Speeches & Writings

2018 State of the University Address

by President Martha E. Pollack

As prepared for presentation
November 2, 2018
Ithaca, New York
Welcome to Cornell and to the annual State of the University address. This is my second Trustee-Council Annual Meeting weekend, and it is a real pleasure to see so many of you whom I’ve had the opportunity to meet during my first year as president. I hope you’re enjoying your time back on campus.

I want to open this morning with a little bit of Cornell history, involving Morris Bishop, who as you might know, was both an alumnus and historian of Cornell, earning his bachelors, master’s, and doctoral degrees here, and then teaching here from 1921 until his retirement in 1960.

There are a number of great stories about Professor Bishop, including the one about the time he was serving as marshal at the 1970 graduation ceremony. A graduate student tried to rush the stage where President Dale Corson was speaking. Professor Bishop held the student off by blocking him with the university’s mace.

Now, I’ve held that mace, and it’s very heavy! And Professor Bishop was 77 at the time. The mace was damaged, by the way, but eventually repaired.

Today, I want to read you a quote from an essay by Professor Bishop that appears in a slim collection called Our Cornell, edited in 1939 by Raymond Howes. Those of you who have read—or possibly even were present for—President Frank Rhodes’ inauguration speech in 1977 may recall this passage:

A college president from the Middle West made a fine speech in New York the other day, in praise of his institution and in scorn of the London Saturday Review, which had referred to it as “a place of no particular intellectual pretensions.” In the course of his philippic, he revealed that The Saturday Review had listed, as places of intellectual pretensions and as essentially American colleges, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and perhaps Cornell.

Perhaps Cornell! It has always been the fate of our University to be Perhaps Cornell! A part neither of the aristocratic tradition of the original colonies nor the educational democracy of the great West, half State college, half endowed institution, stoutly liberal and strangely conservative, its activity ranges from research in the noblest mysteries to broadcasting messages on disinfecting brooder houses. The Saturday Review’s writer, seeking parallels for Oxford, Heidelberg, and Padua, thinks of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. And perhaps Cornell. Had he sought pure examples of the great popular American university, a part of the body politic, agent and function of the people, enlightener of the everyday life for many leagues around its walls, he would have mentioned Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and California. And perhaps Cornell.

Well, as I describe to you this morning the state of the university, I’m sure you’ll see that today, Cornell is not “perhaps” anything—and I’m sure that Professor Bishop, were he here, would agree.

Let’s start where any assessment of the state of a university should begin, with the students. Cornell today is remarkably attractive to prospective students. This past year, we had over 51,000 applications for the entering class, the class of 2022. That’s a 9.1% increase over last year.

If that were a one-time phenomenon, it might not signal so much. And the same is true if students were just applying to more universities, adding Cornell to their list but not actually choosing to come here.

In fact, though, what we’ve seen is a multi-year trend in increased applications. Indeed, in just the last 5 years, there’s been a near-20% increase in applications.

You can see that on these graphs. Applications have been soaring, and thus the percentage of applicants we admit has been decreasing. At the same time, “yield”—the percentage of admitted students who select Cornell—has been steadily rising! Students aren’t saying “Perhaps I’ll go to Cornell.” They’re applying in droves, and when we admit them, they’re saying “Cornell, yes!”

The Class of 2022 includes 3,325 students, from 47 states and 43 countries. (And since people always ask: the 3 states we’re missing this year are North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. We’ve got to do more recruiting in that part of the country!)

The incoming class is also one of the most diverse we’ve ever had, including 14% first-generation students, 27% students who identify as underrepresented minorities, and 48% who identify as students of color. It includes a 2017 national rodeo champion, a professional harpist, and a beekeeper with an apiary of 40,000 that produces a ton of honey each year.

Let me introduce you to one of our new first-year students. Amy is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. [Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHLkMHz2TUs]

I am personally just so moved by Amy’s story, and so thrilled that she said “Yes” to Cornell.

