This article has been updated with information from emails sent by President-elect Martha Pollack and Arts and Sciences Dean Gretchen Ritter ’83.
Martha E. Pollack, provost at University of Michigan, has been named Cornell’s 14th president. Pollack will begin her term on April 17, 2017, following the termination of her term as provost on January 31, 2017.
The Board of Trustees unanimously elected Pollack Cornell’s second female president, according to Jan Rock Zubrow ’77, chair of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees and of the Presidential Search Committee. Interim President Hunter Rawlings will continue to lead the University until April.
“We were looking for a bold strategic leader and someone who could really further the mission of the University and what really impressed us with Martha is that she has demonstrated those qualities at a really high quality institution at the University of Michigan,” Zubrow said.
As she introduced herself, Pollack spoke about the importance of academia, emphasizing her belief that Cornell is “leading the way in how critical universities and their work are to the world today.”
“It is really just a privilege to be here today. I have spent almost my entire career in higher education and I am deeply committed to the notion that universities are second to none in effecting positive change in the world,” Pollack said. “And really nowhere is it more true than here at Cornell — a private university with a public mission.”
In response to a question about her policy goals as president, Pollack touched on improving the University with a focus on innovation and quality.
“I very much value integrity, that’s my first priority,” Pollack said. “I value quality, I think it’s really essential that Cornell continue to be on of the world’s strongest communities … I very much value innovation and adaptability, the world is changing quickly … [I have an] enormous commitment to diversity.”
Pollack further elaborated on the importance of diversity for students, the University and the future of the country.
“I think that appreciation for diversity and celebrating differences is absolutely essential to today’s world,” Pollack said. “Our students are going to graduate into a very diverse world, and if they are not able to work across different perspectives, then I fear for the future of this country and the world.”
In an email to the Cornell community today, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Robert Harrison ’76, lauded the search committee for its “fabulous job” in selecting the University’s next president, calling Pollack a “proven leader and scholar.”
Gretchen Ritter ’83, the dean of Arts and Sciences, offered similar praise of Pollack in an email to students, faculty, and staff this afternoon. Ritter said that she was encouraged that Pollack, who completed a self-designed interdisciplinary major in linguistics during her undergraduate years at Dartmouth, presented a “global humanistic outlook.”
Pollack’s commitments to integrity and free speech were particularly compelling for Ritter, who said that these values are “incontrovertible” to the College of Arts and Sciences.
“At this time, as our nation grapples with an ideological divide and uncertain change at the highest levels of our federal government, I find it particularly important to reaffirm such values,” Ritter wrote in her email. “At lunch today, president-elect Pollack emphasized the point again, saying ‘We will honor and support the right of people from all backgrounds and perspectives to be here at Cornell. I hope you will all join me in recommitting ourselves to these values, no matter where challenges may emerge in the coming weeks and months.”
Pollack sent her own email to the Cornell community in the late afternoon. In her email, she called Cornell a “special place.”
“Its egalitarian heritage, research and teaching excellence, celebration of difference and diversity, and deep history of service combine to make this a truly extraordinary institution, one that embraces both the creation of knowledge and the value of putting that knowledge to use in positively impacting society,” reads Pollack’s email.
She also praised Rawlings as a “remarkable leader” and said they met earlier today to discuss the transition between their presidencies.
Acknowledging that the official start of her term is several months away, Pollack said she will make several visits to Ithaca and New York before her presidency begins. “I can’t wait to get started!” she wrote, at the end of her email.
Pollack was appointed provost at the University of Michigan in 2013, where she is also a professor of computer science and engineering in the College of Engineering. She joked that when she joined the faculty in 2000, “There were more professors named Igor than female professors.”
At Michigan, she also served as the university’s chief academic officer and chief budget officer. Pollack will receive tenured appointments in the computer science and information science departments when she arrives at Cornell, according to the University.
Much of Pollack’s research has been on artifical intelligence, including “automated planning, natural-language processing, temporal reasoning and constraint satisfaction,” according to the University. She has also received accolades for her work to improve the climate for minorities and women in science and engineering.
However, responding to a question about her status as Cornell’s second female leader, Pollack said, “I think that the job of the president is to serve everyone — not to be the female president, but to be the president.”
In addition to serving as provost at University of Michigan, she was a member of the Steering committee for the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, which is a partnership between Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology at Cornell Tech. Speaking about Cornell’s New York and Ithaca campuses, Pollack said, “It’s also an incredibly exciting time in Cornell’s history as its campuses which so complement each other are poised to become increasingly interconnected.”
Prior to joining the University of Michigan, Pollack was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her bachelor’s from Dartmouth College in 1979 and a M.S.E and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in computer and information science.
Her husband, Ken Gottschlich, will join her in Ithaca with a faculty appointment at Cornell.
Rawlings praised the search committee’s selection, saying he was confident that Pollack will be able to continue his priority of uniting Cornell’s upstate and downstate campuses to form “One Cornell.”
“As president of the Association of American Universities, I had an opportunity to work with Martha,” he told the University. “She will be a great president, and her hands-on knowledge of Cornell Tech will help to solidify the growing collaborations and synergies among Cornell’s upstate and downstate campuses. I look forward to working with her over the coming months on a smooth transition.”
The announcement of Pollack’s presidency comes nearly eight months after the untimely death of late President Elizabeth Garrett, who died on March 6 of colon cancer. Pollack said that Garrett “is very much in my heart today.”
During her tenure, Garrett was lauded for her move to approve Anabel’s Grocery, expand graduate housing and defend freedom of speech on campus in addition to her historic status as the University’s first female president. Yet, she was also the source of criticism, drawing criticism from alumni and students for establishing the College of Business and suggesting that she might stall President Emeritus David Skorton’s 2035 carbon neutrality goal.
Garrett’s death drew widespread grief and sadness across campus. Thousands honored the president at several memorials and vigils on campus, both from around Ithaca and across New York state.
“She was the quintessential Cornellian,” wrote Chairman of the Board of Trustees Robert Harrison ’76 in announcing her death. “She will leave a lasting legacy on our beloved institution and will be terribly missed.”
After Provost Michael Kotlikoff served as Cornell’s acting president for several months, the Board of Trustees tapped President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings III on March 24 to step in as the University’s interim president for the second time in his career.
As the 10th president of the University, Rawlings’ first round leading Cornell’s lasted from 1995 to 2003. He became interim president for the first time in 2005, after the resignation of President Emeritus Jeffrey Lehman ’77.
Leaving his job as the president of the Association of American Universities to assume his current role, Rawlings has been working to connect Cornell different campuses in his vision of “One Cornell.” He has highlighted the University’s unique circumstances as an institution with both upstate and downstate locations in his effort to bridge divides within the state.
Rawlings has said that Cornell’s next president should have good judgement, be able to work well with a variety of constituents and be a good scholar and leader. Without some of these attributes, he said it may be difficult for the new leader to be able to gain the respect of the faculty.
The characteristics that Rawlings highlighted were largely echoed at a forum in May, in which Chair of the Presidential Search Committee Jan Rock Zubrow ’77 and other members of the search committee received input from Cornellians in an effort to make the search process more inclusive.
At the forum, faculty and students said that the new president should value transparency and promote the humanities.
Zubrow said at the time that being president of Cornell is difficult job, but that Cornell is a “unique” and “wonderful” institution and “will attract someone marvelous.”