The 2022-2023 school year brought both progress and controversy for Cornell, with the creation and continuation of various campus initiatives, disruptions in Greek life and more recently, tense discussions over the state of free speech at the University. Discussing these topics and more, President Martha Pollack sat down with The Sun to review her top priorities and stances on the most contentious issues affecting Cornellians.
Cornell’s affordability is a primary concern for many Cornellians, with undergraduate tuition increasing by 4.4 percent going into the 2023-2024 academic year. Pollack commented on the financial resources required to sustain the University.
“To provide the kind of education we want to provide at Cornell, it’s very expensive. We do everything we can to control costs,” Pollack said. “But, world-class faculty are expensive, [as are] world-class labs and facilities [and] world-class libraries — so we need resources.”
Regarding the rise in tuition, Pollack emphasized that Cornell always increases financial aid with tuition. She noted that the University follows a structured budget model to control costs.
“If you look at the amount that students who receive aid pay and adjust for inflation, they actually pay less now than they did 20 years ago,” Pollack said.
The University launched the To Do the Greatest Good initiative in October 2021, which aims to raise $5 billion for the University by 2026. For the Spring 2023 semester, the campaign allowed for increases in University grant aid for all undergraduates who qualify for financial aid.
Pollack stated that the initiative is on track to reach its fundraising goals, which include $3 billion to fund the Ithaca campus, $1.5 billion for Weill Cornell Medicine and $500 million for Cornell Tech.
One of the goals of the campaign, Pollack said, is to improve socioeconomic diversity among Cornell’s student body. The University aims to increase the number of students on financial aid, though Pollack noted that the proportion of students on aid will not increase due to a rise in overall enrollment. Approximately half of Cornell undergraduates receive financial aid, Pollack said.
“If you compare to 2020, not only have the number of first-generation students increased from 13 percent to more than 19 percent, but the number of students who are coming with aid has increased by about 650 [students],” Pollack said.
Cornell’s endowment reported a 1.3 percent investment loss for the 2022 fiscal year, compared to a significant 41.9 percent gain during the year prior.
To maintain stability in the funds directed to the University, Pollack said the value of the endowment is averaged over a certain period, and the amount paid out in a year is based on this average. Pollack added that, when she came to Cornell, she expanded this period to seven years.
“What that does is it smooths the amount of money we have. So, when things go bad, we’re still averaging in those good years,” Pollack said. “When things get good again, you’re still averaging in from the bad years, but it protects you against drops in the future.”
Pollack established the Presidential Task Force for Undergraduate Admissions in December 2022, with the goal of developing a University-wide undergraduate admissions policy and principles of practice for the colleges’ individual admissions offices.
“It’s our responsibility, every few years, to look at our admissions processes and make sure that they’re working well and they’re achieving our goals,” Pollack said. “And our goals, of course, are to admit a class that is extremely academically strong, that will thrive here, that will go out and carry our mission into the world. But we are also, of course, interested in diversity of all kinds.”
The University is aiming to partner with and increase outreach to K-12 programs to admit students from across the country, Pollack said.
Pollack stated that while the admissions team will not use artificial intelligence to make decisions, the University is investigating the ways in which machine learning can complement the process.
Pollack added that the University does not take rankings from the U.S. News and World Report into account and does not make decisions for the sole reason of improving its standing.
The Student Assembly unanimously passed a resolution which urged the University to implement content warnings for potentially “triggering” class material on March 23.
The resolution received backlash from national press, especially from conservative-leaning media outlets. On April 3, Pollack rejected the resolution in an email to S.A. President Valeria Valencia ’23, citing concerns regarding academic freedom and free inquiry.
“The problem is not a warning that there’s going to be a topic or contextualizing the topic. The challenge is when it’s a requirement,” Pollack said during the interview. “When it’s a requirement, the faculty are then very concerned about the fact that maybe they missed a topic that they didn’t realize was going to be difficult for students. … And so that leads to the chilling of speech, but… often, I think contextualization is important.”
Pollack told The Sun that her quick response time rejecting the resolution, just 11 days after it passed through the Student Assembly, was not due to groups like FIRE urging a response or callings from the independent Cornell Free Speech Alliance. Instead, she said the resolution’s timing — passing right before spring break — gave her time to respond quickly due to a lull in campus activity, and that she did not need to consult many administrators before making her decision as free expression is a topic she has spoken about for decades so she had a clear vision for her messaging.
