A portrait of Martha Pollack

Learning In—and From—a Rapidly Changing World

Dear Cornellians,

As we welcome our students, faculty, and staff to a new academic year, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to our new digital hub, bringing you the news and stories of Cornell. Wherever you are in the world, and however long it’s been since you studied here, you are all Cornellians—and Cornellians is our way of keeping you all connected with your Cornell community.

Here in Ithaca, we’ve just welcomed a record 3,750 new first-year students to campus. They come to us from 64 countries and 49 states (if you live in Wyoming—start recruiting!) and bring a breathtaking diversity of backgrounds, talents, and experience. Fifty-three percent identify as students of color, 55% are women, and nearly 20% are the first generation in their families to attend college. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni and friends, we continue to meet the full financial need of all of our accepted students: this year, nearly half of our incoming students receive financial aid.

We’ve learned a great deal over the last year and a half: about the pandemic, and about how to keep our university moving forward throughout it.

On the day before classes began, I had the opportunity to welcome all of our new students, and many returning students, in person at our New Student Convocation. After so many months of remote events, it was terrific to have the chance to stand on Schoellkopf Field and address bleachers full of excited undergrads.

While the most predictable thing about this coronavirus has been its unpredictability, we’ve learned a great deal over the last year and a half: about the pandemic, and about how to keep our university moving forward throughout it. At Convocation, I distilled those experiences into two lessons for our newest Cornellians.

The first lesson: respect knowledge.

Cornell University is, first and foremost, an academic institution. Our mission is to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge; to educate the next generation of global citizens; and to promote a broad culture of inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community. Our commitment to respect knowledge—to rely on science, and base our decisions on evidence—has been key to our ability to manage the pandemic as it has unfolded. It means that we make and change our plans not on the basis of what seems intuitive or what was true last month, but on the best data we have now.

In a world without a map, knowledge and science hand us a compass. They give us the ability to discern data from disinformation; to evaluate evidence; to choose a direction based on that evidence; and to change direction as that evidence evolves. When we respect knowledge and science—when we use that compass well—we have the tools to plot the best possible course of action.

Which brings me to the second lesson: be kind.

Of everything we’ve learned throughout this pandemic, perhaps the most important lesson is that respecting knowledge and science is necessary, but it’s not enough. We also need to respect each other.

One person who’s wearing a mask, who’s vaccinated, who’s committed to staying home when they’re feeling under the weather, who does everything the science indicates—that one person still won’t be safe, unless the people around them care that they’re safe—care enough to wear their masks, vaccinate, and stay home too.

Knowledge gives us a compass. But kindness is what gets us down the road. To quote an African proverb one of my mentors was fond of sharing: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Knowledge gives us a compass. But kindness is what gets us down the road.

In this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, there actually is no such thing as going it alone. As we work together to create and share the science and the knowledge that we will all need in the years to come—to overcome this pandemic and those that will follow; to slow the changes to our climate and build more resilient societies; to combat enormous issues of inequality, both nationally and globally; and to create the art, music, and literature that help us connect with each other—we will need both the compass of our minds, and the compass of our souls.

Both of them are essential to our planet, to our future, and to our Cornell community. So whatever path you’ve taken since leaving Cornell, I ask you to continue to chart your course with knowledge, and with kindness. Measure your progress both with the skills you build and the competence you gain—and with the connections and the respect and the kindness shared between yourself and your fellow travelers.


Martha E. Pollack, president

Top image: Photo by Jason Koski/Cornell University

Published October 5, 2021

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