Skip to content

From Martha Pollack

Seeking New Knowledge: Pursuing Cornell’s mission throughout the pandemic


Jason Koski/UREL

Thanks to the incredible commitment of our Cornell community, we are now coming to the successful end of this extraordinary academic year. Keeping our community safe, together, and moving forward has meant reimagining just about every aspect of life at Cornell—tapping the creativity and ingenuity of our talented faculty and staff, and finding workable solutions to the vast array of new challenges this pandemic has brought with it.

As unwelcome as the experiences of this past year have been, they’ve also presented us with unparalleled opportunities to pursue our academic mission of creating new knowledge. They’ve forced us to consider anew all the things we’ve always done at Cornell—and, in some cases, have led us to discover new practices that we may well continue even once this pandemic is behind us.

Moving our classes online made us rethink every part of the classroom experience—including exams. It isn’t easy to proctor a traditional prelim in a virtual classroom, and high-stakes exams are always sources of anxiety for our students—a particular concern right now. So this year, some of our instructors switched from a few high-stakes exams to many lower-stakes quizzes—and found that, for their courses, doing so not only simplified proctoring and reduced stress, but encouraged students to keep a steady pace in learning the material.

While our students overwhelmingly prefer in-person instruction in most situations, we’ve discovered some exceptions. Especially in large lecture courses, a virtual classroom can have advantages: asking a question in Zoom chat can feel less intimidating than raising your hand in a room with hundreds of people, and some students can be reluctant to ask a professor to stop and repeat when something isn’t clear. With a recorded lecture, you can stop and listen again—and the student who gets lost five minutes into a class on differential equations doesn’t stay lost for the next forty-five. So while we are hoping to largely return to in-person instruction this fall, we do expect to continue a virtual format for at least some of our larger lectures and to continue the use of some online tools, like virtual discussion sections and office hours.

Outside of the classroom, many of the adaptations we made for the pandemic have proven so popular, we
are considering continuing them. Our study space reservation app, for example, lets students ensure that their favorite study spot will be ready when they are. The online socializing activities we created for new-student orientation also turned out to be a great way for new Cornellians to connect before arriving on campus. And while Cornellians and Ithacans had learned to accept Move-In Day traffic as inevitable, it turns out it wasn’t—and we may continue with a more relaxed, extended move-in timeline in the future.

Telehealth and teletherapy, which we had begun to pilot through Weill Cornell Medicine even before the pandemic, have enabled us to improve accessibility of care. Moving most of our staff to remote work for the last year has taught us a great deal about what work can, and can’t, be done remotely—and led us to begin exploring approaches to hybrid work where that can be done effectively. And we’ve found that much of the work we used to travel for—to symposia, or for collaboration, or for departmental reviews or site visits—can be done virtually. Eliminating travel that isn’t essential not only saves on time and cost, but also reduces our carbon footprint, which is a major consideration for us at Cornell.

Finally, the need to move most of our events to virtual ones has opened doors to alumni engagement in a way that has been one of the silver linings of this entire pandemic. If you haven’t yet, take a look at the incredible range of virtual lectures, webinars, panel discussions, and exhibits available at And while we’ll miss welcoming alumni to Ithaca this summer, I hope to see all of you—no matter how far you might be from Ithaca—at our virtual Reunion on June 11 and 12.

— Martha E. Pollack