Addressing the CFSA, Pollack said the group is composed of alumni and that the University did not give out any email addresses to the organization, despite student and alumni reports of unsolicited emails. The group has made stark allegations about the state of free speech at Cornell, notably prior to the content warnings resolution, posting on their website that Cornell has “abandoned” its commitment to free inquiry and that Cornell students and faculty “live in fear” over discussing controversial topics.
“I think they’re well intentioned. I think they care about the University. They do not have any official connection to the University, [and] they do not speak for the University,” Pollack said. “They do not speak for me. I do not speak for them.”
Pollack said she finds it “incredibly frustrating” that groups, such as the CFSA, attack diversity, equity and inclusion principles under the guise of defending free speech, and that she will defend DEI as strongly as she defends free expression.
“Let’s not call attacks on DEI defenses of free speech — both those things can coexist,” Pollack said. “I think at universities, both those things must coexist. Are there sometimes tensions? Absolutely. If you’re trying to create an inclusive environment, and you’re also trying to not be doctrinaire about speech, you’re going to have clashes. But that doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that you can’t and shouldn’t be committed to both.”
On April 17, Pollack announced in a campus-wide email that the University would be adopting the 2023-2024 academic year theme of “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell.” Pollack told The Sun the University was working on the theme for many months, but the discussion around free speech at Cornell caused by the content warnings resolution did speed up the announcement.
Pollack also said that she does not know if the University has ever had an academic year theme before, outside of the sesquicentennial year. She referred to her previous administrative position at the University of Michigan, where they have themed semesters. She said the theme would entail a number of different initiatives, likely including a community all-read, speakers modeling dialogue on challenging issues, museum exhibits and educational programs for faculty on how to handle difficult topics in the classroom.
“There are enormous attacks on free speech and academic freedom and free expression from both ends of the political spectrum. I’m not saying they’re equal. In fact, I think that the efforts to ban books and ban the teaching of certain subjects is way more damaging than other sorts of pressures. But there are pressures from both ends,” Pollack said. “And I just think it’s really important as a community and academic community, that we address these questions.”
In November, the Student Assembly passed a resolution requesting the University to provide funding for an M.D. gynecologist at Cornell Health. On Feb. 10, Pollack rejected the resolution.
“Of course I care about women’s health. I mean, that’s one of the reasons we approved the resolution for vending machines with birth control,” Pollack said, referring to her support of a Student Assembly proposal to install vending machines with nonprescription health care supplies, including contraception. “Cornell Health provides primary care — that’s its mission. That’s what it does. We don’t have the population to have specialists.”
Pollack told The Sun that the student body is not large enough to support specialized care and stressed that the primary care physicians at Cornell Health have the ability to perform routine gynecological care.
“Not only isn’t there a good model, enough patients and enough financial model to hire a full-time gynecologist, but for a full-time gynecologist to be certified, they have to do a certain amount of surgery,” Pollack said. “We don’t do surgery here. So we would anyway have to be referring patients elsewhere.”
Pollack pointed instead to a pilot program through Weill Cornell Medicine in which students can see a gynecologist virtually.
As for the vending machines with contraception, Pollack wrote in her March 7 response to the Student Assembly that students can expect an update to this effort later in the spring semester. When asked, Pollack didn’t give a concrete update on when students can expect the installation.
“My understanding is that it’s moving forward,” Pollack said. “But it’s a great idea.”
In light of drugging and sexual assault allegations against two fraternities in November, Pollack and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi put out a joint statement condemning the incidents and the Interfraternity Council suspended all fraternity parties and social events for the remainder of the fall semester. At the beginning of the spring semester, the IFC lifted the ban and instituted new changes to event management, which include new training protocols and new event co-hosting requirements.
Pollack stated in the interview that the two fraternities facing the allegations, Theta Delta Chi and Alpha Epsilon Pi, are on interim suspension, meaning that their recognition by the University is pending a conduct investigation and they are barred from engaging in any activities other than the operation of the chapter’s residence.
