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Now is the Time to Take Action

By Richard Feldman

In a recent interview, I was asked why I accepted the position of interim president of the University of Rochester. In my 43-year career here, I’ve had extraordinarily rewarding opportunities to teach and mentor wonderful students, to work with dedicated faculty and staff on everything from curricular changes to critical initiatives around diversity and inclusion, and to collaborate with my faculty colleagues. But to serve as president—even on an interim basis—was a decision that required serious thought and consultation. In the end, I decided that I could make a difference and help the University that has done so much for me through this current period, and that was very important to me.

From the outset, I understood that concrete action was expected and necessary. But I also knew it was extremely important to understand the thoughts and concerns of the University community. The listening tour that began in January to hear and consider as many viewpoints as possible confirmed what I have known all along: we are starting from a strong place, with a supportive, caring community, and with people who are motivated to create a university that doesn’t simply react and respond, but one that creates a vision for a future that is built on decency, integrity, and mutual respect. That shared viewpoint was evident in my meetings with leaders from the undergraduate Students’ Association, the Graduate Student Association, the Commission on Women and Gender Equity in Academia, the Sexual Misconduct Policy Task Force, the Faculty Senate co-chairs and Faculty Senate Executive Committee, the University Management Team, the AS&E deans and department chairs, and many others.

With the understanding that our work simply cannot wait, I launched several initiatives before officially taking office on March 1. To help with the coordination of our efforts, I appointed Emily Cihon Fehnel, an assistant dean in the College, as my deputy to coordinate our response to the White report. Emily provided invaluable assistance in a similar role when I served as co-chair of the Presidential Commission on Race & Diversity, making her particularly well suited for this assignment.

I have also asked Vivian Lewis, deputy to the president and vice provost for faculty development and diversity, to work with senior leaders in AS&E, the medical center, and our Human Resources department to coordinate a community discussion about the University’s vision and values. The aim of this work is crafting a new Vision Statement that expresses our commitment to inclusion and respect and developing a set of University values that will guide our actions.

In a related matter, and after discussion with the President’s Cabinet, I have decided to undertake a reorganization of the Presidential Diversity Council and its Implementation Committee. Instead of two advisory groups, I am creating a single University Diversity Council, with representation from all the schools and from faculty, staff, and students. I am calling this new advisory group the University Diversity Council because I intend for this group to advise the president, but to focus on the University. I also expect that the work of this group will eventually be directed by a new senior administrator whose responsibilities will encompass issues of inclusion, equity, and diversity university-wide. I will soon be able to share more about my plans for evaluating options for the establishment of this office and for the creation of this new position. I anticipate a community-wide discussion on this important issue and a national search to fill this role.

If you have questions about the status of our progress, or you would like to offer comments on these efforts, I encourage you to visit the “Cultivating a Culture of Respect” website. There we will provide updates on steps we have already taken and information on new initiatives. We will also plan to keep you informed through regular messages in @Rochester and in student e-newsletters.

Meaningful culture change will take time and effort, but it will inevitably have a positive effect on the University. At the same time, I think it’s important to remember that the University of Rochester is already strong. Our financial position is solid. Our fundraising is up 22 percent year over year. Our first-year College class has the largest number of students and greatest diversity and international representation of any class ever. Our community engagement programs such as our partnership with East High School, an initiative that is showing signs of a transformative shift in culture for the struggling public school, are contributing to the betterment of our neighbors. Our medical research and clinical care programs are providing lifesaving treatments every day.

None of this is the result of one person alone. Going forward, the actions we take and the progress we make must be the result of collaboration and discussion. I look forward to continuing these discussions with you, not only about the specific recommendations in the White Report but also about how to reinvigorate our campus climate, celebrate our diversity, and recognize our excellence.

I want to hear from you. Please share your thoughts, ideas, questions, and suggestions on the feedback form on the Respect website or you can email my office directly at

Welcome to the first installment of Words from Wallis Hall. This regular communication from President Feldman will serve as an ongoing opportunity to share important updates on the University’s efforts to strengthen a culture of respect, and to keep the campus community informed of people and programs that make Rochester a world-class institution.