At the end of the spring semester, The Sun had the opportunity to interview President Martha Pollack, touching on topics ranging from the expansion of mental health services, sensitivity responses to tragedies, Cornell Tech, food insecurity and Prof. Brian Wansink’s termination.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and readability.
When relevant, editor’s comments or previous Sun articles have been linked for context or clarification.
The Sun: You’ve been here two full years … Of this year, what’s your top thing that you’d stick on the top of your resume?
President Martha Pollack: That I’d stick on the top of my resume for this year … wow … that’s a really good question. You know I think that I would actually have to say is that we got implemented a really large number of the activities from the presidential task force. More than half of them are up and running. And, you know, I wasn’t sure that we aimed for that, we weren’t going to get them all done this year, some of them were marked as being for subsequent years and so I’m pretty proud and happy about that.
The Sun: That’s 36 out of 60, right?
Pollack: Something like that, I don’t know, you know they’re all online, you can go and look. We updated it a few weeks ago and you saw the email yesterday.
The Sun: Do you write your own emails?
Pollack: It actually depends on whether it’s the email or a big speech, like the big speeches, like for convocation, I’m very heavily involved in those. For things like email, usually somebody will draft it and then I do a lot of editing on it and it varies, but I always, I always have my finger in it, or my pen on it, or my typing.
The Sun: One of the topics that I wanted to talk to you about, specifically, was Professor Wansink, and the process after that. Regarding the third investigation that was launched in November — what’s the status on that?
Pollack: It’s still ongoing. I don’t have anything specific to repeat. It’s a very large investigation and they’re looking into all the research he’s done.
The Sun: The previous investigation, the second one, the results of that weren’t released publicly, right?
Pollack: I don’t think so. Usually, we released information about it, but when it’s an HR kind of case like that, we don’t release the details. You’d have to ask the provost about that.
The Sun: And there’s no plans to release that? Cause a lot of academics asked for it to be released afterwards.
Pollack: I don’t think the plan to release it, but it’s been — to be completely honest — it’s been a while since we’ve talked about it I’d have to go back and check.
John Carberry, Cornell spokesperson: [Provost Kotlikoff] can answer it, he answered the petition from some academics who were saying “can you release it”? I can get you that.
The Sun: Yeah, I think I’ve seen it. That’s where he says he doesn’t want to identify anybody specifically.
Pollack: So that’s what you should refer to.
The Sun: And there’s no plans to ever release that?
Pollack: At this point his statement is what holds.
The Sun: And Professor Wansink’s term ends this year?
Pollack: That’s correct.
The Sun: Was he paid this year? Just curious.
Carberry: That I don’t know.
Pollack: I don’t know, I’d have to check. I believe so. This investigation is very complicated and I believe that he was participating in it and working full time, but we would have to confirm that, I’m not 100 percent certain.
The Sun: There were co-authors on some of the papers that were retracted, right? And those co-authors also worked at Cornell. So was anything done there?
Pollack: I’m not trying to be evasive. We can talk to the Provost and get you information. After the second … after that investigation that’s been going on, I just haven’t looked into it in quite a while.
The Sun: And the Food and Brand Lab as a whole was shut down correct?
Pollack: It was shut down.
The Sun: But the signage is still in Warren Hall, but that’s not indicative?
The Sun: And the people who were employed in that lab have been relocated?
Carberry: Most of them, yes.
The Sun: Let’s talk about mental health reform. I understand that most of the beginnings of the procedures are going to be evolving over the summer. What does that look like, and how involved are you going to be on the ground during that time?
Pollack: You mean of the big review?
The Sun: Yes.
Pollack: Yeah I’ll answer that, but first I do want to make sure that you guys know about some of the steps that have been put in place already, immediately, even while the review was going on.
So, one thing now: Usually when you go outside of Cornell, if you want to get an appointment with a therapist you have to go through an intake process and an assessment and we now have available, generally, same-day meetings, 25-minute focus meetings for people who feel that they need to see someone right away. We’re also increasing the number of group therapy sessions, and then continuing to have, and when possible, expand the “Let’s Talk” sessions.
