Vijay Pendakur, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, will be departing Cornell to become the chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the tech company Zynga. His last day at Cornell will be Sept. 25, according to Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life.
Marla Love, senior associate dean of diversity and equity, will serve as interim dean of students and also will take Pendakur’s place serving as one of Cornell’s Presidential Advisors on Diversity and Equity, Lombardi said.
Pendakur, who arrived at Cornell in December 2016, has helped the university revamp its approach to managing campus events while preserving the importance of free speech and student protests; led the expansion of Cornell’s student empowerment team, with a particular focus on first-generation, low-income and undocumented student support; and, as a presidential adviser on diversity and equity, helped launch the Belonging at Cornell initiative that already has brought an increased emphasis on diversity to the faculty and staff composition and climate.
Additionally, in the past six months in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Pendakur has been instrumental in developing and providing student support with a commitment to equity – as the campus emptied in March, and as it has put together and implemented its reopening plan for fall in the months since.
“Vijay has been a transformative leader during his nearly four years as Cornell’s dean of students,” Lombardi said. “He has brought a renewed emphasis on providing equitable educational and student life programs for our diverse community. He has been a valued campus collaborator, and leaves behind an important framework on which we will continue to build. We will miss his energy, passion and humor and wish him all the best in his new role.”
Pendakur said he has been grateful to be part of Lombardi’s leadership team – a team that he said has never worked harder than it has these past six months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit early this year.
Cornell was faced with unprecedented administrative and logistical challenges when it closed down most campus operations in March and prepared to complete the spring semester online.
Pendakur and the Office of the Dean of Students helped distribute more than $400,000 of emergency grant aid in a very short period of time through an access fund for students who needed financial support related to unexpected pandemic costs, from travel and shipping expenses to rent support, food and more.
“We had to create lots of new processes to make that happen,” Pendakur said. “But it’s something that I’m proud of because I think it truly shows how Cornell really is a caring community. We didn’t just close the campus and tell everyone to go home – as some campuses across the country did. We actually created a mechanism, as a campus, to try and do that equitably. Members of my team and I were deeply involved in getting money donated from all over campus into that fund, and getting it pushed out quickly as emergency relief grants to hundreds of undergraduate, graduate and professional students.”
Pendakur also described how his staff worked closely with Housing and Residence Life to center an equity lens in the housing exemptions process last spring, which allowed several hundred students to stay on campus for the spring semester based on unique hardships in their lives. It’s an approach he always has brought to his role: remaining vigilant and aware of the asymmetric impact that various policies would often otherwise have on marginalized and vulnerable communities. “I was really proud of the way Cornell handled this unprecedented crisis: with a heart and a soul during the rapid closure in March,” he said.
As Cornell planned for its reopening this fall, Pendakur also was instrumental in the creation of the Cornell Compact Compliance Team, which is managing the enforcement of the Cornell Student Behavioral Compact. “We built something that tries to strike a balance between the need for accountability, in order to protect the greater good and the public health of our community, both on and off campus, while also not drifting from our educational and developmental commitments as a university by resisting the temptation to employ shame-based enforcement models that could really damage the trust our students have in us,” he said.
Pendakur acknowledged that the timing of his departure is not ideal – just a few weeks into a challenging hybrid semester of both in-person and online classes, on a socially distanced campus aiming to safely fulfill its mission and offer as close to a residential university experience as possible during a pandemic.
He said that he remains confident and optimistic as he passes the baton to Love.
“Over the last several years, I’ve been able to watch Marla grow – as a both Cornellian and as a skilled higher education administrator – and I know that she will continue to make a transformational impact on this university even as I depart,” Pendakur said.
“I’m grateful to Marla Love for stepping into the role of interim dean of students,” Lombardi said. “She has been a strong leader since her arrival to Cornell and will help to build on the foundation in place in the Office of the Dean of Students.”
Love thanked Pendakur for enhancing student and campus life’s trust-based relationship with students, and for how he expanded student empowerment areas within the division.
“As a partner in this work for almost three years, I look forward to leading the Office of the Dean of Students in continuing the critical work of equity and belonging, as well as care and crisis support,” Love said. “It is bittersweet to see Vijay leave Cornell, but I am thankful for his leadership and I am excited to continue to move DOS forward.”
Pendakur and his family will remain in Ithaca this fall and winter, and plan to relocate to Austin, Texas in the spring.