So, students are saying yes to Cornell. And so are faculty. Within the past year, across our three main campuses—Ithaca, Weill Cornell Medicine, and Cornell Tech—173 new faculty have joined us. I could spend the rest of my time just telling you about them, but let me give you three examples.

Laura Riley, the new chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine, came to us from Harvard, with over 20 years’ experience at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is an internationally recognized expert on obstetric infectious diseases and she has won awards both for clinical excellence and for mentoring junior faculty.

Catherine Kling is a new professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, joining us from Iowa State University. Her expertise is in environmental, energy, and resource economics and policy, and, fittingly, she is also a faculty director at our Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Professor Kling is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and her research programs have received over $7 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other sources.

At Cornell Tech, we welcomed Daniel Lee, professor of computer and electrical engineering, from the University of Pennsylvania. As part of Cornell Tech’s mission of close collaboration with companies, nonprofits, and government agencies, Professor Lee is also serving as head of the new Samsung AI Center in New York. A world leader in robotics and autonomous systems, he is a fellow of the IEEE—the world’s largest technical professional society—and of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, and he has won a National Science Foundation CAREER award as well as an award for excellent teaching.

Professors Kling, Lee, and Riley of course join a very distinguished faculty. To note just one, a Cornell Tech professor recently received one of the most prestigious awards in the world: Professor Deborah Estrin was named a MacArthur Fellow—what’s commonly known as the “Genius Award”—for her pioneering use of mobile devices and data to improve healthcare.

There are many ways to measure the success of our faculty. One is the degree to which they obtain research funding—the degree to which government agencies, NGOs, and industry say yes to them, yes to supporting their work.

Over the past year, our sponsored research is up 10%, to about $700 million, with all three campuses going strong. And note also that we are diversifying our funding sources. I’m gratified that here in Ithaca funding from industrial sources has increased tremendously. This will be a continued focus for us.

The humanities represent another area of scholarship that is critical: understanding and appreciating what makes us human is just as important today as it ever was. We are fortunate at Cornell to have outstanding humanists working on a very broad range of subjects.

Two of our humanities faculty won highly prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowships this year. Historian Paul Friedland was chosen for his research project on the French Caribbean around 1800, and music professor David Yearsley’s fellowship will support a book project on J. S. Bach. Philosopher Kate Manne has been receiving rave reviews for her book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. And so has Noliwe Rooks, professor of Africana studies, for Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.

Professors Friedland, Yearsley, Manne, and Rooks are among so many faculty who are enriching the lives of our students, and the world, through their scholarship.

Our faculty and our students can only do their work when they are supported by a strong group of staff members. Consider Nianne VanFleet. A registered nurse, she worked at Cornell Health for 35 years, eventually becoming director of nursing and later director of operations. Along the way she earned the admiration and affection of everyone who worked with her. She coordinated all internal logistics of the extensive renovation and expansion of our health facilities. And recently, she shifted gears to join Student and Campus Life Facilities Administration, where she is coordinating our North Campus housing expansion. A natural problem-solver—Ms. VanFleet has clearly “said yes” to Cornell over many years.

I’ve mentioned students, faculty, and staff, but of course there’s one more group of stakeholders who are critical to our mission and who have never said “perhaps Cornell.” That group, of course, is you: our alumni.

Over the past year or so, I’ve met Cornell alumni across the country and around the globe. Their—your—enthusiasm for the university is wonderful to see and hear and feel. I sang the Alma Mater with some 120 alumni in Seoul, South Korea. I danced—yes, really—with the men of Last Call, one of our student a cappella groups, at the Cornell Asia-Pacific Leadership Conference in Hong Kong. (And, by the way, it was to a K-Pop tune!) In Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I joined with more than 1000 alumni in a remarkable celebration of our founding principles of access and inclusion. Everywhere I went—in Philadelphia, West Palm Beach, London, Chicago, Mumbai, Los Angeles, and more—I met people like you who are deeply proud of their Cornell education and all the ways it has enriched their lives.