I think it’s just really important to note that even while we’re doing the assessment we are trying to respond to the demand for emphasis. The assessment is being run out of Vice President Lombardi’s office, so I’m not directly involved on the ground. I will be getting reports on it because obviously it’s an incredibly important issue for our students and students everywhere.
I’ve said this before, I go to meetings of university presidents and it’s always on the agenda. Every single college campus is struggling with this, because the mental health issues are national and probably even global. As you know, the assessment is going to have two phases. One phase will be internal, and it will involve students and faculty and staff. Another phase, we’ll be bringing in an external group to do an assessment and at the end that will be made public. Not only will it be made public, we’ll act on the recommendations. But it will also be completely public.
The Sun: So if a student walked into Cornell Health today, they would receive care immediately on that day? Or would there still be that waiting period?
Pollack: I don’t want to 100 percent guarantee always because you could imagine one day where like they’re just overwhelmed. But the program is that you should be seen the same-day — again, barring some situation where we just, we are suddenly overwhelmed, we couldn’t get everybody in — without having to do the up-front assessment, the kinds of things you’d have to do out as it were in the real world.
The Sun: Are there any plans to move any of the mental health care facilities onto North Campus with the growth of the North Campus reform?
Pollack: You’d have to ask Vice President Lombardi. I don’t know of such plans. Although the “Let’s Talk” sessions are all over the place.
The Sun: You said that it’s a national conversation, right? So what’s your national talking point? What are you advocating for when you talk to other universities?
Pollack: What we are all advocating for — I don’t want to take credit for this — I think, what you hear in the discussions today is that what all of us have tried to do is address this issue by adding more counselors. Year after year, you know just in the past year we’ve added eight counselors here. And importantly, I think, ensuring diversity amongst those counselors, trying to expand, make sure that there are people of color counselors, and so on, as well as adding staff in units like disability services. That’s what we’ve all been doing. And I think the overwhelming sense is that that’s just not ever going to be enough, that the demand is too great, and so we have to look at wellness more broadly, and that means, for example, looking at sleep, just as one example.
Looking at sleep, sleep has always been an issue for college students. I don’t know about you, but when I was in college, I didn’t have great sleep habits. But I think that with technology it’s even worse now. I didn’t have a cell phone that I had next to my bed that buzzed and I might get up and look at it, and I didn’t look at blue light till right before I went to bed, which we know impacts people’s sleep. So that’s just one example. I think the sense now is that we have to be looking at wellness more broadly, and not just crisis intervention at the point when the student has a mental health issue.
The Sun: How do you think Cornell is currently doing well with mental health?
Pollack: I think we are implementing what are all the best practices, right? What is currently understood in terms of serving students, the number of counselors we have is on par with what’s considered a best practice, but what we are finding out nationally is that best practices aren’t sufficient.
The Sun: Something that was mentioned specifically in the releases about the mental health updates was that —
Pollack: Oh can I say one more thing? I do also want to credit VP Lombardi and his staff for taking seriously the concerns of the community and implementing this self-assessment. I think that’s something we’re doing very well. We’re saying, “okay we recognize that there still remain problems so we’ve gotta reach out to the community to find out how they think we can solve them.”
The Sun: It was mentioned specifically expanding psychotropic medication management services. How do you see that working with the existing Cornell Health?
Pollack: The detail … I just don’t know the answer to, sorry. Although, it’s very important. I know that students … streamlining it is something I support. Exactly the details of how it’s going to work, I just don’t know.
The Sun: And in identifying sleep and certain aspects like that as an issue for students, do you plan to try and address that? Are there any issues you see that can be addressed on the university scale, for issues like that? Or is it more, just inspiring students to sleep more.
Pollack: No, no, no — I think that, I don’t mean to overemphasize sleep, that’s just an example, I tend to use that example because personally, I know when I’m working too much and I don’t get enough sleep, you don’t want to be around me. No, the goal is precisely through this assessment of wellness, mental wellness, not just crisis intervention. Understand what the issues are, and then try to develop ways in which we can help the campus community.
