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From Martha Pollack

A New President’s First Assignment: Listening & Learning


During my first few months in Ithaca, I’ve watched the campus come alive with the sights and sounds of spring: flowers blooming in the Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings Garden behind the A.D. White House; geese grazing on the shores of Beebe Lake; students playing Frisbee on the Arts Quad or studying on Libe Slope (except, of course, on Slope Day). By the time you read this column, I will have participated in my first Commencement and met many alumni and their guests during Reunion Weekend. It has been an exhilarating start to what I hope will be a long and productive association with Cornell and with all of you.

Meet and Greet: Chatting with students at the 2017 Senior Gala

Photo: Jason Koski/Cornell Marketing Group

As I meet with Cornellians in Ithaca, New York City, and elsewhere, I am often asked about my priorities for my first hundred days, or my first year, or—even more grandly—for my time as president. But I have been careful not to put forward a list of specific action items before listening to the voices of the University’s major stakeholders. Cornell has a strong tradition of shared governance and a consultative approach to decision-making. I believe it is vital to seek input, listen carefully, and learn from all parties affected by any decision before moving forward. You can be sure that what I am learning during these first few months is helping to shape the vision for Cornell that I will sketch out in my Inaugural Address on August 25 and that will guide our collective efforts going forward.

Academic excellence will, of course, be a critical part of that vision. Cornell has world-class faculty who are both outstanding educators and the creators of an almost unimaginable breadth of new knowledge. The University must continue to attract and retain such faculty, providing them with the environment in which they can flourish—and similarly, we must continue to attract and retain the very best students in the nation. At the same time, we must remain true to our land-grant mission. One of the things that has most intrigued me about Cornell is its unique status as an Ivy League institution that is also a land-grant university. The original Morrill Act specified that land-grant colleges would teach applied branches of learning, without excluding “scientific and classical studies,” and that is exactly what we do at Cornell, offering critically important liberal arts studies as well as applied professional programs. Beyond that, we embody the land-grant spirit of outreach and focus on improving the lives of those in our community, our nation, and our world. I have seen that spirit in our students, our faculty, and our staff every day that I’ve been here.

During these first months, I’ve also come to better appreciate the University’s emphasis on “One Cornell.” There are remarkable opportunities that arise from the potential for synergy between our Ithaca campus—a magical community of scholars that will always be at the heart of Cornell—and our New York City campuses: Weill Cornell Medicine and the new Cornell Tech campus, which will formally open on Roosevelt Island in September. Let me mention just two examples of those opportunities. The Hinge Project supports Ithaca-based faculty, primarily in the humanities, policy, and the social sciences, who want to teach or conduct research in New York City, while the Health Equity Project, under development by faculty members at Weill Cornell and the Ithaca campus, seeks to study how to achieve health equity in rural communities upstate as well as in urban communities in New York City.

Finally, to be great, we must honor our foundational commitment to be inclusive and diverse—open and accessible to talented students from all backgrounds who have the potential both to benefit from a Cornell education and to contribute to our academic community and to the betterment of the human condition.

When we come together for my inauguration, we’ll begin with events that celebrate Cornell’s academic values and strengths. I’ll use my Inaugural Address to present major themes that will guide our work together. There will also be elements of pure fun—including a new ice cream flavor that I’ve been taste-testing—and other activities that the whole community can enjoy. I’m so excited to be part of the Cornell family and to have you as partners in making this unique university even greater. 

Martha E. Pollack