Last week, The Sun had the opportunity to sit down with President Martha E. Pollack and discuss Greek life reform, legacy admissions, her thoughts on the upcoming democratic primaries and much more.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Sun: To start off, what have been the highs and lows, surprises this past year? Anything that particularly stands out?
President Martha E. Pollack: It’s been a great year. I mean, Cornell has been what I expected it to be. It’s been an exciting year. I’ll tell you the truth, one of your editorials described it as — maybe I shouldn’t say this because I’ll jinx it — but it described my year as turbulent. I didn’t experience it that way.
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. There’s a lot of energy here. I’ve been really pleased at how, and this is going to sound corny, but how friendly and unpretentious people are. People really care, and it’s incredible.
The Sun: In the beginning of this semester, you decided to not go ahead with the independent mental health task force because of the review being conducted by the JED foundation. When can we expect that report?
Pollack: You know, that’s a really good question. I don’t know the answer to that, and you’ll have to check with Vice President Ryan Lombardi. But, I do want to reiterate two things, though. One, it is fully our intention to make the report public. We have no interest in hiding it. But, I don’t know when it’s going to be available. One thing I do want to remind you guys, because I’m not sure if this was made clear, our staff is really, really really busy over the year — and I’m very pleased to say that the target times for seeing students in mental health are now being met. One of the many reasons we decided not to do a second external study, is because it takes a lot of staff time.
Lombardi will have the data, but I do know particularly after the fall the targets were not being met, but now they are.
The Sun: Since the fall semester, there has been an effort to hire more staff at Cornell Health — is the search still ongoing or have all the positions been filled that you were looking to fill?
Pollack: Again, we’ll have to check with Vice President Lombardi, but I do know that we had hired several, but whether there are other positions left to fill I don’t know.
Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina: What I can add is that is I know that Ryan has recognized that because of the academic calendar, for the best candidates you sometimes have to wait for the summer months — so that is part of the reason for the delay.
The Sun: Is there any movement, this has been brought up briefly before, with the North Campus residential expansion to put a satellite clinic, or something more convenient to students, particularly the freshmen on North, given the large distance between them and Cornell Health.
Pollack: I don’t know of such plans at this time, but let me confirm.
The Sun: We’re just curious, how much is your salary? It will become public in a year, so we’re just wondering if you will be comfortable telling us now? Cornell studies have said that when that information is public, people end up working better together.
Pollack: No, I wouldn’t be able to do that. It will be out in a year, it will be in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but not right now.
The Sun: This past year, there has been a lot turnover. Dean Gretchen Ritter ’83 is stepping down, Dean Soumitra Dutta resigned without any explanation in February, and also the search is ongoing for the AAP college dean. How has this impacted your vision for the University, and has it been a problem?
Pollack: No, you know I come from a university that had 19 deans, and like Cornell typically most deans are there for 10 years sometimes, people leave for other reasons. I’m smiling because Kelly, [chief of staff], worked with me my last year, and we had six or seven — nine — there was just this confluence of factors, people got hired in other places.
I think in healthy organizations you see turnover and you look to turn that into an opportunity and look for great people. All three of the searches, are proceeding extremely well. Cornell turns out to be a very attractive place for administrative candidates and I’m quite excited about — you know we will miss the current people — but I am excited about the candidates we have coming along.
The Sun: When can we anticipate those announcements to be made?
Pollack: The architecture search I believe is the furthest along, the other two still have a little more time to go.
The Sun: Do you worry that the suddenness and lack of information about Dean Dutta’s departure is giving potential students at that school pause and potential candidates for that job? Four of the top 20 business schools in America right now are all looking for their deans, are you seeing any sort of pause?
Pollack: No, we have enormous demand from students. Student applications are way up. We have hired close to 20, the exact number is close to 16-17 of really strong faculty from places like Chicago, Columbia, Michigan. I happen to know, because I talked to the search council, the dean candidate pool is remarkably strong.