There is a physician at Weill Cornell medicine, for example, who emphasizes sleep, that’s her research area, and I know that she’s worked with some of the athletic teams, and put in place programs to help students. In the end, it’s your choice — I can’t make you go to sleep at a certain time — but we can educate and provide information about how to achieve good sleep habits and I know she’s done that with some of the athletic teams and if that turns out in this assessment to rise to the top, then sure, we would try to provide those services at a campus-wide level.
The Sun: You’ve mentioned some courses about a telemedicine initiative?
Pollack: Yeah that’s another thing that we’re exploring. We’re hoping that it will work out. One of the challenges about being in Ithaca is that beyond our own resources, we don’t have a huge medical community here. But we have this wonderful medical school in New York City, Weill Cornell Medicine, and so one of the things that we’re exploring is whether we can use some of their psychiatric and psychological care services over telemedicine.
The important thing to know is that the evidence is that it works just as well as face-to-face. So people are a little bit, “oh, you’re just going to give me telemedicine.” No, the evidence is that it is just as effective. So I’m really hoping we can do something there.
The Sun: I wanted to talk about the admissions, and the admissions hoopla that happened recently. That’s going to be the phrasing of choice for now. So Yale, UPenn, and Dartmouth all said they were going to increase the oversight of their athletics recruitment program.
Pollack: So we didn’t make a big public announcement about it, but let me back up and say it was appalling. What happened was just appalling. The whole scandal was appalling. We have in place oversight, but we immediately did go back in and looked at all of our incoming and incoming and first-year student athletes, because that’s where the biggest source of the scandal was. And we found no irregularities at all, we ensured that they were all legitimately on teams.
So then, what we’re doing as a second step is we’re going to go back and, we are in the process of looking at all of our policies, not just around athletics, but across the board, because we have a very decentralized admissions system, and we’re looking at every touchpoint to make sure that there are no gaps that we have really full oversight. As of now, we have not identified any problems. Can I guarantee that there isn’t a student on this campus who cheated on their SATs or ACTs? I can’t guarantee that with 15,000 students, but we immediately went in and double-checked athletics, which was where the big issue was.
The Sun: Okay, and that would be the Class of ’22 and ’23?
Pollack: The freshmen and the recently accepted students.
The Sun: What would you have done if you had found irregularities? Or if you do find them?
Pollack: Well it depends, I can’t answer that abstractly, it depends on what irregularity we find and what the situation is.
The Sun: So are you changing any practices going forward knowing about situations like this?
Pollack: What we are in the process of doing right now is assessing absolutely everything that we do. Here is one thing we are going to change. I’m not sure if this is certain. One thing we are looking at changing, as an example as part of this overall assessment, is right now when a coach recommends a student, they write a fairly brief statement about the student’s academic credentials. And we’re thinking about expanding the set of information that they have to provide which would be an extra check on any kind of fraud. But we are looking across all of our systems to see whether there are such steps we should be putting in place.
The Sun: So you’ve also checked every athlete, just like Brown University did?
The Sun: Some universities have been looking at what constitutes a “legitimate reason” for not being on a team anymore.
Pollack: Within days of the news breaking, our Athletics administrators conducted a thorough review, and we found that the few students who left did so for documented reasons. We found no irregularities. [Editor’s note: This response was provided to The Sun after the interview.]
The Sun: Is there going to be similar screening done for academics? I know it’s a little bit harder because it’s more nebulous.
Pollack: This is why we’re looking at the whole process, we’re looking at every touchpoint to see, should we do spot-checks? We actually have very good processes already in place. Not when there’s like massive fraud like this, but every once in a while there will be a case where a reason comes up to question the credentials of some student who’s either applied or been admitted, and we already have very good processes in place, where the admissions office checks — reaches out, checks with the guidance counselors, confirms all the data and so on — we have those. And we’re going to harden them as they were, make sure they’re really robust, and see if we need further changes.