In fact, a recent study showed that when asked whether they were proud to be Cornell graduates, 85% of our alumni strongly agreed—about 13 percentage points higher than our peer universities. And Cornell alumni support us financially: last year we received $512 million in new gifts and commitments, with alumni and friends strengthening our Annual Funds by $44.4 million—a 6.5% increase over fiscal year 2017.

As Bob Harrison mentioned, alumni stepped up to meet the need for a more welcoming “front door” for the campus with contributions that enabled us to create the new Tang Welcome Center, which serves as a starting point for prospective students and families who visit our campus.

Also, Dave Atkinson ’60 and Pat Atkinson, who named the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, have recently stepped up again with a lead gift for a new building that will house not only the Atkinson Center but also the master’s in public health program, the new department of computational biology, and new multidisciplinary centers that will further connect researchers in Ithaca and Weill Cornell Medicine. We’re excited about the potential for this collaborative hub, and we hope to complete fundraising for it in the year ahead.

Cornell alumni—all of you—have always said yes, Cornell. And you’ve said it in part through your generous financial support for our programs, without which we absolutely could not thrive. For that, I am enormously grateful.

So, what it is about Cornell that makes it so special? What is bringing students here in droves, attracting outstanding faculty and staff, making our alumni so proud and so generous?

I’d argue that the answer is embedded in Morris Bishop’s insights. Our strength stems from the fact that, as Bishop put it, we are “half State college, half endowed institution, stoutly liberal and strangely conservative, [with] activity [ranging] from research in the noblest mysteries to broadcasting messages on disinfecting brooder houses.”

We are distinguished in our academics through our commitment both to the core liberal arts that are part of the great Ivy League tradition and to the range and excellence of professional education often associated with the great public universities. That dual commitment matters enormously in today’s world, where the most pressing issues require a breadth of perspective—where they require both theorizing and practice. We can take on research into great social challenges in ways that very few other universities can.

This is what our “radical collaborations” efforts are targeting. We are carefully and intentionally forming research communities that span disciplinary boundaries to address challenging problems and make discoveries that point the way toward the solutions of tomorrow. And they span our campuses as well. Let me give you just one example.

The new Friedman Center for Nutrition and Inflammation was recently established with a gift from Barbara Friedman ’59 and Steve Friedman. It links our globally recognized life sciences and nutrition program in Ithaca with exceptional biomedical research and clinical care programs at Weill Cornell Medicine, and it brings faculty together to study the interaction among diet, the immune system, and the microbiome, with the goal of both advancing science and developing treatments and preventive strategies for a wide range of diseases.

Our unique combination of “Ivy League plus land grant” also influences our teaching. A key reason many students come here is to obtain an education that is relevant, where they make use of what they’re learning in the classroom.

There are many programs that help them do that, from Engaged Cornell, which supports courses and programs in which students work with community partners to put their learning to use, to the Active Learning Initiative, in which faculty re-invent their courses, having students read texts and/or watch videos with core material outside class time, and then, during class, work together on challenging problems, under the supervision of the professor and TAs. We’ve been studying the impact of this program, and the early evidence is that students enjoy the experience and learn more as well.

I’d also like to mention the Cornell Portal, which is part of a global public arts initiative. It uses immersive audiovisual technology to place you “virtually” in the same room with people from around the world. I visited it myself, and I had the opportunity to talk with a pair of young men in Afghanistan who run a program that teaches girls to code and do web development. It’s a fascinating experience, and I’d encourage you to stop by and visit it while you’re here: it’s on the Arts Quad, next to the library.

Yet another reason a Cornell education is relevant in today’s world lies in our commitment to diversity and inclusion. That commitment is not an add-on for Cornell; it has been a core value from the beginning. Just a few weeks ago, on October 7, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Ezra Cornell’s first public declaration that our university should be one for “any person.” Today, more than ever, in the face of horrific incidents of hatred like last week’s shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Cornell must stand for human dignity, for acceptance, respect, and inclusion.

