September 15, 2020

ONONYE | It’s 2020; Stop Calling Martha “Martha”

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Please stop calling President Martha E. Pollack “Martha.” It’s disrespectful and your internalized misogyny is showing every time that you do it. Martha Pollack is the highest ranked faculty member at Cornell University, and the way that students refer to her is telling of continued gender biases in higher academia. There is a major disparity in referencing senior staff at Cornell University, with President Pollack referred to more frequently by her first name than Vice President Ryan Lombardi and Provost Michael Kotlikoff. In common conversation, students abbreviate these administrators’ titles to “Martha,” “Lombardi” and “Kotlikoff.”

Every time I hear a student refer to President Pollack by her first name, I remember my academic advisor’s warning during my first week at Cornell. She sat down her ten new advisees and explained the importance of referring to female professors as “Professor” or “Doctor” rather than “Ms.” or “Mrs.” She explained the struggle that she has faced after years in academia and her frustration when students, and worse, other academics downplayed her accomplishments when they reference her. Although a bit intimidating for my first week in college, her advice stuck with me and has manifested into one of my biggest pet peeves throughout my time at Cornell. Female academics are rarely privileged titleship in informal settings in the same way that male academics are.

Coming from an African background, referring to adults and seniors by their titles has always been important to me. Older adults have always been “Aunty,” “Uncle,” “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Miss.” My high school was similarly strict with titles, as I called teachers “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or the occasional “Doctor.” This created a major culture shock attending Cornell, where many professors have encouraged me to refer to them without title and by their first name. I often refuse, feeling much more comfortable with “Professor,” or their last names in less formal situations. Although I have had a relatively even split between male and female instructors, I have never had a male professor ask me to refer to them casually, by their first name without a title, in the way that so many female professors have. In my experience, many female professors are less comfortable asserting and owning their titleship, and that is incredibly frustrating.

Over the summer, I emailed Theoria Cason, the Training and Education coordinator for the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX, about an upcoming meeting. In the email, I referred to her as “Ms. Cason,” and she responded to me with a kind email explaining that as she had recently completed her Doctor of Education she would now be referred to as “Dr.” Her email put a smile on my face. Completing her degree required hard work and she deserves recognition and celebration for her achievement. As an aspiring academic, I wondered to myself if I would’ve had the confidence to respond to the email in the way that Dr. Cason had. My quick label and assumption discredited her work and she was kind but determined to correct my mistake.

Dr. Cason’s email is exemplary of why we (I am also guilty) as students really need to stop calling President Pollack “Martha.” I’ve never spoken to President Pollack; indeed, the majority of Cornell students haven’t. However, the way that I speak about her is exemplary of how I view women in leadership, women in the academy and women in academic leadership. I’ve never struggled to say “Kotlikoff” or “Lombardi” which means that even if it is a small adjustment, I won’t struggle to say “Pollack.” The way that we treat the most senior female academic on our campus trickles down to how we treat female students, graduate TAs, professors, advisors and administrators. For the president of an Ivy League university, I believe she deserves our respect in the same way that her peers and other staff do.

Anuli Ononye is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at aoo44@cornell.edu. Womansplaining runs every other Wednesday this semester.