The Sun: Does Cornell use the academic index in athletics recruiting, where they weigh different factors?
Pollack: Oh! the academic index?
The Sun: It’s like a point system. It’s been widely reported on.
Pollack: The academic index that I know of, there is a requirement across the Ivy League that all of the admitted students have a certain level of performance, maybe that’s what you are referring to? Yeah, yeah, being in the Ivy League, you have to use that, absolutely. The reason I was confused is that’s not, we don’t base whether you’re admitted on the academic index. Rather, after we have a class, we have to ensure to the Ivy League that the overall academic index is satisfied.
The Sun: So you don’t factor that into the admissions?
Pollack: What I’m saying is that’s a measure that we use to assure the Ivy League that we are only taking student athletes that are qualified to be here.
The Sun: You say, when you say you’ll review things, who is in charge of that review? What office is that?
Pollack: It runs out of the provost’s office. And actually my chief of staff right now is playing point person on that.
The Sun: How big is that review team? How many people are involved in that process?
Pollack: Oh gosh, I don’t know. All these details, yeah I don’t know.
The Sun: We’re just trying to get a picture out of it, because we’re coming at it from the outside … Are you looking at diversity in athletics at all?
Pollack: Are we looking at diversity in athletics? I’m always looking at diversity in everything. Do we specifically have a study right now that’s looking at the diversity of our teams, I don’t think so, but I’m always concerned with that in every issue.
The Sun: When you write — this is kind of sensitive and I just want to understand your process a bit. After, for example, Sri Lanka, you sent out an email. And the campus community appreciates that, of course, I was just wondering what your thought process is like when you’re crafting those.
Pollack: Yeah. I want to speak to that. I know this was this word counting thing, and you know, some people compared my Pittsburgh message to my New Zealand message. The Pittsburgh message, I had a personal connection to it. I’d lived in Pittsburgh, one of the people who was killed was the father of a childhood friend of my daughter’s, and so I mention that. And I’m trying to make the point that it’s a small world and we’re all connected. I didn’t have a personal connection to New Zealand, so I couldn’t tell such a story. So somehow reading into the fact that my Pittsburgh message had more words than my New Zealand message, honestly I just thought that was silly. I had a personal connection to tell about one and not the other.
So, the question of when we respond to world events and on-campus events, but let’s especially talk about world events, it’s a really hard question. And there’s two reasons it’s hard. One, well, actually let me also talk about on-campus. So one question is simply there’s three things you want to do: one, be fast, you want to be accurate, and you want to have substance to your statement. And you can have any two, but if you’re fast, and you want to be accurate, you can’t put in a lot of details, because we all know in the fog of war things change and you’ll get it wrong. So you can be fast and not say much. You can wait a while and have content and accuracy, right? The worse, I think, is to be fast and put in a lot of substance and get it wrong. So that’s one pressure. The second pressure is what’s the threshold, right?
People look to their leaders to make reassuring statements, to reaffirm the values of the University, but it also, I mean, there’s only so many times you can say, “look, the world is really horrible. This is not who we want to be at Cornell and I’m really sorry that this happened.” And if you try to say it slightly differently, people read into what you’re saying, that you like this group and not that group and you’re just not trying. And if you try to say the same thing, you sound stilted and stale. I didn’t, for example, send out a message after the Poway shooting because I had just sent so many. It’s a very tricky issue. I mean you’re a communications guy, maybe you can explain. Does that make sense? Those are the factors that we’re always trying to weigh.
Carberry: I mean, yeah. Not to mention, a lot of different sets of players within the community with different expectations and you try to read them properly and adjust and figure out when is the right moment.
Pollack: I mean I have to say that, actually, many of my peers — because we talked about this — they put out many, many, many, fewer statements. They won’t respond.
The Sun: Peers at other institutions?
Pollack: Other presidents. They won’t put out statements about these international ones precisely because they’re worried that if I respond to this one, and not that one, the people who are affected most directly by that one will take it as an affront against them. On the other hand, unfortunately, in this country and around the world, there’s a horrible event almost every single day. It’s not an easy decision to make.