There’s still issues to be worked out coming from when the three schools were put together, but even there what I am seeing amongst our alumni in particular, is more and more appreciation for the benefits and strengths you get from having a larger and more coordinated program. I’m not seeing any negatives.
The Sun: Specifically what strengths, would you say, broadly come from that organization because at the start of that process there were a lot of questions from students, faculty, alumni about what the purpose was?
Pollack: So I wasn’t here when that was going on, though I will tell you externally, from afar, everyone thought it was a great idea. What you get are synergies amongst three very strong units — so you get a larger faculty, a staff that can work across areas, students who maybe aren’t in the hotel school will want some appreciation for hospitality management as an example. You work together, you get some streamlining — you really don’t need three different “Accounting 101” courses. You get to streamline those resources and you get the external recognition.
One of the challenges of Cornell, is that so many of our programs are distributed in many corners, and when you hold them together people see that strength from outside that otherwise is somewhat overlooked. The longer I’m here the more I’m seeing this advantage.
The Sun: On the external recognition question, in an interview with the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, you talked about college rankings and how you find that it often rewards things you said that are bad for the college, largely because what they’re rewarding is if you cut spending that’s seen as not a good thing. Is that something, the message, you’re trying to college themselves and obviously those rankings rely on colleges touting them, and Cornell touts them
Pollack: Look, I think you ask a really good question, I think it’s a fine line to walk because I don’t want to say that the ratings don’t matter. They do matter — to the parents. So I don’t think we can afford to just completely turn our nose up at them. At the same time, you’re absolutely right I think, they are and I’m not afraid to use the word, I think they’re pernicious, and I think the example you give is the best example — we’re trying to do the right thing and cut costs and you’re being penalized for it.
So what I always try and say to deans and academic leaders is when you can do things when you can do the right sorts of things that will help with the rankings — 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.
The Sun: There’s been so much written about how the rankings just rely on the colleges, and its not necessarily an accurate measure. Have you thought about being a part of some kind of movement to not really justify those things, if you think they’re pernicious?
Pollack: I mean, you know the answer is no. You couldn’t do it on your own.
The Sun: Moving from one merged school to the other, do you have any thoughts about the potential merger of the ILR school and the College of Human Ecology?
Pollack: They’re not merged! So again, the provost I think, quite thoughtfully, said we are stronger in the social sciences than our reputation. We have really great social sciences but they’re sort of spread out and diluted across the University and we’ve had a number of studies over the years, over the decades really that have made that same claim. So he had one more study by external people, and then he created some faculty committees, which is what we do — when it’s curricular matters — we start with the faculty and then you bring in the students and then the S.A. You start with the faculty, and you have faculty generate ideas, so you have this committee and they generate a bunch of ideas, the one that of course grabbed everyone’s attention was the merger. But it really honestly is just one idea amongst many. He’s getting lots of input on it, he’s listening. Telling you at face value, he’s made no decisions, he’s just been listening trying to understand what would work best for the social sciences.
The Sun: They did give it the most likely, it’s in the most likely category of things to happen among that list of suggestions.
Malina: Not most likely.
The Sun: It was four out of five stars, which was the most given to any idea on the list.
Pollack: But again, it’s a faculty committee generating ideas. I’ll say this, I think the provost has been extremely respectful to the faculty in letting these ideas being discussed. 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. I think, a faculty committee generated these ideas, all of them, they all need to be discussed.
The Sun: An overwhelming majority of ILR faculty, 88 percent, believe the merger is a bad idea.
Pollack: Absolutely, and he should take that into account very very seriously and he is. But I still think that for him to just pull an idea off the table — some people have said we should just stop discussion on this — would be disrespectful , you know would be the center imposing its will without letting everyone weighing in. He needs to listen to that, and I think he’s doing exactly the right thing.
The Sun: Do you think there’s one of the other ideas, besides the merger, that is better in your opinion?
