Speeches & Writings

2019 State of the University Address

by President Martha E. Pollack

As prepared for presentation
October 18, 2019
Ithaca, New York


Welcome, everyone. Before I dive in to telling you about our amazing students, faculty, and staff, and the work they’ve done over the past year, I want to take a moment to thank all of you as alumni. One of the things that I’ve been so impressed by at Cornell is how strong our community is, not just here on campus, but around the world. Whenever I meet Cornell alumni, I’m struck by how the education that they began at Cornell never really ended.

Cornell alumni are voraciously curious. They—you—are creative and innovative, and the things you are doing are amazing. To me, seeing so many Cornell alumni out there in the world, constantly learning, thinking, and having an impact—that is the best proof possible of the value of Cornell as an institution, and of the importance of our mission.

Carl Sagan once said, you have to know the past to understand the present, so I’m going to start with a bit of history. (A lot of people have said similar things, but, hey, this is Cornell, so I’ll quote Sagan.)

I think most of you know that Ezra Cornell made his fortune on the telegraph. What you may not know is that in the years just before Cornell was founded, he was struggling with the question of what to do with that fortune. The way he put it was, “My greatest care now is how to spend this large income to do the greatest good to those who are properly dependent on me, to the poor and to posterity.”

If you look back at the correspondence that he and Andrew Dickson White had in the months before Cornell was chartered, it’s striking how many of the concerns that occupy us now as a society were at the forefront of their minds then. They talked about divisions within society: about inequality of opportunity, about racism and close-mindedness, and about a devaluation of truth—very much the things you hear talked about today. And they struggled—as I think many of us struggle—with the question, “Of all the ways I could react to this situation, what can I do that will actually help?”

Their response, of course, was to create this university, with its rallying cry of “any person… any study.” Ezra Cornell founded this university not only as a legacy, but also as an investment. And it was an investment he made seeking a very specific return. He was looking to do the greatest good with his fortune, and he was looking to do it for posterity.

One hundred and fifty-four years later, Ezra Cornell would have found some of our challenges as a society very familiar—and some unimaginable. We face problems that are both social and technical, that demand both expertise and humanity. They’re challenges that, in short, require the kind of education and knowledge that we strive for at Cornell—one that will do the greatest good not just for each individual student, but for the communities and societies they will live in, lead, and serve.

I’m going to divide my talk today into four categories, corresponding to the four priorities I see as central to Cornell’s mission and success: academic distinction, educational verve, civic responsibility, and One Cornell.

I’ll start, as I always do, with academic distinction. Academic excellence is our bedrock at Cornell; everything we are, everything we do and achieve, stands on our world-class academics.

Thanks to continuing investment across all of our campuses, we continue to attract and retain some of the best faculty anywhere, who continue to garner recognition at all stages of their careers. Just over the past year, we’ve had—get ready, it’s a long list:

Many of our faculty are exceptional not only in their own fields, but across disciplines—taking advantage of both Cornell’s tremendous breadth of expertise and our institutional commitment to cross-disciplinary collaboration. We’ve introduced a number of structural changes and new initiatives that enable our faculty to step over even more of academia’s traditional barriers.

Our Radical Collaborations Initiative continues to push the boundaries of knowledge and creativity in the realms of data science, digital agriculture, genome biology, the humanities, and beyond. New departments of Computational Biology and Statistics and Data Science;  our new Institute of Politics and Global Affairs in New York City; and the new Center for Social Sciences here in Ithaca are all committed to bringing together different areas of human knowledge in pursuit of understanding that does not lie along traditional paths.

Our SC Johnson College of Business, now in its third year, is doing extremely well, with increased enrollment across its graduate programs, and a near doubling of applications to Dyson—as a result of which we’ve increased the size of our first-year class from 90 students to 159. Thanks to our generous donors, the College of Business endowment is growing steadily, ensuring that the college itself will continue its upward path.

In FY18, our faculty conducted close to $700M in externally funded research, and our preliminary data for 2019 show a 7% increase over that. Over the last two years, our Ithaca and Weill Cornell Medicine campuses have seen a 27% increase in expenditures supported by the National Institutes of Health. Our Ithaca campus continues to diversify its research portfolio, with funding not just from a number of federal agencies, but also from New York State and multiple foundations and corporations.

In tech transfer, our Center for Technology Licensing processed 59 new non-plant licenses—a record for us—and tied our previous record of startups based on Cornell technologies, with 15. In entrepreneurship, Cornell ranks sixth nationally for its undergrad program in terms of producing entrepreneurs who successfully raise venture funding; since 2006, we have produced 796 founders of 735 companies, cumulatively raising more than $23.8 billion.

I see the research enterprise at Cornell as core not only to our academic distinction, but to that larger mission of doing the most good—in all of the areas of human life and endeavor. For example, our Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture, headed by Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics Susan McCouch, is working to radically transform agriculture and food systems to meet the challenge of feeding a global population of 10 billion by 2050.

At Cornell Tech, our researchers are working with the support of a grant from Facebook to find new ways to identify “deepfake” videos, which are created with the intent to deceive their viewers.

And at our new Friedman Center for Nutrition and Inflammation, researchers from our Ithaca and Weill Cornell campuses are studying the interactions among diet, the immune system, and the microbiome to better understand the complex relationship among nutrition, inflammation, and the development of disease.

