In her first State of the University address, Martha E. Pollack, Cornell’s 14th president, said on Friday morning that the University is on the “cusp of a new era” in which she wants to prioritize a “culture of educational verve” both at the Ithaca campus and in New York City.
Pollack, who began her term in April, also repeated her commitment to free speech and said the University community needs to be more kind following a series of controversial incidents including an altercation in which a student said he was assaulted because of his race.
Speaking to an audience of hundreds of trustees and University Council members in Statler Hall, Pollack said she believes Cornell “can be the model of a relevant, premier university for the 21st century” if it prioritizes three things: conducting research that addresses societal issues, providing engaged and evidence-based education, and creating a community of diverse people who work across differences in perspective.
Pollack ticked off a series of projects student and faculty are working on, including a student’s efforts to compile collective bargaining agreements and professor’s work with Cornell Neurotech, which she said is developing tools to reveal inner workings of the brain. These projects, she said, “are building on the breadth of expertise that is so fundamental to Cornell” and which is matched by few other universities.
Also distinguishing Cornell, Pollack said, is its having both the Ithaca campus and the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, which officially opened in September. Cornell, Pollack said, is “doubling down” on its historic New York City presence — the medical school has been in Manhattan since 1898, she noted — and creating pathways for the two locations to enhance each other.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Bob Harrison ’76, said Cornell Tech “is precisely what Ezra Cornell would have wanted for our next chapter.”
The most boisterous moment of Pollack’s address came when she said Cornell is “a private university with a public Michigan,” accidentally naming the University where she worked for nearly 17 years, most recently as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.
Pollack laughed along with trustees at the flub before shouting out, “Note what color I’m wearing!” referring to her scarlet dress.
The president also lauded what Harrison said is an “incredibly diverse” student body at Cornell, and she noted that 12.9 percent of students in the undergraduate Class of 2021 are first-generation college students.
But Pollack also said this diverse community of students must be based on “a lot more kindness” and referred to a series of incidents perceived as racist, anti-semitic and xenophobic that were “anything but compatible” with the University’s commitment to diversity.
“And, alas, there have been many similar incidents recently on college campuses across the country,” she said. “But Cornell must take a strong stance and be a leader in repudiating hatred and intolerance.”
Pollack has repeatedly stressed the importance of free speech since arriving at Cornell, and she continued to do so on Friday, saying that the University’s mission of housing a “free interchange of ideas” has “a special responsibility to be open to all thought and to guarantee freedom of expression.”
She noted, though, as she has previously, that there are some limits to free speech, such as when speech is part of harassment or serious threats. “Institutions can put in place reasonable, content-neutral limits on the time, place and manner in which protected speech can occur,” she said.
Harrison, in introducing Pollack, said that upholding the right to free speech is “nowhere more important than on University campuses.”
The hundreds of trustees and council members also honored former chair of the Board of Trustees, Peter Meinig ’61, who died in September, with a moment of silence.
Pollack said Cornell stands “at the cusp of a new era for the University, in which we can and will be the model of a relevant, premier university for the 21st century.”
“We do not yet know the full dimensions of what lies ahead,” she said, “but I am convinced that we are at a moment that is transformational for Cornell and for the role we can play in the world.”