The Sun: Do you think that’s going to shape if you’re going to continue … if the feedback has been discouraging?
Pollack: I will tell you, honestly, the feedback from The Daily Sun has been discouraging, but I get dozens, at least a dozen positive emails directly to me after each of those statements. So it kind of balances out. I don’t mind discouraging feedback. I am going to be critical. I thought the word counting thing was silly for exactly the reason I just told you. Silly and kind of annoying.
The Sun: So it’s your choice at the end of the day whether or not you’re responding to something?
Pollack: Well, because this is so complicated, I’m typically talking to my communications staff, to my chiefs of staff, to the vice president for student life, it actually takes a fair amount of time to decide whether and what to say.
The Sun: Since it’s such an international community within the campus, have people ever reached out to you about you not saying something?
The Sun: So how do you deal with those?
Pollack: I try to explain what I’ve just explained. First of all, I obviously acknowledge their individual pain and try to explain what I’ve just explained to all of you.
The Sun: About food insecurity on campus: I’ve heard there’ve been talks about instituting a University-based pantry. Is that something that’s —
Pollack: Yeah we’re working with the Food Pantry of the Southern Tier to see if we can get a food pantry plan on campus.
The Sun: What do you think the timeline is for that?
Pollack: [Lombardi]’s really looking at all that. What worked and didn’t work in the “Swipe out Hunger,” which you know is not just a Cornell initiative, it’s a global initiative. The other thing of course, and I hope people know about this, is that Shakima Clency, who is the director of first generation and low-income support services, she has swipes. If she finds that a student is currently not eating right, she has swipes to give them as well.
The Sun: Is that outside of the “Swipe Out Hunger” program?
Carberry: In addition to it.
Pollack: We’re really trying a multi-pronged approach.
The Sun: Is that program continuing on, or was it just a pilot?
Carberry: No plans to stop it.
The Sun: How many people could that potentially serve? The pantry?
Pollack: It’s not defined yet.
The Sun: And would that be intended to be a supplementary option or a primary option?
Pollack: Oh, supplementary for sure.
The Sun: How’s food going to work on the new North Campus renovations?
Pollack: There will be dining halls.
The Sun: Is that going to follow the West Campus system with the required unlimited plan?
Pollack: It’s not been decided yet. There [are] discussions underway.
The Sun: So about the swastikas that have been around campus. Is there any bigger investigation into that, is there any kind of education program you’re looking into? What’s the response?
The Sun: See, there are a few, right?
Pollack: Yeah, and the etched one, we don’t even know how long it had been there. The one that was etched, that had been there a long time. There is an investigation but I’ve gotta be honest, unless you want cameras everywhere, which I don’t think anyone wants, it’s almost impossible to find out who stamped something in the snow. I think that education is incredibly important and I think we’re trying to fold that into a number of the diversity initiatives we’re working on.
Notably — the data is preliminary, so ask me about it in the fall, because I’m pretty excited if it holds up — but this three-hour little IDP session, the data coming back in about how it changed attitudes has been remarkable. One thing about these episodes is that we don’t even know for sure that they’re students, right, we don’t know who did it. It could be just people coming in from outside. If there are ideas about other kinds of education that would be helpful, I’m all for it.
The Sun: Also, other reforms — the phishing attacks that went around recently, I know you’re an IT kinda boss, so…
Pollack: I was once, it’s been a long time.
The Sun: I know there even was someone impersonating your account, there was an alert on the website at one point. So is there any education for professors, perhaps? I know there was an email sent out by the OJA office.
Pollack: We do send out periodically, if it’s really severe, we do send out educational information. Phishing is one of those things that it feels like by 2019, the public should know not to click on links in emails or open emails that they don’t know about. We will continue when severe things come out to … you know as well as I do that you get a bazillion emails. How many people get an email from me and they have a flag so it goes directly to their outbox. We will continue to alert people as appropriate. Phishing is a real problem.
