As the early sunset on Monday evening signaled the onset of the upcoming winter, President Martha E. Pollack sat down with The Sun for her semesterly chat in her Day Hall office to discuss issues that ranged from Greek life to mental health on campus to the possibility of a football match between Cornell and No.1 ranked Alabama.
Pollack confirmed that her second year on campus has been “great,” and she said she believes that some of the things that came out of the “tumults” of the first year have helped shaped the policies and decisions of this year.
One of the major decisions taken by Pollack last semester was to implement reforms to the Greek system — the first set of comprehensive reforms since then-President David Skorton challenged the Cornell community to “end pledging as we know it” six years ago.
One of the reforms effective immediately was the ban on all hard alcohol (more than 30 percent alcohol by volume) from all residential chapter houses. There have been no investigations or checks to find if Greek organizations are complying with the rule, but Pollack believes it is still in “early stages” and the policy allows a certain level of accountability.
“I know there is skepticism about whether we can have 100 percent compliance, but … to me it’s a little bit like speed limits,” Pollack said. “You don’t get a 100 percent compliance with speed limits, but it still sets an expectation, and when there is a violation, there is a policy you can turn to.”
The online scorecard — which seeks to keep a record of every chapter’s judicial history — is also “near finalization” and will be rolled out in the next few weeks. Overall, Pollack believes the reforms to Greek life have been “on track,” and she has received a higher level of support, even from national organizations, than she had expected.
Another concern that Pollack has tried to address is mental health on campus. She said that the number of Counseling and Psychiatry Services counselors has increased from 33 to 40 over the last three years, and over a “longer period” the number of staff providing support for students with disabilities has doubled.
“We’ve really been trying a number of things and yet the demand here and around the country continues to rise,” she said.
A review that looks at mental wellness more broadly, rather than just mental health response services, will take place throughout the course of the spring semester, Pollack added.
When questioned about how the academic pressure at Cornell influences the mental health of students, Pollack said that it is important to find a path that preserves the academic rigor that people come to Cornell for while balancing it with the stresses that arise.
“Cornell is a tough university. On the other hand, what I hear from alumni, including young alumni, is that they really appreciate the training they have had here, and when they get out in the real world they are extremely well prepared to deal with tough jobs,” she said.
When Pollack was questioned about how realistic carbon neutrality by 2035 was for the Ithaca campus, she said the $500 million dollar plan hinged on the success of earth source heating.
“I think right now our bets are on earth source heating. The experts we had who looked at this before I got here said that’s our only bet and we are in a cold, dark region,” she said.
Vice President for University Relations Joel M. Malina added that efforts are underway to try to identify a “Plan B,” but that currently there isn’t one.
Pollack also pointed out that looking beyond the campus action plan, Cornell has consistently ranked above its Ivy peers in sustainability rankings by The Princeton Review and has been given the “gold” rating by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System for seven years in a row.
The STARS system is a “transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance,” according to its website. Each institution is judged across four categories — academics, engagement, operations and planning & administration — for a cumulative score out of 100. The minimum score required for colleges to receive a gold rating is 65.
Through the course of her first year, Pollack has also stressed the importance of “One Cornell,” as she believes that if Cornell combined the assets of one of the world’s greatest cities through the Cornell Tech campus in New York with the “magic” of a small town like Ithaca, it would be second to none.
Even with Amazon considering Queens as a possible location for its East coast headquarters, which the president believes became a more attractive option due to the presence of the Cornell Tech campus, Pollack is sure it will not lead to graduate students choosing to study in New York City instead of Ithaca.
“I’m not worried about people choosing to go to Cornell Tech versus Cornell,” she said. “The Cornell Tech program is a very unusual special program. It’s built specifically for people who want to be involved with digital technologies. It’s rather different from the program here.”
As the interview drew to a close, The Sun brought up how the Ivy League is the only Football Championship Subdivision Division I conference in which there is no postseason play and whose champion must decline its automatic bid into the NCAA playoffs. The feeling among Ivy league head coaches like Cornell’s David Archer ’05 is that the annual push from the coaches to permit the champion to accept the bid is “dead on arrival” when it reaches the presidents’ desks.
Pollack said that she has never been presented with the proposition, but she was worried that it would mean Cornell would have to play against No.1 ranked Alabama. (A hypothetical change would have the Ivy champion competing with the FCS’ best, the likes of North Dakota State. Alabama, who competes in the Southeastern Conference, is the current No. 1 ranked team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.)
“I watch our Cornell team, and I think they’re great fun to watch, but then I think of Alabama and I’m worried what playing them will mean for our players’ mental health,” she quipped.