Two weeks into her presidency at Cornell, Martha Pollack on Monday proclaimed an unwavering commitment to free speech, reaffirmed the importance of diversity and inclusion, and responded to questions about mental health resources, sanctuary campuses and the six active Title IX investigations into the University.
The 14th president’s remarks came during a 30-minute question-and-answer session in front of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and on the heels of a similar meeting with the Student Assembly last week.
Pollack, in a short introduction praising the importance of graduate and professional students, named integrity as the most important of her core values, a list that also included diversity, free speech, innovation, academic quality and fun.
Responding to a question about free speech from Anna Waymack, grad, who said “there is a point where speech can inhibit speech,” Pollack was frank in her dissent.
“Here we’re going to disagree and I know we’re going to disagree,” Pollack responded. “As soon as you start suppressing speech, you open the question of who gets to decide … and we know, historically, that never goes well.”
The former University of Michigan provost said it is important to make sure members of disadvantaged groups are given means to fully express their voices, but that authorities should “not tamp down the other voices.”
Seemingly referencing University of California, Berkeley’s controversial cancellation of a speech by Ann Coulter ’84, Pollack said that people with views “antithetical” to the student body should be allowed to speak on campus.
Campus officials should provide locations for protests, and at times the University president should support those protests, Pollack said, adding that Cornell should not restrict people from speaking at events when invited.
Posed a question about gender diversity among faculty members, 32 percent of whom are women, Pollack said improving and sustaining diversity of all kinds is a priority during her time as president.
Pollack said teaching about implicit bias is an important part of forming an inclusive campus and said Cornell needs to “double down on our commitment to diversity.”
When Pollack joined the computer science department at the University of Michigan, she said, “there were more faculty in computer science named Igor than female [faculty] in computer science.”
“Diversity and a celebration of difference” is vital at universities, Pollack said at the beginning of the meeting, adding that it is not only the right thing to do, but also, campuses enjoy “better solutions and outcomes when you have diverse perspectives.”
On several issues, Pollack cited her recent assumption of the presidency in saying she could not yet fully or accurately respond to specific questions.
Asked about the University Assembly’s proposed resolution to make Cornell a tobacco-free campus, Pollack said, “I don’t know enough to speak to that.” After a question on mental health resources, Pollack said she would have to look at Cornell-specific information. “Every single university has been putting money hand over fist … toward mental health,” she said, adding that “there’s still a real sense that there isn’t enough.”
During a question about Cornell’s Title IX Office, a graduate student noted that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has more active inquiries into alleged Title IX violations at Cornell than any of the 236 postsecondary institutions under investigation.
Pollack acknowledged that Title IX compliance is “an enormous issue,” but, referring to Cornell, noted that “You have the most [active inquiries], but you have the most by one.”
The Office of Civil Rights has five open inquiries at two universities, Kansas State University and Indiana University at Bloomington.
“I will be looking really carefully into, what’s your procedure? What’s working? What’s not? Are you getting things done on time?” she said of the Title IX Office at Cornell. “I don’t know enough today to answer that.”
Asked about sanctuary campuses and whether Cornell will declare itself one, Pollack said that she has discussed the issue and that Cornell will, “at the end of the day, observe the law, but up to the point that there is a legal requirement, … police will not be acting as [Immigration and Customs Enforcement].”
The City of Ithaca, in February, passed sanctuary city legislation restricting the Ithaca Police Department and other city employees’ actions when interacting with someone who is in the country illegally.
Cornell Police Chief Kathy Zoner said in March that campus police will only honor civil immigration detainer requests when they are accompanied by a subpoena or warrant.
“Cornell Police will not seek immigration status information of any individual in the course of its law enforcement activities, unless necessary to investigate criminal activity by that individual or required by law,” Zoner said on Facebook.
Pollack, at the meeting, also said she recently met with Rep. Tom Reed, who represents the 23rd district of New York that covers all of Tompkins County, and voiced her concerns over a bill he promoted last year that would require a portion of returns from endowments over $1 billion to go toward financial aid.
Reed “understands that I disagree with him and understands, I think, why I disagree with him,” she said. “It does not make sense, from my perspective, to put those kind of requirements on the endowment.”
“I expect I’ll be talking more with him about it in the coming weeks and months,” Pollack added.