Pollack: I think there are a lot of good ideas in that report. There’s an idea about centralizing a number of research labs, there’s an idea thinking about a policy school, there’s an idea about changing the structures of the graduate fields. There was another committee, called the ideas committee, and the ideas committee is thinking not about what the organizational structure should be but about what are the big research and educational areas in which we would want to be focusing and investing. They’ve had a bunch of meetings, around campus gathering information — again this has started with the faculty and will go to students later — and I think we’d want to see what comes out of that.
The Sun: In the beginning of May, you got a lot of proposals on your table. Starting with New York and the visioning committee, they say that in 10 years, at least 25 percent of students should be going through New York in some way or the other. There’s already an Ivy League institution in New York, so do you think by extending ourselves downstate instead of maintaining the Cornell brand and image in Ithaca, we may be crowding ourselves out?
Pollack: I think there’s a false dichotomy there. I don’t think the issue is do we expand in to New York or do we maintain the Cornell brand in Ithaca. I think number one, absolutely we need to maintain the Cornell brand in Ithaca. We need to maintain the experience in Ithaca. People choose to come to Cornell because they want to live in Ithaca. Experience of living in a small town is entirely different, you know, if you go to an Ivy or any school in New York city at the end of the day, you don’t see your faculty members — they’re going home to Connecticut or New Jersey. Here, you walk around town and you see your colleagues and you see your faculty members.
There is, I’ve said this since I was interviewing for this job, I was an undergraduate, not here, but in Dartmouth, another small town, there is a magic, there is something magical to living in a small town. Now, that said, we’ve been in New York City for more than a century. Weill Cornell has been there, engineering, ILR, AAP, cooperative extension, now Cornell Tech. And the world, let’s face it, is increasingly urban. Many of our students are studying solutions to urban problems and if they have the opportunity to try it out in the city that’s great. Many of our students in the humanities for example, will benefit enormously from opportunities to go to museums and all the culture that’s there and faculty often have dual-careers issues, and we can solve that. I don’t see anything but upside for us. Now, if we’re not careful to protect Ithaca, yes there will be a downside, but as long as we remember who we are, and where our roots are I see only upside from expanding into New York and really building on our complementary strengths. In fact, I think it’s something that really distinguishes us. There’s no other school of our caliber, that has the rural and the urban setting. So, I’m excited about this opportunity.
The Sun: In addition to a lot of the programs that have sprouted in the city, the endowment office also moved down there. Has that been a positive move?
Pollack: I think it is a positive move. The decision was made to be closer to the finance center and to have a broader pool of people from which to hire. I think it’s been a good move.
The Sun: Is there any idea of moving any more of the other central administrative offices down to the city or was that a one-time thing?
Pollack: No, I don’t want to say there would never be anything, but I don’t see anything on the radar screen. Except that if we did expand programs down there, obviously we would have to have support staff for the programs.
I should say, one other thing I do want to say while we’re talking about that kind combination. We always think about the ways in which Ithaca students and faculty can go down to New York City, The Milstein Program for example. But it goes the other way as well, I was down at Weill Cornell Medicine last week and I was meeting with some faculty members and they were interested in two things. One, they wanted to know if there were Cornell undergraduates who wanted to spend the summer down there in their labs, and I think that would be a wonderful thing for many students. But they also want the opportunity to come up here and interact with scientists here. I think we often forget about those opportunities here.
The Sun: The entire year, Greek life has come up very often. The reforms that you have put forward, have you experienced any alumni pushback, and how are you addressing that?
Pollack: Yes I have. I think the most important thing to be said is that this is not an attempt to end Greek life. It is the opposite. Greek life has been, as I said in my letter to campus, it has been an important part of this campus for decades. Greek life, about slightly less than a third of our students are members. People are involved in volunteer activities, they are involved in leadership activities, they create enormous good for the University and my hope is that we can preserve that for many years to come.
