent years, and must adapt operations to fit a workforce made as much as 10% leaner by the hiring freeze and a voluntary retirement program.

“The goal is to strategically change the way we do business,” she said. “We’re trying to do everything we possibly can to reframe and restructure our workforce at a smaller level so that we can get through the next couple of years without any significant hardships (to employees).”

The Employee Assembly’s 2020 Summer Series of staff feedback forums continues July 15 with a session on professional growth. More information and updates on the university’s fall reactivation plans and guidelines for faculty, staff and students are available on the university’s COVID-19 website.

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Abby Butler