The Sun: Do you know if there was any adverse security outcome at Cornell?
Pollack: No, I don’t think there was. We have a very robust cyber security team. Now cyber security is a major, major worry in any large organization. Now if you were to ask me what were the biggest risks on campus, that is probably one of the three. It is something we invest very heavily in. But I don’t know of any recent issues that arose from any of those phishing accidents.
The Sun: Have there been any that arose from any other things?
Pollack: Not that I know of. But I don’t want to say that there was never. There easily could have been some small scale one out in one of the units that just never made its way to me.
The Sun: Since Cornell is kind of networked across continents, is there an overarching framework that amplifies security?
Pollack: We have, within our IT organization, people that are absolutely responsible for the cyber security of our campuses. There are some actually different cyber security issues down at Weill Cornell because with healthcare you have HIPPA privacy concerns. They have an additional layer of cyber security but we have dedicated people who focus on that full time.
The Sun: With New York City [Cornell Tech], how is the dean search going?
Pollack: It’s going well, it’s going well. The provost is running it. We have a great search committee. Faculty, staff, one board of overseers’ member.
The Sun: No student. correct?
Pollack: I don’t believe there is a student on it. You know we only have graduate students down at Cornell Tech, developing a pool, I’ve seen the pool, of very strong candidates.
The Sun: Do you have any hopeful time?
Pollack: The provost is hoping to have a person named by the time Dean Huttenlocher leaves, which is in August. They may not be able to start right away, we might have to put an interim for a semester or something, but we hope that the dean will be named.
The Sun: Speaking of Cornell Tech and students, there is also the Milstein program. So how is that going?
Pollack: That’s been going great. To me that is one of my favorites actually –– I shouldn’t play favorites –– but that is one of my favorite programs on campus. We just had the ribbon cutting, metaphorical ribbon cutting for it. There’s a few things I really love about the program. So you know the parameters of the program? Twenty-five students a year from the Arts college, take a little bit of computer science up here, then they spend two summers down on the island. Here’s what I really love about it. It’s not just a program that provides students in humanities and social sciences with some technical skills.
People think of it as though they can get a job. All of our students, I mean, our students who graduate from across the board in the arts colleges get good jobs. They might be interested in the technical stuff, but they don’t need that to get a good job. Still, they get exposure to really interesting technical material. But even more important to me, the goal is to have those students go and work with the people who are building technology down at Cornell Tech and provide to them a humanistic perspective. So I always think most of the big problems we are facing in the world, they are not purely technical problems. They are almost all socio-technical. In fact, I would argue humano-socio-technical.
The Sun: Oh, nice word.
Pollack: Say you are building automated cars. We don’t have any people at Cornell Tech doing that, but as an example. It’s going to make cars safer, it’s going to cut down commute times because of that, it will probably cut down pollution. I mean all good things. Also a lot of people are probably going to lose their jobs because a lot of people make their living driving. So I think we need people who are thinking about what impact does that have? And how does work relate to being human? I love the Milstein program. I hope we have many more like it.
The Sun: Are there plans to extend that or add different units in different colleges?
Pollack: Two fronts. One, when I’m now trying to raise money for this university, number priority for me is almost always more aid so that we can have more socioeconomic diversity. But a priority right up there is programs that bring together the Ithaca campus and the New York campus and have students go back and forth. Also, we have this faculty visionary committee they have now put in proposals for a number of pilot projects that are being assessed by the faculty right now that would bring students, students and faculty back and forth.
The Sun: Do you have any plans for programs different from the Milstein program that would allow undergraduates to more access to Cornell Tech?
Pollack: Over time that will happen. What will not happen, we are not going to have degree programs down there. Because I firmly believe that a really important part of a bachelor’s degree is having exposure to this huge breadth of intellectual areas, and Cornell Tech is very narrow. But we do want to have many more opportunities for undergraduates to spend time at Cornell Tech and in the city more broadly. Art, Architecture, and Planning has a semester in New York, engineering has some programs down there. I want to have anything from a couple of days to a semester. But it’s going to take time to raise money and get the infrastructure up and stuff.
