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President Martha E. Pollack and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lisa Nishii discuss getting out to vote; “semifinal” exams during the third and fourth weeks of November; preparing for the spring semester; and the importance of adhering to public health guidelines.

Leadership Sessions: Students reach ‘semi-finals’ for first time

Cornell Leadership Sessions is an ongoing video series in which members of the administration discuss university efforts related to the campus reactivation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit for the latest information and resources.

In the fifth installment of the series, President Martha E. Pollack and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lisa Nishii discuss getting out to vote; “semi-final” exams, during the third and fourth weeks of November; preparing for the spring semester; and the importance of adhering to public health guidelines and of self-care.

Martha E. Pollack: Hello, everybody. Good to see you again. Election Day is coming up. It’s Tuesday. And I want to remind everyone to fulfill their civic responsibility. Get out there and vote.

Our democracy relies on an informed and an engaged electorate. And so I encourage each of you to educate yourself about the issues. And then go cast your ballot. Early voting is underway.

Here in Tompkins County, it continues through Sunday. And there are two places where you can go vote – one downtown and one by the airport. There’s a lot more information on the excellent website that’s run by Cornell Votes – one of our student-led initiatives out of the Public Service Center. If you just Google “Cornell Votes,” you'll find their web page. So remember: vote.

Now today I am so pleased to be joined by Lisa Nishii, our vice provost for undergraduate education. Professor Nishii has been working with our faculty and University leadership since last spring to ensure a successful end to the current semester, as well as a smooth start to the upcoming spring semester. Lisa?

Lisa Nishii: Great. Thank you, Martha. So thinking about what we have left for the rest of the fall semester, we, as you know, for public health reasons, are encouraging students to return to their permanent residence for Thanksgiving, and to remain there to finish out the fall term. So all instruction after Thanksgiving will be online. So this led to the introduction of what we’re calling “semi-finals.” It’s a new concept.

But the reason we have semi-finals this year is because students will be finishing the semester from their permanent residence. It means that they won’t be here in Ithaca in mid-December when we usually have finals. And so without a new model, that would have meant that all end-of-term exams would have to be held online. And for faculty, this wasn’t a very attractive option, at least for some faculty, because being able to have in-person exams gives faculty an opportunity to really be there, have more control over the process and support students.

And so to maintain the stronger academic environment for exams, what we decided was to introduce this notion of semi-finals, where there would be a one-week period – that’s Nov. 17 until Nov. 24 – for these exams to take place prior to the Thanksgiving break. Students who are in isolation leading up to the semi-finals period should be sure to reach out to faculty in advance as soon as possible to let them know the situation, and to let them know if you’re well enough to take the exam, and if you might need any accommodations.

And, of course, students in quarantine should also reach out to their faculty to let them know that they may need to take a remote exam instead. And so of course, this means that faculty should be prepared to be able to give exams that students can take remotely, if they are, indeed, remote students, and/or if students are in isolation or quarantine.

But looking ahead to the spring, we’re really working hard right now and constructing the roster for the spring. We are hoping to be able to complete a pre-enrollment before the end of this semester in December. So that’s great news. And the plan will be for seniors – this is for undergraduate students – for seniors to have priority over juniors. And juniors will enroll before sophomores and first-year students.

Like the fall, we expect that courses in this spring will be a combination of in-person, online and hybrid courses, assuming, of course, that the university can keep infection rates low. Because of the basic circumstances of the pandemic and that they’re unlikely to change between now and the spring semester, it’s unfortunately the case that we simply don’t have the physical space to be able to hold all of our classes in person while maintaining the 6-foot distancing that we have currently between students in the classroom.

MEP: So students, please keep an eye on your email. Look, I know you have Whatsapp, and text, and Twitter DM, and Instagram and Signal. But really the best way for us to communicate with you is through email. We use email to deliver crucial information. So keep an eye out. We’ll give you information about semi-finals, and move-out, and Thanksgiving break, and enrollment for the spring semester.

I want to close by acknowledging how stressful this semester has really been for all of us, while also recognizing the tremendous success that our community has achieved by following public health guidelines and by taking care of one another. I am so proud of what we’ve done together. We’re not out of the woods yet. With Halloween this weekend, and then the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, we must, all of us, must continue to follow public health guidance.

Students will receive a message later this week clarifying the university’s travel and test requirements. It’s up to all of us – students, faculty and staff – to keep our community as safe as possible. Students, remember that the team at Cornell Health continues to offer collaborative medical and mental health support largely this semester via telehealth. And our Cornell Health staff faculty members really are passionate about student well-being. As for employees – including postdocs, visiting scholars, retirees, and their partners and spouses – the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program likewise offers counseling support and services via telehealth.

In addition, there’s a plethora of self-care resources listed on the Human Resources website. And I hope that members of our community remember to reach out when they need support. Lisa, thank you for joining me today, and for all the great work you’re doing. And I look forward to speaking to all of you next time.

Media Contact

Abby Butler