In its last meeting of the semester, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly heard from President Martha Pollack, who addressed the body on Monday regarding issues ranging from sustainability to mental health to University finances.
Pollack began her remarks by thanking graduate students for their resilience during the pandemic and listing some of the accomplishments of Cornell’s graduate students and professors over the past year — which include a two-year $240,000 National Science Foundation Grant and a successful Law School Asylum Clinic appeal to the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals for the release of a Cuban doctor seeking asylum who had contracted COVID-19 while in custody.
“I do just want to acknowledge that the last year and a half have been really difficult for everyone all over the world, but that includes our Cornell faculty, staff and students,” Pollack said. “I’ve been really impressed, really awed by the way our community has come together to do the things we need to do not just to stay open but to continue moving forward in our academic mission.”
Pollack then discussed potential collaborations with the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit to improve campus services and expand service to more stops, developing systems that could give Cornellians real-time information on campus parking availability, improving pedestrian safety and campus signage and finishing work on the wire dam bridge on the east side of campus by the end of December.
Pollack also addressed University finances. In fiscal year 2021, the University endowment expanded to $10 billion after posting a 41.9 percent growth in investments, the largest gain for the endowment in over three decades and a stark uptick from endowment investments’ 1.9 percent growth in fiscal year 2020.
“Our endowment had a remarkable year, none of us had ever seen anything like it,” Pollack said. “That was due to a number of factors, including a very robust market and a multi-year effort by our investment team to restructure asset classes, reduce fees and introduce rigorous risk monitoring and rebalancing frameworks.”
While she stressed that about 95 percent of the endowment is reinvested each year and cannot be allocated to University projects, Pollack said that the University is raising more money through donations to address community needs going forward.
As part of it’s $5 billion “To Do the Greatest Good” fundraising campaign, Pollack said that the University would raise $500 million to expand undergraduate financial aid, specifically increasing the number of undergraduates receiving aid by 1,000, reducing debt by an average of 25 percent and waiving the summer savings expectation for some families.
“I honestly and truly believe that this campaign is going to ensure that we continue to be one of the greatest universities in the world,” Pollack said. “As a land grant university, Cornell also has an institutional commitment to engagement and civic responsibility, and we pursue that work in numerous ways.”
While the fundraising campaign will continue for five years, the nearly $2.7 billion already raised has allowed the University to open the new School of Public Policy, design a new Computer and Information Sciences building and give debt-free tuition to more students with financial need at the Weill School of Medicine.
Pollack also touted University mental health services as better than the national average. She told representatives that same day care for emergencies is being prioritized, but that non-emergency care is comparatively better than in many major cities despite a shortage of trained mental health professionals. The wait time for non-emergency mental health care access is about seven days compared to a 25-day national average in major cities, and being matched for short-term individual counseling takes about two weeks compared to a 48-day national average.
But Pollack said that Cornell can still improve its mental health services. On the clinical side, the University began working with a telehealth partner in September. Cornell is also working to clarify expectations for graduate students and train professors to better advise and mentor students.
To change what some graduate students characterized as a toxic campus culture that damages student mental health, Pollack called on students.
“Culture more broadly is not something you can change from the top. Culture has to be changed by everyone, and if you’re seeing things that are problematic, it’s as much on you as it is on me to try and change that culture,” Pollack said. “We all just have to take steps together to do what we think is right.”
Pollack then broadly defended the University’s handling of the Nov. 7 bomb threat and Nov. 9 alerts of a gunman near campus, maintaining that taking time off from classes was the wrong solution despite calls for a mental health week.
“Not all classes are the same. Some classes have different sections and if you just cancel a day the sections get out of sync, sometimes students are doing labs and the labs are sequential and if you miss a lab you’re just messed up for the rest of the semester, sometimes students have prepared a presentation for class, they’re ready to go and it just adds stress to delay the class,” Pollack said.
Pollack added that this debate reminded her of discussions had during earlier stages of the pandemic, and that it revealed similar issues.
“It’s a little bit like the discussion during the pandemic about whether we should have mandatory pass-fail: students on both sides were absolutely convinced that everyone was on their side, and that simply wasn’t true,” Pollack said.
Finally, Pollack responded to a question about the University’s duties towards Native Americans who were dispossessed of their land by the United States government before it was given to Cornell by the Morrill Act.
Pollack said that the University would work within its limits to expand access to Cornell for Native American students but an Ivy League rule prohibits non-need-based financial aid so the University is limited in how it can subsidize tuition for Native American students.