Pollack outlines guiding principles for COVID-19 response

April 7, 2020

Dear Cornellians,

Wherever you may be as you are reading this, I want to start by asking you to picture Cornell in your mind. Many of you will picture the Ithaca campus: perhaps Libe Slope, or the Arts Quad, or West Campus, or perhaps Schoellkopf Field, or the Botanic Gardens. Others of you may conjure a picture of the terrace outside the Bloomberg Center on Roosevelt Island, and still others may imagine a city you spent time in on a Cornell abroad program. Cornell is all those places – but Cornell is not just places. Cornell is, at its core, people: it’s all of us. And although we’re currently dispersed throughout the world, we’re still hard at work learning, teaching and interacting with the world as Cornellians – and in so doing, moving the mission of our university forward. Even in this time of change and disruption, Cornell remains strong.

I want to reiterate how impressed I have been by the determination and goodwill with which our entire community has risen to the extraordinary challenges of the past weeks: our students who have adjusted to an abrupt upending of their lives, our faculty who have poured so much energy into moving their courses online and our staff who have shown such extraordinary flexibility and dedication in carrying out the myriad tasks that are necessary to support our university. And I want to express, yet again, my tremendous respect for our friends and colleagues at Weill Cornell Medicine who are battling for the lives of so many under inconceivably difficult circumstances. They have our admiration and our thanks.

I know that for many of you, the past few weeks have been traumatic. At this point, nearly all of us know someone who has been infected with COVID-19. Some of us have lost family members and friends; some have symptoms of the virus or confirmed diagnoses. Many are struggling with changes to financial and living situations. And all of us are worried: about our loved ones, about the economic consequences of this pandemic, about what will come next. In uncertain times, it can help to focus on what is in front of you, and what you can control: your interactions with others, your studies, the task at hand. I hope that each of you has been able to find some calm, some friendship and perhaps even some moments of laughter amid the ongoing turmoil.

Many challenges lie ahead for us as a university and many decisions remain to be made. They will be difficult decisions, and they will be made at all levels of the university, from the leadership team working as a unit, to individual students, staff and faculty. Good decisions are made when they are guided by clear principles, and, to that end, the provost, the vice presidents and I have created a set of four principles, shaped by our core values, that we are using to guide us in decision-making.

  1. Caring for our students. We will do everything possible to enable all current and newly admitted students to complete their Cornell educations, despite the obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Family circumstances, financial resources and students’ lives will undoubtedly change in many ways. Working to see that all students have the financial resources they need is among our highest priorities. We also realize that financial concerns are not the only new stresses that students will face, and we aim to provide the support that our students will need to succeed academically and personally.
  2. Safeguarding our future as a world-class academic institution. We believe deeply in the value of Cornell’s exceptional academic community and will strive always to ensure that our scholarly enterprise is supported and thriving. Throughout its 155-year history, Cornell has defended truth, expanded knowledge and explored what it means to be human, while bringing its mission to the world through research and outreach. Through past wars, epidemics and economic downturns, Cornell continued to teach, continued to conduct world-class research, continued to engage and continued to adapt to a changing world. Cornell has endured the unprecedented before and will do so again. I believe deeply that, ultimately, we will emerge from this newest challenge even stronger.
  3. Maintaining our staffing. Cornell is Cornell because of our wonderful faculty and students, and because of our exceptional staff: our custodians, technicians, dining workers, office professionals and skilled trades and grounds staff, to name just a few. We are a community, and we will do everything we can to keep our community together. Even now, when everyone who can is sheltering in place, many of our dedicated staff are enabling students who could not go home to have a home at Cornell. Despite the challenges, they are coming in every day, keeping the lights on, the buildings warm and safe and the food ready. In addition, many of our staff have successfully moved to working remotely – by no means an easy undertaking in this difficult time. While I truly wish that I could say with certainty that there will be no furloughs or layoffs, there is, unfortunately, too much about the future that we simply do not know. What we do know is that when we make decisions about our collective future, the welfare of our employees will remain a critically important factor.
  4. Seeking new knowledge. It may seem incongruous to speak of seeking opportunities in the midst of crisis, but we are an educational institution. We are fundamentally about learning. And as we navigate through this time, we will pay attention to what we can learn along the way. We may learn about new ways of working remotely, we may learn about new ways of delivering education and we will undoubtedly find new ways to develop resilience in the face of the unprecedented.

The road ahead will not be smooth, and it will not be easy. There will inevitably be decisions we will have to make that will shortchange one or another of our principles. But we will do our utmost to honor them.

We may not all be together, but we are Cornell. Cornell is wherever you are. And together, we will keep Cornell strong.

My best to all of you,