Jun 4, 2020
In Cornell Institute for Public Affairs

June 4, 2020

Dear CIPA Community,

Over the past few months, we have seen the tragic legacies of systemic racism in the United States laid bare.  First, the pandemic reinforced how crises disproportionately affect Black communities.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people account for a significantly higher share of confirmed COVID-19 cases across many states compared to their share of the total population.  The pandemic-driven economic downturn has reminded us of how racial inequality persists in both the labor market and in wealth.  In April, the unemployment rate for adult Black males was 16 percent, while for White males it was 12 percent.[1]  Many Black people sickened with COVID-19 were essential workers in low-wage jobs—they weren’t essential because they wanted to be, they were essential because they had to be, a distinction too many of us in positions of privilege often take for granted. 

Then, last week, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who restrained him by kneeling on his throat while three other police officers held him on the ground.  His death follows the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by white residents of a neighborhood he was jogging through.  These follow the killings of Breonna Taylor, who was shot in her home while sleeping, and countless others from the Black community who have been senselessly victimized over centuries.  We join Cornell Public Affairs Society President Gavin Mosley, Cornell University President Pollack, and College of Human Ecology Dean Dunifon in condemning these sickening acts of violence, and acknowledge the pain, anger, and hopelessness that our students, faculty, staff, and alumni are feeling right now.

We also condemn the broader pattern of systemic racism that plays out in so many ways in our daily lives.  Over the course of the last week, we have heard countless heartbreaking stories of Black students, faculty, and staff being stopped numerous times by the Ithaca police.  We have heard stories from Black colleagues of guns being drawn on them for showing up at the wrong house for a child’s birthday party; people questioning their permission to be in University buildings and classrooms while working at night; feeling unsafe walking outdoors or exercising in remote areas; and on and on in so many heartbreaking forms.  If we want to think the legacy of racism only persists in other places or is only a problem of police violence, we are sorely mistaken.

Condemnation, however, does not bring justice. Action brings justice.  It goes without saying that graduates of a public affairs program like CIPA have a special role in making this world more equitable, safer, and kinder for all. As Gavin eloquently wrote, this is a time for difficult conversations, and we look forward to having these conversations with you to ensure CIPA develops concrete actions for moving forward in a progressive, inclusive way.  These will include:

  • Requiring that all CIPA faculty, including ourselves, take the Center for Teaching Innovation’s course on Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom and participate in the Let’s Get Real: In/Visible Equity Issues in Remote Teaching workshop
  • Beginning discussions with instructional faculty about how we can incorporate more diverse perspectives, and evidence on and discussion of racism in our existing courses, including the roundtable and colloquium series
  • Launch a fundraising effort to support a summer project for a student working on racial justice and public policy issues, perhaps working with a faculty member or a member of the community.  This morning, I personally started this fund by donating enough for the support of one student project.
  • Working to develop, launch, and require a course on communications across diverse perspectives for MPA students
  • Joining the Campus Community Book Read of “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi.  While we wait for that to start, we will be reading his earlier book “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
  • Continuing our commitment to using best practices to avoid allowing bias to affect hiring decisions by working with the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity and Human Resources.  We will make an even stronger effort to recruit faculty and staff from diverse communities, and welcome student input on how to reach those communities more effectively.
  • Launching a weekly announcement series where CIPA will provide a link to a Cornell or community resource aimed at understanding the history of racism, how it is impacting us today, and finding concrete ways to promote belonging.  The first of these is a January interview with Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow
  • Postponing the CIPA Reunion Director’s Happy Hour this weekend and inviting all involved instead to join us in listening to the Cornell Black Alumni Association’s and Cornell Mosaic’s webinar: A Community in Crisis: The Impact of COVID-19 on Black People in America
  • Out of respect for the victims of racial violence and injustice and the protests around the world, we are delaying the release of our tribute video for the MPA Class of 2020 until a later date
  • Inviting all MPA students to a Town Hall (details to follow) to discuss your experiences and make concrete suggestions for how CIPA can help move forward in a progressive, inclusive way. 

This list above is not enough, it is just a launching point and we welcome help in charting a course forward.

In addition, as Cornell focuses its energies in developing a new School of Public Policy, we will work to ensure that discussion of racism and inequality and the pursuit of equality are an integral aspect of the School’s teaching, research, and outreach.

We also encourage you to vote.  Whether in the national election this November, which is a critical one for the United States, or in your own countries, the power of voting as a tool for change is far too often overlooked. In the U.S., local elections for district attorneys and school boards can have as much impact on the persistence of racism in our world as national ones. This is not the time to sit out. 

As always, we are available, as are all CIPA staff, to support you during this difficult time.  We also welcome your ideas as we start these difficult, but necessary, conversations around CIPA’s role in working to end racial bias and violence. 

Take care,

Maria Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs

Tom O’Toole, Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs


[1] Before the pandemic hit, the unemployment rate of Black adult males was twice as high as for White adult males (6 versus 3 percent).

Aerial shot of campus at dusk with Cayuga Lake in the background