When Martha E. Pollack took the helm at Cornell last April, she became the University’s fifth president in 15 years. During her first year in office, Pollack had to deal with several reports of racially-charged incidents, with one occurring as recently as last month, a weapons cache being found in a Collegetown apartment and Cornell’s devoted shift downstate with the opening of the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island.
However, when Pollack sat down with The Sun last week to reflect on the year, the president said she wouldn’t necessarily describe her first year as “turbulent.”
“I shouldn’t say this because I’ll jinx it … but I experienced moments of turbulence, but also long periods of time in which I just had the opportunity to meet incredible students and incredible faculty,” Pollack said.
Pollack emphasized that her first year has largely been devoted to laying the groundwork and stressing the importance she places on building good connections with the alumni, diversity and equity, academic excellence and educational innovation.
But for Pollack, that improved academic excellence is not necessarily reflected by higher college rankings. While she stressed that college rankings do matter — pointing to the importance parents and potential students give them — Pollack did not hesitate in describing them as “pernicious.”
“If you believe as a dean that having smaller classes is better for your students — by all means do it, tout it, let the world know. But don’t do things just to move up in the rankings,” she said.
This spring has seen the practice of legacy admissions in higher education come under scrutiny — and across the country, colleges are being asked to divulge the details of their legacy-specific admissions policies.
Pollack, however maintained that she did not necessarily view legacy as a means of providing a subclass of affluent white candidates an advantage over others. Comparing legacy to other factors that are considered — athletics, first-generation status, personal hardships — she said that legacy admissions are a way “to create a Cornell family that goes on for generations.”
“I’ve been on the road this whole past year meeting with alumni and there are many solidly middle class alumni who feel deep connections to this university and who raise kids who feel deep connections to this university,” Pollack said, “And so to me, it’s one factor amongst many that we look at.”
Additionally, the president is certain that the sudden and unexplained resignation of Soumitra Dutta from his post as the dean of the business college in February has not affected student applications to the school or the pool of candidates for the now-vacant deanship.
She maintained that applications from potential students are “way up” and that the college has made 16 to 17 strong hires from places like the University of Chicago, Columbia University and the University of Michigan.
Pollack also made clear that the potential merger between the ILR school and the College of Human Ecology was only an idea and affirmed that Provost Michael Kotlikoff was taking all the objections very seriously.
“I think voicing objections to the idea is perfectly fine, saying that he should take the idea off the table because I, whoever I am, don’t like it, I think that is incredibly disrespectful of faculty shared governance,” she said.
Earlier this month, in an email to campus, Pollack introduced the first set of phased reforms to Greek life since 2012, when then-President David Skorton had called for the “end of hazing as we know it” following the death of Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother George Desdunes ’13 in a reverse-hazing incident that drew international attention.
Pollack confirmed that her reforms have generated pushback from Cornell alumni and said that while most of the feedback is positive, some alumni are “extremely unhappy,” and she is working with them to make clear that the reforms are to make sure that Greek life can survive.
“Frankly, to me, it’s a public health issue,” she said.
The president emphasized that she currently can’t imagine taking the step of ending Greek life at Cornell, but also added that she “never says never about anything.”
One reform effective immediately is a ban on all hard alcohol (30 percent by volume or greater) in residential fraternity chapter houses. When asked how she hopes to enforce the ban while also preventing off-campus locations from becoming hubs for hard alcohol instead, Pollack compared the new rule to speed limits.
“You know, you can’t enforce speed limits at 100 percent, and yet that doesn’t mean you don’t have speed limits — it’s a public health issue that protects people and when people are violating them you can sanction them and I’m thinking along the same lines,” she said.
The President’s New York Visioning Committee also submitted a report to Pollack earlier this month proposing that by 2029, at least 25 percent of faculty and students — approximately 300 to 500 students per semester — should spend some time studying in New York and that there should be plane, helicopter and other travel options to improve connectivity between the two cities.
Pollack reiterated on Tuesday that the focus on New York would not neglect Cornell’s brand in Ithaca, adding that she has found a college experience in a small town “magical” since her days as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.
For the president, the focus downstate builds on Cornell’s presence in New York that has been in place for over a century and will be a way to distinguish the University because “there is no other school of our caliber that has the rural and the urban setting.”
Looking ahead, Pollack hopes to rework her interactions with the assemblies and shared governance organizations on campus, as she feels that there needs to be more communication earlier in the resolution-making process.