The Sun: A few years?
Pollack: I mean I don’t think it’s going to be none now and then a whole bunch in three years, I mean we got the Milstein program, there are a couple of things we are working on now, it will be slow growth. Well not slow, but gradual growth.
The Sun: I want to talk about divestment. The divestment proposals for the boycott, divest and sanction movement and its affiliates didn’t pass. What would your approach be if a divestment resolution did pass the Student Assembly?
Pollack: Okay, yeah, so let’s take that topic off the table because you have all seen my response and my particularly views on that topic. You know, divestment decisions are not made by me. They are made by the Board of Trustees, and the Board of Trustees both has a policy, a procedure. It’s not enough for the Student Assembly to just pass a resolution.There is a whole procedure for getting something to the Board of Trustees.
Additionally they have an extremely high bar, as I said in my BDS letter. Let’s take sustainability, because I think that’s one we can talk about a little differently. I am very very committed to the sustainability of this campus. I think there’s all kinds of things we are doing to make it more sustainable and I can provide those if you want. And to me personally, those are more meaningful than a divestment. But the board has a very high standard, which it is that they will only divest from something they believe to be morally reprehensible. So there’s this process and then it goes to the board and then they debate it as they did with, by sustainability what I mean is fossil fuels, which they did in 2016.
The Sun: While we are on the Board [of] Trustees, the student elected trustee? Let’s talk about that. How was that process in your perspective?
Pollack: Let me start from the outcome. I think the outcome was a very good and fair outcome. I was, as you know, I felt it was my responsibility to speak up when I thought that the TNC had interpreted, in my view and the view of chairman of the board, a policy improperly. But we also felt that we had to respect shared governance. It was alright to criticize the decision but not to overturn the decision, and that was why we made that statement. The TNC, after a lot more discussion, decided themselves to kick it up to the board and ask the board — its called CBCG, the Committee of Board Composition and Governance — to discuss the issue.
The decision at the end, as you know, was that there was concern about, both about the call that TNC had made, about whether it had been an appropriate interpretation of the rules. So if you think of the CBCG as an appeals board sort of, they were saying “look, we disagree with that decision,” but also a real desire to respect the shared governance and the delegated right to TNC. Fortunately, there was an open slot.
You know, every year the job of CBCG is to fill the trustee-appointed positions, there was an open slot. And that’s why the decision was to keep Jaewon as the elected represented … and JT Baker to put him into the trustee nominated position. I have met with Jaewon, I haven’t met with JT, only because formally the board has to approve his appointment. It’s almost a formality but just to respect protocol I will meet with him immediately after the board meeting. But I will say that all communications we have had with them, I am very excited to have both of them on the board. I think they both are going to work very well together and we are treating them both quite equally.
The Sun: And Mr. Baker will only be the board elected trustee for two —?
Pollack: For two years, the same period of time he would have if he had been the student elected trustee.
The Sun: Is that protocol for a board-elected trustees?
Pollack: No, normally the board elected trustee is four years. JT would be graduated after two years.
The Sun: He would be an alum though.
Pollack: This was an intentional decision to make it as if were like the student-elected trustee. The other thing the board will be doing this year is looking at the policies to try and avoid this sort of situation again.
The Sun: So if there wasn’t a position open, was there ever an avenue or someway to have the TNC look at their decision again or would it have just been Jaewon then?
Pollack: Well, you know, again, the only avenue would have been for the board to direct the TNC to do this and the board, and I agree with them, was loathe to do this out of respect for the shared governance and the power delegated to the TNC. But what you are making is a really important point.
One of the challenges, I don’t want to say flaws, but one of the reasons we want to look at the current policy is because there isn’t an appeal mechanism and usually there ought to be something like that. I am not saying that that is where they will get to, but that is one of the reasons why we want to look at this. I want to be very clear that I and the chairman, neither of us in any way ever doubted the motivation of the TNC. I think they made a decision, they worked very hard to come to a decision that they thought was fair. We simply disagreed with that decision.
