President Martha Pollack cheers graduates during Commencement 2023

‘Unbridled Admiration for This University’

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President Pollack announces her retirement—and Cornellians offers a photographic tribute to her seven years of service

Editor’s note: The following message was shared with the Cornell community on May 9, 2024.

By Martha E. Pollack

April 17 marked the seventh anniversary of my joining Cornell as its president. I am writing today to announce that this will be my last year in that role, and that I will retire on June 30. It is only after extensive reflection that I have determined that this is the right decision. Indeed, I began deliberating about this last fall, and made the decision over the December break; but three times, as I was ready to act on it, I had to pause because of events on our and/or on other campuses. But continued delay is not in the University’s best interests, both because of the need to have sufficient time for a smooth transition before the start of the coming academic year, and because I do not want my announcement to interfere with the celebration of our newest graduates at Commencement in just a few weeks.

There is so much more to Cornell than the current turmoil taking place at universities across the country right now, and I hope we do not lose sight of that. I came here with unbridled admiration for this university and for all it had achieved in its more than 150-year history, and with equally strong enthusiasm for what we could be going forward.

Martha Pollack poses with students in 2016 on the day she was announced as Cornell’s 14th president.
With students on the day in 2016 that she was announced as Cornell’s 14th president.

In my inauguration address seven years ago, I identified three priorities for that forward path: enhancing Cornell’s academic distinction, our educational verve, and the fulfillment of our civic responsibility. I am deeply proud of all we have accomplished together in each of these areas.

• The creation of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, the expansion of external research expenditures by nearly 50%, the launch of high-impact interdisciplinary programs that span our breadth of expertise, from digital agriculture to urban tech and more, and the construction of our new academic building for our fast-growing Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science are just a few examples of our success in academic distinction.

President Martha Pollack poses with the previous living Cornell presidents Frank H.T. Rhodes, Hunter R. Rawlings III, Jeffrey Lehman, and David Skorton on the occasion of her inauguration in 2017
With previous presidents (from left) Frank H.T. Rhodes, Hunter Rawlings III, Jeffrey Lehman ’77, and David Skorton during her inauguration.

• When it comes to educational verve, nothing gives me more satisfaction than the strides we’ve made toward promoting affordability. We were able to increase by 1,000 the number of undergraduates receiving financial aid, reduce annual loan burden by 25%, and create programs that help students on financial aid to participate in unpaid summer internships. Additionally, our Active Learning Initiative has expanded to reach about 10,000 students each year, and last year eCornell enrolled 140,000 students, up from just 19,000 seven years ago, extending the reach of those who have access to Cornell teaching and learning.

• In the area of civic responsibility, I’m enormously proud of how our community navigated the COVID-19 pandemic; how we came together to craft a statement of Cornell’s core values; our continued progress on operational sustainability, for which we have been awarded a STARS Platinum rating five years in a row; and the launch of our first-ever theme year—The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell.

And in support of this work, our successful philanthropic campaign is nearing its completion. (For a fuller list of what we have achieved during my tenure, click here.)

Serving as the president of Cornell has been an amazing privilege; there are few roles that afford one so much opportunity to make a positive difference in the world. My time as president has also been one of enormous, unexpected challenges for both our country and our community, as we’ve had to navigate a global pandemic, a national racial reckoning, and a terrorist attack and subsequent war that has reverberated across our country and especially across higher education. The latter has raised a number of critical issues that we are all grappling with, from antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry, to free expression, academic freedom, and how to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community.

Serving as the president of Cornell has been an amazing privilege; there are few roles that afford one so much opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.

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I suspect many of these issues are going to be with us for years to come. As the next Cornell administration finds new and creative ways to confront them, it will be building from a solid foundation. We have worked hard to uphold our commitment both to free expression and to being a community of belonging, where everyone is welcome and safe. Local and world events have caused enormous pain for students of many backgrounds, including our Jewish and Israeli students, as well as our Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim students. We have been vigilant in working to ensure the safety and well-being of all members of our community from all backgrounds, work I’ve been dedicated to long before the events of the past year.

President Martha Pollack addresses the Commencement crowd in Schoellkopf in 2022
Leading the 2022 Commencement ceremony.

There will be plenty more to do over the coming months and years. Higher education has come under attack from many quarters, and our core values have faced enormous pressure. And yet, my faith in the positive role that universities like Cornell play in our society is stronger than ever. We change the lives of our students. We change the lives of the communities our graduates go into. We change the lives of the people who are affected by the research we do, the discoveries we make, and the art we create. We are not just educating students for their careers. We are educating them to be able to thrive in their lives and in our democracy.

As we prepare students for today’s increasingly polarized climate, our commitment to free expression, including the expression of ideas we may consider offensive, remains paramount. Indeed, if I have one piece of advice for the Cornell community going forward, it is this: We must develop more capacity to seek out different perspectives and be willing to listen to those with whom we differ, doing so with intellectual curiosity and an open mind; at the same time, we must always consider the impact of what we say to one another; and we must thoughtfully engage in debate.

My faith in the positive role that universities like Cornell play in our society is stronger than ever.

Yes, there are instances in which a position is so hateful that it does not deserve a response, but there are many more occasions where views we are predisposed to dislike deserve consideration, principled argument, and, if needed, refutation. A willingness to communicate across differences is the only way forward for higher education, and indeed for our democracy.

Our aspirations demand that we foster a diversity of background, experience, geography, perspective, and ability, at all levels of our community, be it our students, faculty, or staff. It is central to Ezra Cornell’s founding vision that at our university “any person can find instruction in any study,” and it has been demonstrated that a diverse community that allows free and open expression results in better learning, better decisions, and better discoveries.

Despite our current challenges—and all great institutions face great challenges—Cornell is remarkable. We have risen to challenges for 159 years, and I have no doubt that we will continue to do so, continue to thrive, and continue to do the greatest good. I believe that our academic excellence, our core values, and our culture position us to lead as we continue to counter the pressures that we face, with clarity and resolve, with intellectual humility, and with an openness to meeting the moment.

Despite our current challenges—and all great institutions face great challenges—Cornell is remarkable.

I understand that there will be lots of speculation about my decision, so let me be as clear as I can: This decision is mine and mine alone. After seven fruitful and gratifying years as Cornell’s president—and after a career in research and academia spanning five decades—I’m ready for a new chapter in my life. I greatly appreciate the continued support of our Board of Trustees, and of the many faculty, students, staff, and alumni who have spoken with and written to me with words of encouragement and support throughout my time as president, including the past academic year.

President Martha Pollack welcomes incoming first-year students at New Student Convocation in 2023
Welcoming first-years at New Student Convocation in 2023.

It has been an honor to serve as president of this wonderful university. Over the next two months, as I complete my service, I will work diligently to resolve the issues we currently face, and to facilitate a smooth leadership transition.

Top: Pollack cheers graduates at Commencement 2023. This story features images by Cornell University photographers Lindsay France, Noël Heaney, Sreang Hok, and Jason Koski, contributor Simon Wheeler, and others.

Published May 18, 2024


Comments

  1. Barbara Engelson, Class of 1976

    Martha Pollack is an exemplary President of the university. Thank you for all you accomplished.

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