But, as I think everyone in this room knows, there have been a lot of very horrible episodes here and really horrible episodes around the country. Four young men died last fall around this country in hazing incidents. That’s not acceptable. They don’t accept that kind of behavior in the real world, we can’t accept if here. There have been a variety of responses, I would say but by far, the majority of the feedback we have gotten has been positive. There have been some alumni who are extremely unhappy about this and I have tried to work with them to explain my motivation and make clear that this is to make sure that Greek life can survive. And frankly, to me, it’s a public health issue.
The Sun: The statement put out by the Board of Trustees, felt somewhat unprecedented. If you look at their previous statements, the last one was announcing your appointment. It’s been a while. Did you solicit that support from them?
Pollack: I went to them and told them what I was planning to do. When you’re going to take a major step like that you inform the board and then they said at the meeting we would like to support this. We would like to support the administration in taking this step.
The Sun: Was that for the alumni pushback they were foreseeing?
Pollack: No, I just think they thought that — I mean you would have to ask them — but it was just a recognition that this was a big step, it was an important step and it was something that they thought was required for the University to do.
The Sun: Can you imagine taking the step of ending Greek life at Cornell?
Pollack: At this time, no. Again, I never say never about anything but no, at this point I think that Greek life is such an important part of Cornell culture. I’m not so naive as to think that this set of reforms will completely solve the problem. But I hope, that the reforms will be taken seriously and it will move us in the right direction and will make it a better university.
The Sun: The ban on hard alcohol was one of the things that was immediately enforceable. Are you afraid that might lead to other areas which the University doesn’t have control over becoming hubs? And how do you plan to enforce something like that — will there be randomized checks?
Pollack: So some of those details are to be worked out, of course I’m worried about unanticipated consequences although I did speak to leaders at other universities who have put in place some of the same policies and they’ve seen actually in some places — not a 100 percent — but dramatically changes from this.
When it comes to the question of enforcement, people always say you can’t enforce this fully and I always think of speed limits. You know, you can’t enforce speed limits a 100 percent and yet that doesn’t mean you don’t have speed limits — you have speed limits its 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.
The Sun: One idea that had previously been put out there, was rethinking the way the Greek judicial review process works.
Pollack: There is a commitment to review that. I forget about the deadline exactly, we needed to get these other policies out more quickly, but it is in there.
The Sun: So I know you’ve talked about legacy admissions a lot. It’s something that’s come up at Student Assembly meetings and things and you point out every time, certainly which I think is important, that it’s one tiny thing, there’s another section equally weighed for first generation students, things like that. How do you justify giving an advantage, any advantage, to legacy students, when that’s certainly going to bring a specific crowd. And by that, I mean a higher income, largely white crowd, because those are the people who have largely graduated Cornell.
Pollack: Well, first of all, I think we want to look at the data before we assume that that’s correct. But again, I think that when we build the class, actually, let me backup and say something first. I am very committed to having increased diversity in our student body. In fact, I drive all my staff crazy because I’m always saying ‘can we do this’, ‘can’t we do that?’ You know, we may debate the legacy issue but I want to be on the record as saying I’m very cognizant of it. When we build a class, we do look at a wide range of characteristics. As you say, we look at first-generation, we look at ‘did someone overcome some hardship,’ we look at ‘are they a student athlete?’, we look at legacy admissions. The idea of legacy admissions, it seems to me, is that we are trying to create a Cornell family that goes on for generations. I go out and I meet — and they’re not all wealthy — 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. And so to me, it’s one factor amongst many that we look at.
The Sun: And just to follow-up on that, I certainly understand the desire to create a Cornell community. Why would someone who has had someone go to Cornell get even a slight advantage in the admissions process? What’s the importance, why should that happen in your view?
Pollack: Again, you know let me see, I don’t know how to say this differently.
