On Aug. 25, Martha Pollack plans to speak at her inauguration, outlining a vision for her tenure at Cornell.
But she is already learning as much as she can through meetings with students, faculty, staff and other groups, and is keeping quiet about many particulars until she hears from a broad group of stakeholders.
In her first interview since becoming president, Pollack told The Sun what her priorities are and what she has noticed at Cornell in her first 28 days on the job.
Pollack emphasized several times that it does not make sense to take what she did as provost of University of Michigan and do the same exact thing in her current role.
While there are several similarities between Cornell and University of Michigan that will help her, including the wide variety of programs and the relatively large size of both schools, she said, Pollack emphasized that Cornell is its own institution, which she will continue to explore before creating strategic initiatives.
“Obviously, all the experience I had is relevant. It’s made me who I am, it’s shaped my vision on higher ed. I bring certain views on things,” Pollack said on Monday in her Day Hall office. “But I’m trying really very, very hard to take Cornell as Cornell and not say ‘okay we’re going to take these things from Michigan and roll them over.’ I think that would be a mistake.”
Pollack said she has been impressed with the many students, faculty and administrators she has met so far, highlighting the intellectual and caring nature of students.
The 14th president also highlighted the commitment of the faculty to Cornell, saying she was struck when she found out how many faculty members had been at Cornell for more than a decade and by how much they love where they work.
She said it will be important for her to gain their respect, emphasizing professors’ role in making changes and calling them “the lifeblood of the University.”
After taking questions at a Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly meetings, Pollack added that she is happy to see that shared governance is a relatively effective system Cornell.
“I’ve seen that shared governance is alive and well, maybe not perfect, but it’s alive and well,” she said, adding that she did not know before arriving that there are five shared governance organizations on campus.
Pollack stressed the importance of humanities and liberal arts, citing Cornell’s commitment to those areas as one of the reasons why she was attracted to Cornell and crediting her predecessor, Hunter Rawlings, for his dedication to a liberal arts education.
“We are a land grant university, but we are also an Ivy League college, and that means we absolutely must continue to preserve and sing the importance of the humanities and the liberal arts,” she said.
She also discussed some of Cornell’s other commitments, including to its motto of “any person … any study.”
During the interview, Pollack retrieved a book written by E.B. White ’21 and read a passage about the various people he met while he was at Cornell, including people of various races and backgrounds.
“He’s lauding this in 1939. So that commitment was really important to me,” she said. “We need to make sure that the ‘any person’ part of the ‘any person … any study’ motto is upheld so that students who are qualified for and admitted to Cornell can attend.”
Pollack said diversity and inclusion initiatives are deeply linked to Cornell’s academic excellence, which Pollack said is a priority that “trumps everything.”
Highlighting her own role as a woman in computer science, Pollack pointed out that when she arrived at the University of Michigan, there were more professors in the computer science department named Igor than there were women in the department.
“I don’t want to necessarily equate being a gender minority to being a racial, ethnic, minority or [having a] personal disability, but I think I did learn something about navigating as a minority and what that means — that’s been influential to me as well,” she said.
Pollack said ideological diversity is not something the University can or should increase through hiring decisions, but rather by ensuring that speakers with controversial or unpopular views are respected and are able to speak when invited.
Pollack again noted her commitment free speech, and said even speech that is offensive or false should not be shut down. The president said she would rather speak out against heinous speech herself than shut a speaker down.
“We need to be a University that’s known as standing for free speech. Period. Full stop,” she said.
Although she mostly declined to answer questions on specific issues, Pollack said she is strongly in favor of the idea of better connecting Cornell’s campuses through the idea of One Cornell.
She said Ithaca is and will remain the “heart and soul” of the University and highlighted the “magical” nature of a small town that is somewhat isolated where many people are focusing on scholarship. She also pointed out Cornell’s long attachment to New York City and the variety of colleges that have programs in the city.
In Pollack’s view, if Cornell combined the assets of one of the world’s greatest cities with the magic of a small town, it would be second-to-none.
As the interview drew to a close, Pollack emphasized how excited she was to be busy in her new position.
“This is just an amazing university,” she said. “It’s really easy when you’re at a university for a long time to forget just how special it is. And so coming in from the outside, from another amazing university, it’s really struck me what an amazing place this is.”