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Meet Martha Pollack

Cornell’s new president chats with CAM about her first weeks on campus, her approach to the job, her cultural touchstones, her credo to ‘be kind,’ and much more

Martha Pollack

Martha Pollack

Photo: Robert Barker/Cornell Marketing Group

Cornell’s fourteenth president arrived on campus in April, moving into a Day Hall office that—in keeping with her background in computer science—she plans to keep largely paperless. Martha Pollack comes to East Hill from the University of Michigan, where she’d served for seventeen years in several roles including provost and dean of the School of Information. Her own academic background includes two Ivies: she holds a PhD in computer and information science from Penn and an undergraduate degree (summa cum laude) from Dartmouth, where she studied math and did a self-designed major in linguistics.

A native of Stamford, Connecticut, Pollack was the first in her family to go to college as a conventional student; her mother didn’t attend college, and her father earned a business degree in night school while raising a family. She and her husband, Ken Gottschlich, have two adult children, Anna and Nicholas—plus four cats that made the move with them from Ann Arbor.

Pollack is Cornell’s second female president, succeeding the late Elizabeth Garrett, who passed away in March 2016 after eight months in office. When the fifty-eight-year-old Pollack assumed the post, she set herself on a listening-and-learning tour of the University, with plans to begin unveiling her vision and priorities in her Inaugural Address in late August. A few days after Pollack presided over her first Commencement on Memorial Day weekend, CAM Editor and Publisher Jenny Barnett sat down with her for a chat aimed at giving alumni a chance to get to know the University’s new leader; the following are excerpts from that conversation. CAM plans to check in with her again to discuss specific policies, plans, and issues. 

Martha Pollack and Jenny Barnett

GETTING ACQUAINTED: CAM Editor and Publisher Jenny Barnett (left) interviews Pollack in her Day Hall office, where the décor includes a portrait (seen behind Pollack) of one of her heroes, the late South African activist and statesman Nelson Mandela, given to her by the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who took it.

Photo: Robert Barker/Cornell Marketing Group

You’ve been here for six weeks. What are your first impressions?

It’s an extraordinary place. People are so loyal, so committed to the University. I see it in the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees. The passion that people have for what they’re doing, and what we’re doing here, has been striking. Cornellians are very outward-looking and they take the Land Grant mission seriously. A faculty member on the search committee described Cornell as “an Ivy League school with a Big Ten heart,” and I knew exactly what he meant, having been educated at Ivy League schools and worked at a Big Ten university.

Have you gotten any particular advice from your predecessors in Day Hall?

With the exception of Frank Rhodes, whom I am really looking forward to meeting, I have met all of the living Cornell presidents. The one piece of advice they all gave me was to reach out to the faculty and learn from them, and I’ve been trying to do that in multiple ways. They also said, “Have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously,” but that’s sort of my nature anyway.

Speaking at a reception

Speaking at a reception for Merrill Presidential Scholars.

Photo: Chris Kitchen/Cornell Marketing Group

Could you describe your leadership style?

Over the years, I’ve come to learn that the idea that diverse perspectives lead to better solutions is not just talk. People bring very different thoughts, ideas, and opinions based on their intellectual experiences, personal experiences, and knowledge. So I try hard to gather information from all the stakeholders—to listen hard and to synthesize—but also recognize that I don’t own all the decisions. There are a lot of decisions that the faculty, the provost, and the Board of Trustees own. But there are decisions that I do own—and although you can’t always satisfy the interests of all stakeholders, you need to take them seriously into account.

How do you approach problem solving?

I actually draw on my experience as a computer scientist. In computer science, you don’t get overwhelmed by an enormous problem, you break it down into modules. We do what’s called “procedural abstraction”—which I think of as delegation. You form a good interface with someone and trust them to handle that piece of the problem. And we do iterative refinement. We don’t wait for the perfect solution; we get a pretty good solution, try it out, and tweak it, then get feedback and try again.

greeting Dean Augustine Choi

Greeting Dean Augustine Choi at Weill Cornell Medicine graduation.

Photo: Amelia Panico/Cornell Marketing Group

All three of Ithaca’s institutions of higher learning now have female leaders. Does this make you particularly proud? What do you think it says about women’s achievement in higher education?

It’s exciting—and in addition, I think it is worth noting that [the presidents of Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College] are women of color, which is quite extraordinary. And the SUNY chancellor is also a woman. But I actually look forward to the day when it is not a news story. If you have three people and if you assume there’s a fifty-fifty chance, then one of eight times, all three should be women.

How much work remains to be done in promoting gender parity in STEM fields, and how is Cornell doing in that regard?

Cornell is doing extremely well. In engineering, the incoming class is approaching 50 percent women, which is remarkable. They are also paying attention to underrepresented minorities, which is equally critical. There’s a lot further to go. We’re still talking about undergraduates, not graduate students. In 1987, I chaired a committee of the Association for Computing Machinery that looked at the relatively weak numbers of women at that point, and I thought we would have made much more progress by now. But these are societal issues, not just Cornell issues. There is more work we need to do—and we’re doing it—but other forms of diversity are equally important.

Your parents didn’t come from a strongly academic background. What inspired you to pursue higher education?

My parents had a very clearheaded vision about the importance and value of education. They always did everything they could to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. From the time I was small, there was no question that I was going to college.