The Sun: Just to maybe make it easier … it would seem that [a community] is certainly something you would want to create, there’s a lot of things you would want to create in the university, but not necessarily that you give an advantage to someone applying from high school.
Pollack: Well, one of the things we do want to create in the community is a deep connection, a deep multi-generational connection to Cornell.
The Sun: And that’s worth giving someone an advantage?
Pollack: Well again, I’m balking at the term ‘advantage.’ There are many, many factors we look at, and this is one of those balancing factors.
The Sun: There’s also curriculum changes happening in the College of Arts & Sciences, which is going to be coming up. A lot of people have a problem with the language requirement particularly. Your thoughts on that?
Pollack: The curriculum is something that the faculty own. Unless the faculty did something that was just completely at odds with Cornell University. What makes great universities great is we hire unbelievably good faculty who are experts in their areas of education, and they are the ones who control the curriculum. So it’s really not to me to critique that decision.
The Sun: Do you think there is a possibility that there could be a more uniform grading eventually coming up across the colleges? Because that was something that one of the assemblies did bring up. Like moving it from a 4.3 scale to a 4.0 scale, because I know for a fact that Arts & Sciences, some courses you can’t get an A+.
Pollack: So I don’t know anything about this proposal, sorry.
The Sun: Were you ever briefed or made aware of the hack of the ILR school or the cyber breach of the ILR school in 2014?
Pollack: No. But I do worry about cybersecurity. When people ask what keeps me up at night, I mean there’s a long list of issues. I think any leader of any organization in this country has to be concerned about cybersecurity. We have a very good Chief Information Officer, the board is now, has created or is about to create, a subcommittee, our board of trustees that is, that is going to look at cybersecurity. It is a real issue. And it is a challenging issue at universities because the way you minimize your risk is to lock down all your systems in ways that are not palatable to students or the faculty, but what that means is I have to basically beg, beg everyone to have good hygiene with respect to their internet use. What I mean is ‘Don’t open phishing emails’ and you know things like that.
The Sun: So you received a preliminary report from the campus task force, obviously spurred on by what happened last September. There was a similar incident a decade ago on West Campus where a white student stabbed a black man who was visiting Cornell. Two decades ago, there was a previous incident that also, it led to the creation of a report that I believe was called “Towards a More Inclusive Climate at Cornell,” something very similar [editor’s note: “To Transform the Climate of the Larger Campus Community].
Pollack: Why am I convinced it will be different?
The Sun: Yeah, are we just spinning around or is this different?
Pollack: I mean, we are part of society and bad stuff happens in our country and I cannot sit here with a straight face and tell you that that there won’t be another bad incident in a decade. I can’t do that. But I do think two things. One, I think we are in a different era. I do think we are in an era in which people are more much sensitive to, aware of and concerned with issues of equity and diversity. I do think, for all the horrible stuff that’s going on, a lot of what’s going on is that we are more aware, but I do think that over time, it’s three steps forward and two back. And secondly, even if it was three steps forward and two and three quarters back, you still have to do what’s right. You still have to try and figure out ‘how do you address this?’ and take every possible action you can to address it.
I think the preliminary reports are filled with really good ideas. Some of which we might have all sat around and just said ‘Yeah, of course’ but some of which are very creative. The committees worked really hard to get things done by May 1st, they couldn’t quite get their work done so I said, ‘Look, campus is waiting, give me a preliminary report. I’m going to be completely transparent, I’m going to put it up on the website, but I’m going to give you more time to finish your meetings and finalize it.’ To be respectful to them, I’m not making pronouncements at this time about what’s in the report, except to say I think they’ve done an extraordinarily good job. And I am optimistic. I don’t think it’s going to be three steps forward and zero back. Maybe it will be three steps forward and one back instead of three and two and you’ve just got to keep moving forward. I, at the end of the day, now I’m going to be really corny, do believe what Martin Luther King [Jr.] said which is that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
The Sun: Do you anticipate minority reports, or are they going to be unanimous?