“[The IFC] put out yet more recommendations for additional approaches to safety. Honestly, we are kind of out of recommendations. If this stuff keeps happening, I don’t know,” Pollack said, referring to the Greek life reforms instituted in December 2019 following the death of Antonio Tsialas ’23 that did not prevent the allegations from this academic year. “At this point, the goal is to try and make [fraternities] safe, because they do seem to play such an important role in the lives of so many of our students, but it’s very, very challenging.”
Pollack stated that she does not know what action she will take if more allegations against fraternities occur.
Cornell currently has Global Hubs in 11 countries, which connect the University to international peer institutions with the goal of mutual benefit and exchange. In March, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution condemning the political, social and cultural repression in the People’s Republic of China and the University’s Global Hubs programs in the country. Members of the Faculty Senate accused the Administration of failing to protect academic freedom through their involvement in the country.
“There’s a misconception that when we put the global hubs in place, we expanded our work in China. In fact, our work in China has actually contracted quite a bit over the past few years,” Pollack said. “There’s also a misconception that we somehow go to China to make money. We don’t go to China to make money. I mean, that’s just false. The global hubs are basically just ways to enable our students more easily to have international experiences.”
Pollack said that the Global Hubs are not brick-and-mortar facilities, but rather ways for Cornellians to become global citizens through internships, faculty collaboration and shared curriculum.
“We don’t partner with the government — we partner with other academics. We have protocols for ensuring academic freedom, we expect that our students will be allowed to voice their opinions,” Pollack said. “In fact, there was a program a few years ago where we felt that wasn’t happening, and we pulled the program,” referring to the ILR School’s suspension of an exchange program between China’s Renmin University in 2018 over academic freedom concerns.
When asked about if she sees the direction of Cornell heading more towards its New York City campuses over time, Pollack was firm that Ithaca will also be prioritized, comparing the campuses to her children.
“I have two kids. And when my second kid was born, I didn’t stop loving my first kid and didn’t stop taking care of my first kid. I paid attention to them both,” Pollack said. “That’s the same thing. We would be nuts, honestly, we would be nuts not to prioritize Ithaca and pay attention to Ithaca. That’s our heart and soul. But we have other campuses as well.”
Pollack said she estimates she spends at least two thirds of her time in Ithaca. She told The Sun that prior to the pandemic, she did an analysis and determined she spent around 60 percent of her time in Ithaca, 25 percent in New York City and was on the road dealing with donors about 15 percent of her time.
“There was this rumor that I lived in New York City, I don’t know where that came from,” Pollack said.
Pollack referred to her Instagram account to see how she engages with students on campus.
In its efforts to reach carbon neutrality by 2035, the University launched the 2030 Project, a new initiative to improve Cornell’s sustainability, in May 2022. Pollack discussed the four focus areas of the project — food and farms, materials, workforce and energy of the future.
The initiative has raised almost $150 million thus far, Pollack said, with close to $10 million awarded by the Bezos Earth Fund. This grant will fund virtual livestock fences on farms to ensure cattle graze pasture more evenly, allowing for healthier soil.
Pollack also spoke on the Cornell University Borehole Observatory, a project intended to determine whether the geologic conditions under Cornell’s campus are sufficient for geothermal heating. CUBO began its first phase of drilling two miles into the ground, which was completed in August. She noted the success of this step, as the naturally-heated underground water was found to be sufficiently warm to continue the project.
Another recent project on which the University has embarked is the Cornell Artificial Intelligence Initiative, launched in late 2021 to promote research and opportunities within the growing field of AI.
Pollack, whose academic background lies in computer science, spoke to the ethical concerns that come with the rise in AI, such as the use of large language models like ChatGPT in classes.
“One of the things a number of faculty did as ChatGPT became available was [that] they changed their statement of what plagiarism consisted,” Pollack said. “So, plagiarism doesn’t just consist [of] stealing another human being’s words [but] also machines’ words.”
The use of AI technology may differ across classrooms, Pollack continued, based on what skills professors aim for students to learn in their courses.
“Does it make sense to use ChatGPT to do a first draft of a paper? I would ask the faculty member,” Pollack said. “In some cases, what our faculty are going to want is for you to learn how to use that to do a first draft, and then build off of [it], because that’s going to happen in the real world. … In other cases, the whole point of the course is to teach those fundamentals.”