You’re the sixth Cornell president to have roots at the University of Michigan. What’s the connection? What did you learn there that might apply here?

The size, the breadth, the world-class academics, and a commitment to outreach, diversity, and inclusion are shared by the two schools. One of the things I learned at Michigan is that when you have a big university you are fortunate to have an overabundance of good ideas. Leadership needs to prioritize, stay focused, delegate, and trust the people around them.

Can you talk a bit about your computer science research?

My doctoral dissertation was on natural language processing, but I was also interested in how communication between people is driven by their goals. That led me to work on what is called plan recognition: how do you recognize someone else’s plan? That led me to do work on plan formation: given a set of basic actions, how does a computer or robot form a plan to achieve those actions? I did a lot of algorithmic foundational work on that. Then, around the mid- to late Nineties, I thought I’d like to do something with more direct impact. I started to work on assistive technology for people with cognitive impairments, particularly those who had problems forming and carrying out plans. We did a number of projects, but let me give you one example. I worked closely with a neuropsychologist, who told me that when people with a cognitive impairment—an illness like early stage Alzheimer’s, or a traumatic brain injury—come to the clinic, sometimes they do really badly on functional tests and their spouse or partner will say, “But at home he’s doing fine.” It’s nervousness. Or the opposite: they would do well because they knew what they were going to be asked. So we would put a bracelet with a wireless sensor reader on them and say, “Make a cup of coffee,” and we would track the steps they used and try to infer how their executive functioning was working.

As president, will you have time to teach?

I’m hoping to. As provost, I sometimes taught the undergraduate discrete math course, which is where we teach computer scientists, typically sophomores, the math they need. I love teaching. I’m not going to do it my first year, but I may later on.

What do you think of Ithaca as a town?

It’s obviously spectacularly beautiful. It’s got great coffee shops and ice cream parlors, but it’s also a really nice community. I love the fact that, already after just six weeks, I go downtown and run into people I know. It’s a wonderfully friendly, smart community.

Is there something about Cornell’s physical location that makes it special?

I think so. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I learned how magical it is to be in a relatively isolated community of scholars.

Do you feel prepared for an Ithaca winter?

I’ve lived in New York, New Hampshire, and Michigan, so winter doesn’t faze me.

Alumni are eager to meet you. Are you planning a tour?

I’ve been working with [Alumni Affairs] to plan various visits to major cities where we have a lot of alumni around the country and internationally, starting late this summer and through next year. The alumni I’ve met so far have been extraordinary. I’ve been blown away both by their loyalty to the University and by how welcoming they have been to me.

It’s become a tradition for the president to get a custom ice cream flavor for Inauguration. Can you give us the inside scoop on yours?

I’ve been tasting, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. I will tell you what flavors I’ve had. I love their mint chocolate chip and their Kahlua fudge. But you shouldn’t read anything into that.

Pollack and family

Pollack and her husband, Ken Gottschlich, with their children, Anna (left) and Nicholas.

Photo: provided

We’d love to hear more about your family. What does your husband do?

He was trained as a jazz musician. When I met him he was a freelance jazz guitarist, but it’s hard to make a living that way, so he studied engineering and worked as an electrical engineer for about a dozen years. After we moved to Ann Arbor, he kept working for his company for about a year, but eventually became a stay-at-home dad. Now that he’s old enough, he refers to himself as retired. He plays a lot of piano and does a lot of fly fishing. He’s an avid reader and a great cook. He cooks all my dinners.

What about your children?

My twenty-nine-year-old daughter is a PhD student in public health at the University of Michigan; she was a math major and taught high school math in the inner city of Chicago for four years. And I have a twenty-four-year-old son who is a software engineer in Austin, Texas. We’re very into math.

What books are you reading?

I just finished two: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead—heart-wrenching, but a masterpiece—and The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball. When I take the Campus-to-Campus bus to New York, I can’t read because I get carsick, so I listen to books on tape. You need lighter books for that, so I just finished A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, which is very charming, and have started Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. The nonfiction I’m reading right now is Floyd Abrams’s The Soul of the First Amendment. He’s a Cornell alumnus [Class of ’56] and it’s a topic I’m really interested in. I also have two novels that were published a few years ago, but I haven’t gotten to yet—Richard Ford’s Canada and Kent Haruf’s Benediction—and a nonfiction book on race relations, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill.

What are you favorite movies?

Lost in Translation, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

“Be kind.” It’s such an easy way to make a difference in the world—to think about being kind to other people. I think at the micro level you should be kind in your actions, and at the macro level you should take it into consideration in your decisions.

Pollack and her father

Pollack at a baseball game with her father, whom she calls one of her heroes.

Photo provided

Whom do you most admire?

One is Nelson Mandela. There are so many reasons—in particular, his extraordinary ability to bring people together. And to forgive, and to realize that you have to move forward. Fran Allen, who was one of the earliest women in computing and the first woman to win the Turing Prize. And—my dad. He is eighty-three years old and still works full time because he wants to remain productive and purposeful. I call him on the phone—he lives in Phoenix—and say, “Hi Dad, how are you doing?” and he says, “I’m magnificent!” That positive attitude is a real inspiration to me.

He must be extremely proud.

He is. Everyone in Phoenix knows that his daughter is president of Cornell.