Pollack: So again, remember what these are. These are sets of ideas for things we can do. I imagine if there are suggestions in there that some people didn’t like, they would say that, but the idea is that we will take this this summer, we’ll put them together, in some sort of coherent fashion. I mean, they’ll be up there, but then we’ll have our summary. We are keeping a webpage, the diversity webpage is keeping track of the things we are doing, so that when I say ‘Yeah we have been waiting,’ you can look and see what we’ve done and haven’t done. And then by the fall, I expect some of the things will already have been implemented, ‘here’s what we have done, here’s our plans for other things, here are things we where we need to go out and get more opinions and we’ve got to go to S.A. or go to GPSA and whatever, and here’s how we will keep the process going,’ because it can’t be one and done.
The Sun: To what extent do you think that the campus climate can be different and hopefully better than the general societal climate about bias or sensitivity?
Pollack: That’s a really good question. We are part of society, I mean we’re not separate from society, so what happens in society impacts us. On the other hand, I’m profoundly optimistic about working with college-age students. I think college-age students want change and want a better society and aren’t jaded in the way that people our age sometimes can be, and so I do think you can be a little bit optimistic because of that, because of the energy you see in people who tend to be between, if you add the graduate students, I don’t know, 18 and 27 or something like that. But you bring up a good point. I mean it’s a crazy time we live in.
The Sun: The University has been in arbitration with Cornell Graduate Students United over the events that took place during last spring’s union recognition election, could we get your thoughts on graduate student unionization and if another recognition election were to take place and a majority of graduate students did support the formation of a union, could you see the University recognizing and bargaining with that union?
Pollack: We’re in arbitration, so I have to be really careful. It’s not that I don’t want to say things, it’s just when we’re in arbitration, I have to be very careful about what I say. I can’t speculate about the future. What I can say is that we have arbitration agreements, we’re honoring the arbitration agreement, and we’ll see where that lands.
The Sun: You’re a registered Democrat, you’ve donated to Democrats.
Pollack: How do you know that?
The Sun: That’s public information. And it’s Cornell.
Pollack: I’m a registered Democrat, you don’t know how I actually vote.
The Sun: I know you’ve donated — right sure, I don’t know how you’ve voted and I have no interest in knowing. Are you planning to vote in the governor’s race?
Pollack: Oh yeah, I always vote.
The Sun: And would you …
Pollack: I’m not going to say. Not only do I think it’s important that I don’t say as president who I vote for because I do think I want to respect all perspectives, but I also think its each of our rights as private citizens to have a private vote.
The Sun: Rounding out to more big picture stuff, seeing your year so far, what do you anticipate as the biggest challenges for next year and something that you would have done differently if you were given the chance.
Pollack: Oh wow. So I do think there are so many challenges for next year. I feel like in the first year what I did was lay the groundwork. I met a lot of people, I’ve been on the road, I’ve been on the road all over the year meeting alumni, I’ve been talking about the things I really care about — diversity and equity, academic excellence that builds on our breath, educational innovation, we haven’t talked about that today but I think there’s an enormous amount of good stuff going on there, connections with New York campus. I think that I’ve talked with students about where we want to be, I’ve talked with faculty, I’ve talked with alumni on where we want to be, and now we have to make good on it. Now we have to make all these things happen. Obviously, I don’t make these things happen by myself. I have vice presidents, I have deans. But I think that’s where we want to go and we need to push forward with that.
In terms of things I would like to see differently, one thing I am trying to work on is … more effective interactions with some of the assemblies. So sometimes by the time the assembly gives me a resolution, it’s like hard-baked and it’s difficult to be responsive enough. One of the things that we’ve talked about with the assemblies about is trying to communicate more early on in the resolution process, so that shared governance doesn’t just become ‘We throw something over the transom and then you respond and throw something back’ but we we actually share in the formation of ideas. That’s something I would like to see a little bit different.