Last May, after working through much of the academic year, our Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate produced a long list of recommendations of ways to ensure that our campus is not just diverse but also inclusive and welcoming. Last month, I sent an update to the Cornell community, outlining steps we have already taken as well as plans for the future.

As just a few examples: Starting this year, all new first-year students participated in an Intergroup Dialogue Project during orientation. This program has proven successful in teaching people to communicate more effectively across difference, something that is so important in today’s world.

There’s also now an online course to train faculty and teaching assistants in how to teach more effectively in multicultural classes and how to address difficult topics in class. And we have announced an expanded commitment to recruiting a more diverse faculty. There’s so much more I could tell you about, but it’s getting late, so I’ll just encourage you to take a look at the website, which you can easily find by going to the Cornell home page and searching for “diversity and inclusion.”

There’s clearly so much here at Cornell that is exciting, so it’s probably not a surprise that people are saying “yes” to us. But of course, there are also challenges.

Nationally, we are facing a crisis in mental health among college students. Across the country, campus counseling centers saw an average 30% jump in the number of students seeking help between 2009 and 2015. Here at Cornell, student requests for mental health services have also soared.

To address our students’ needs, we have added seven mental health professionals in the past three years for a total of 40. We have added drop-in counseling sites across campus, provided more group therapy options, and assigned every student a primary care provider who can serve as a first point of contact and provide continuity of care. In the months ahead, we will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of student mental health needs and our approaches.

Cost is of course another key concern—and one that, again, is not unique to Cornell but is an issue at all institutions of higher education in this country. We work very hard to make Cornell affordable for families. We have invested extremely heavily in financial aid, especially over the past decade, and today, for most students with financial aid, the net cost of a Cornell education is actually lower than it was a decade ago—and even, in many cases, two decades ago.

Yet we recognize that there are continued financial stresses, particularly on middle-class families, and we are working to address them. We are holding the line on administrative costs, with fewer non-teaching staff than we had a decade ago, even though there are more students. But as we rein in costs we must do so carefully, ensuring that we protect the outstanding education that our students receive. Education of this quality is expensive to provide, so we must focus on scholarships as a philanthropic priority.

The final challenge I’d like to mention is the public perspective on higher education in this country. A recent Gallup survey found that only 48% of American adults have either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education—down from 57% just three years ago.

Each of you, I’m sure, knows the value of a Cornell education. It goes well beyond financial benefits, but even there, the college wage premium—the amount of “extra” salary that college graduates earn—remains very high, especially for graduates of a university like Cornell. The median starting salary of a Cornell graduate is higher than the U.S. median household income. Payscale’s most recent analysis projects a 20-year return on investment for a new Cornell graduate as being between $650,000 and $790,000. And of course, there are so many other benefits, in terms of personal growth and insight, the establishment of lifelong friendships and professional networks, and more. One of the most important things you can do for Cornell is to get the word out about the value your education has had—as an investment in your career and in the quality of your life.

Despite these challenges, which apply to all good universities in this country, I have no hesitancy in saying that the state of Cornell University is strong. We are attracting the very best students, faculty, and staff. They are receiving awards and obtaining external funding for their work, and that work is having an impact on the world. We have a very high level of alumni engagement and support.

So, to return to the words of Morris Bishop: “Should we complain because our Alma Mater has found no fixed and sure classification in the educational world? Why no, I should think not. Perhaps the amazing growth of the University from the seed planted by Ezra Cornell is due to characteristics implicit in the seed and developed by its isolation and independence. Perhaps it is important that we should not be grouped as a member of any Big Four or Big Twelve. As the qualities in the seed persist and fructify, it may be that foreign observers hunting the essentially American college will specify Cornell University. And perhaps Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.”