“Our core values are a reflection not just of our past and our present, but of our potential. They describe who we are and what we aspire to be,” said University President Martha Pollack at her annual State of the University address. “What I’d like to do today is place the achievements of the past year into the context of those core values, showing you just some of the many ways that we’re working to be the university that Ezra Cornell imagined, but now reimagined for the 21st century.”
Over 500 trustees, council members and guests packed into the David L. Call Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 20 to hear Pollack’s address, held as part of the University’s 73rd Trustee-Council Annual Meeting. Another several hundred watched via livestream as Pollack began her speech.
As the Cornell community is currently grappling with the implications of the Israel-Hamas war, Pollack began by stating her stance against terrorism.
“Before I begin my comments, I want to acknowledge the horror and the pain of the current moment. The atrocities perpetrated by the Hamas terrorist organization in Israel have left the world reeling with shock, horror, anger and grief. The brutal attacks have shattered countless innocent lives and challenged our very understanding of humanity,” Pollack said. “And along with the senior leadership of the Cornell Board of Trustees, I stand here to once again condemn terrorism in the strongest possible terms.”
Pollack echoed the sentiment she shared in a set of statements last week surrounding the war.
“I also want to acknowledge the extraordinary pain of all innocent people who are now suffering — Israelis, Palestinians and others with ties to the region. As I said earlier this week, I’m a grandmother, and my heart absolutely breaks for all the babies, all the children who are caught up in this violence,” Pollack said. “We’ve also watched with distress increasing acts of violence directed at Jews and Muslims here in the United States. And here at Cornell, our community feels a great deal of pain, anger and fear. I understand we live in a divided world, but I know that this community, our Cornell community, can come together in difficult times and stand as we always have against hatred of all forms. So today I asked all Cornellians to offer compassion and empathy and provide one another with the support that we all so need at this moment.”
Pollack’s address centered on contextualizing the University’s accomplishments within Cornell’s current core values — purposeful discovery, free and open inquiry and expression, community of belonging, exploration across boundaries, changing lives through public engagement and respect for the natural environment.
“We’re an academic institution, and our excellence rests on our academic distinction — on the work of our faculty and our students to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, and to deepen our understanding and our appreciation of all of our world in all of its beauty and complexity,” Pollack said.
To illustrate Cornell’s commitment to purposeful discovery, Pollack highlighted the work of three faculty members — Prof. Sadaf Sobhani, mechanical and aerospace engineering; Prof. Sara Bronin, city and regional planning and real estate; and Prof. Sasha Rush, computer science. Pollack noted Rush’s role in Cornell’s AI Initiative, which she said works “to shape a future in which human centered ethical AI benefits our lives, our society and our planet.” Pollack emphasized Cornell’s need to continue educating its community on the opportunities, limitations and risks of AI in accordance with new guidelines released last month.
Pollack also noted the contributions of graduate students towards purposeful discovery, mentioning that 84 graduate students were selected as National Science Foundation research fellows this year, comprising four percent of all NSF research fellows.
The goal of free and open inquiry and expression connects directly to the 2023-2024 Freedom of Expression theme year. Pollack explained the University’s goals to deepen the understanding of free expression and provide space for students and faculty to develop active listening, controversial discussion and advocacy skills, particularly as free expression is threatened.
“Freedom of expression is indeed the indispensable condition, not only of our academic enterprise but of our democracy. Yet, it is under attack in this country from across the political spectrum,” Pollack said. “We’re seeing everything from speakers being shouted down to very dangerous laws banning books from libraries and ideas from classrooms.”
Pollack shifted her focus from the national level to the University, where she believes that free expression must be protected.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that our students have the opportunity to engage with ideas that challenge them, because being exposed to ideas that one disagrees with is a core part of a university education — key to learning how to evaluate information and develop considered beliefs, key to developing intellectual humility and key to learning how to advocate for one’s own deeply held values,” Pollack said. “That is what we must maintain at Cornell.”
To indicate the necessity of building a community of belonging, Pollack called back to Cornell’s founding principle of “… any person, any study”.
“Cornell was created as an institution for any person, with the understanding that our teaching, our research and indeed our society all benefit from a university that welcomes many different kinds of people with many different perspectives and puts them in an environment where they can learn with and from each other,” Pollack said.
Pollack applauded the office of First-Generation & Low-Income Student Support for providing programs that help students from under-resourced backgrounds succeed at Cornell. She also showed appreciation for donors, who have helped raise $360 million to decrease student debt at graduation, provide students with summer opportunities without inducing financial stress and limit loan packages for families with incomes up to $75,000.
According to Pollack, these measures have helped honor the University’s foundational commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion after the Supreme Court’s ruling reversing affirmative action, by which Cornell was “deeply disappointed.”
“Although we were deeply disappointed by the ruling, we abide by the law, and we have modified our admissions practices accordingly,” Pollack said. “At the same time, within the bounds of the law, we continue to pursue our mission, seeking to build academically outstanding classes that are broadly diverse.”
Pollack explained that the University is now implementing practices recommended by the Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions, including working with organizations that support students from under-resourced communities, simplifying the process of transferring credits from community colleges and streamlining financial aid processes.
“Exploration across boundaries is fundamental to our ability to address challenges that do not usually fall into one field of study — which is to say nearly all modern societal challenges,” Pollack said.
Pollack highlighted interdisciplinary research at Cornell, including a multi-college poll by Cornell’s Department of Real Estate, which sits between the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and the SC Johnson College of Business. She also featured collaborations across campuses, including the Department of Design Tech, which connects design and technology research between the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses. This interdisciplinary knowledge, Pollack said, can have implications that extend past the Cornell community.
“The knowledge and the expertise created at Cornell have a reach far beyond Cornell,” Pollack said. “As the only land grant university in the Ivy League, we have a mandate to take the work that we do out into the world by changing lives for public engagement.”
According to Pollack, Cornell’s public engagement includes both local and global impacts, from tracking road repairs for the Ithaca Department of Public Works to connecting with 19 peer institutions to create community-based change on social justice, AI, sustainable development and more themes through Global Hubs.
Cornell’s plan of reaching carbon neutrality by 2035 spearheads the University’s “respect for the natural environment” goal. Pollack pointed to a few sustainability projects that work towards carbon neutrality, including a new 110 megawatt solar project in Batavia, New York which, according to Pollack, will allow the Ithaca campus to meet its energy needs with 100 percent renewable energy. Pollack also highlighted the Cornell University Borehole Observatory, whose early data showed promising potential for geothermal energy production at Cornell.
The University’s sustainability efforts have been acknowledged by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, who have awarded Cornell with a fourth consecutive Platinum rating.
Before being met with a standing ovation, Pollack concluded her address by expressing gratitude towards her audience for their contributions towards achieving the University’s goals.
“I want to end with my thanks to all of you for everything you do to make Cornell a place for any person, any study, where our imagination is matched by our innovation and our ethos by our excellence,” Pollack said.