The Sun: You are not in the TNC meetings, correct?
The Sun: So how did that catch your eye? Do you get meeting minutes, do you review the outcome of the elections and disqualified candidates?
Pollack: We got a memo.
The Sun: Another thing that happened during this year is the non-snow day conversation. Students petitioned for a snow day, there was not a snow day. I am sure you saw that. What were your thoughts?
Pollack: We have a group here. The group has a set of criteria for deciding whether it should be a snow day or not, based in particular on safety issues. Health and safety issues, that they did not meet their criteria so they did not call a snow day.
The Sun: So the dean of faculty said he was going to gather more information about what should be one. Do you know what that’s going —
Pollack: No I haven’t, I knew he was going to do that but I haven’t heard back from him about what he heard. I will tell you, what’s kinda funny, the three and a half years that I was provost. I think, the single issue — this is at the University of Michigan — the single issue that generated the most controversy was the day when we did or didn’t call a snow day, I can’t remember which one is was.
The Sun: How do you feel about how financial aid is going and how students feel about the student contribution? I know that there has been a lot of discussion about that, not at Cornell, but at other schools too.
Pollack: We are always reassessing our financial aid packages. And affordability, and I say this all the time, is one of my biggest issues. There are various things we need to tradeoff. So one thing we are trying to tradeoff is as we are bringing in money, we do philanthropy to help reduce costs. Because we are always trying to hold down the cost of an education here. But I look around, I don’t see a lot of waste, and in fact if anything there’s more and more — legitimate, very legitimate — but legitimate demand for students. We do need to provide more food, more mental health services. We are trying to hold down the cost but at the same time to provide a quality education and all these services are expensive.
Issue number one, when I am raising money, the question is always how do we balance a desire to expand the number of lower and middle income students — intentionally try to increase those students — versus driving down the costs for current students … Just two years ago we replaced some loan money with grant money, and our average loan is well below the national average and our average starting salary is much higher. At least in the long run, we’re doing pretty well.
The summer contribution is a funny thing. In a sense what that is a request for is roughly $3,000 of money for each student on aid. Because on average that’s what the student contribution … I don’t have that money right now. That is millions and millions of dollars in the budget that I don’t have. But the other thing is, it’s not clear that is what all students would want. Some students want a reduced summer contribution, other students want less loan in their package. I am not opposed to it.
And in fact, we do have a program here called the Wilpon scholars … what that program does for a limited number of students, is it covers that summer contribution. But for other students it might be better to have flexibility in other ways. I guess the punchline is, I don’t think it is a one size fits all solution. And honestly, if I had $3,000 per student with aid per year that would be great. I don’t have that money in the budget right now.
The Sun: So you currently don’t have the money, but is that something you would want to work towards?
Pollack: So again, I am really working towards philanthropy for financial aid, but I am not sure. I think we have to balance lots of things. There’s a lot of different kinds of demands.
The Sun: Just a very brief follow up question, is allowing people to apply their outside scholarship aid to that summer contribution something you would ever explore? Because currently that cannot be reduced through outside scholarship aid.
Pollack: Yeah it is the same issue, right? It is just $3,000 —
The Sun: Money not from Cornell, money from outside sources.
Pollack: No no, right now that’s getting paid in a different part of the budget. Again, would we have the money to do it, right? It’s still, I still need to come up, instead of reducing your grant aid during school year, you are using it for your summer contribution, now I would need to come up with $3,000 more during the year. Look, I would love to reduce costs, don’t misunderstand me. It’s just a matter of A, finding resources and then B, deciding where we put them and not all students want the same thing. But we are working towards it, but when I am on the road, affordability is one of the main things I talk about.
The question is how do you do that in a way that still ensures that you are getting a world class education, that we are paying the best faculty in the world, so that you can go out and not only so that you can go out and get a good job, but so that you can get the kind of education that Cornell has always provided and that we continue to provide the array of services students want. It always a kind of balancing act.