I should mention here that after TCAM last year, I started keeping a list titled “cool research for 2019 State of the University address.” If I had actually tried to use it this morning, I would never have made it past my first priority, so we’ll have to stop with just those three examples, and turn to the second priority: educational verve. 

Educational verve encompasses the entire experience of a Cornell education—inside and outside of the classroom. It starts with our incredible faculty, but of course also includes our amazing students. I could use all kinds of metrics to tell you how extraordinary our students are, but as much as I love numbers, our students are so much more than the sum of their awards or their test scores. So I’d like to introduce you very briefly to three of them:

First, Naedum DomNwachukwu, a senior biomedical engineering major in the College of Engineering. Naedum, who came to Cornell from California, recently won the Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award, and he used the funding to help launch a Mentorship and College Prep Program for minority students in New York City. The program consists of a two-week winter workshop and a yearlong mentorship partnership that prepares high school juniors for the college application process. He also recently coauthored his first paper, which appeared last month in the Journal of Physical Chemistry. Its title—a mouthful—“Controlling Surface Chemical Heterogeneities of Ultrasmall Fluorescent Core–Shell Silica Nanoparticles as Revealed by High-Performance Liquid Chromatography.” (Yes, he’s an undergraduate!)

Second, Teddy Yesudasan, who just finished his master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics. Teddy won Cornell’s three-minute thesis competition with his research on dihydroflavone 4-reductase substrate specificity in potatoes—or, as he explained it in his very abbreviated rendition, “What Makes a Red Potato Red.” Coming from Coimbatore, India, where all the potatoes are white, his fascination with potato breeding was born, not in a lab, but on his first trip to Wegman’s—where he encountered potatoes in a rainbow of colors, and uttered the fateful words that herald so many great research projects: “I wonder how that happens.”

And third, a young woman I won’t name out of concern for her family’s safety, who came to Cornell through an extraordinary path. Having been denied an education in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, she taught herself English—and continued to teach herself all the way through the high school curriculum. After resisting both an arranged marriage and attempts on her life by relatives, she found her way to a scholarship in the United States and a job as a research assistant at Weill Cornell. With the support and encouragement of alumni, she is now a graduate student here in Ithaca, with the goal of ultimately returning to Afghanistan to train health professionals there.

Cornell students are more than just bright and hardworking. They’re curious, resourceful, and intent on having an impact. And our goal is to support their learning in every aspect of their Cornell experience–in ways that are innovative, evidence-based, and always moving forward.

We’re building on the success of our Active Learning Initiative, which uses creative activities, in-class problem-solving, and technology to make classroom learning more engaged, engaging, and effective. Nine new awards were made last year across the university, transforming an additional 40 courses that serve 4,500 students per year. A new award competition is already planned for next fall to further expand the initiative, which is now receiving national recognition.

Our Engaged Cornell program, which aims to bring Cornell’s foundational goal of community engagement into classrooms and student life, is now reaching the end of its first three years and reviewing its goals for its next phase. The program is currently ahead of all initial targets, including annual course participation, number of courses offered, and level of undergraduate involvement.

Athletics and physical education at Cornell are, as always, an essential part of campus life, whether a student is a varsity athlete or taking an Outdoor Ed course in tree climbing. Our athletic accomplishments last year included, as part of a very long list, a men’s hockey Ivy championship, a national championship in wrestling, and a first-place finish for our equestrian team at the Ivy Show. And if you haven’t been paying attention this fall, our women’s volleyball team has won ten in a row.

But I also want to mention an athletics event you might not have heard of, which is the 400 Club breakfast. It’s the annual event at which we honor varsity athletes who have maintained a 4.0 average. That’s obviously an exceptionally impressive accomplishment for any student, all the more so for a student also juggling the demands of varsity athletics—and last year, we recognized 107 students for doing just that.

Wellness of body and mind are essential to developing into a capable adult. In support of that, Cornell Health has developed a number of new initiatives, including telehealth programs connecting Weill Cornell Medicine specialists with the Ithaca campus, and a revamped mental health service that significantly expands both access and flexibility. Concurrently, we are conducting a campuswide mental health review, with both internal and external assessments, to find better ways to support our students, and help them thrive at Cornell and beyond.

Construction is now well underway on our new North Campus Residential Expansion. When complete, it will look like the image you’re seeing, and will provide an additional 800 beds for sophomores by fall semester 2021, and 1200 additional beds for freshmen by fall 2022. The expansion will take a great deal of stress off students, who will now be guaranteed on-campus housing through their sophomore years, and will allow for a modest increase in enrollment and access to some of our most popular academic programs. All buildings will be “net carbon zero ready,” to accommodate future zero-carbon technologies, with rooftop solar arrays and energy performance that will outperform the NY State Energy Code by 30%. The emphasis on sustainability and readiness for new technologies is a part of our campus-wide commitment to being environmentally responsible, a commitment that is recognized by our #8 rating in the Princeton Review of Green Colleges, above all of our Ivy-plus peers.

Which brings me to our third priority, of civic responsibility. To me, civic responsibility refers to our responsibility both to educate global citizens, and to be a good institutional citizen; acting responsibly in the context of our community, our nation, and our world.

A critical part of that civic responsibility is honoring our commitment to be a university for “any person.”

So I’m proud that in our entering class, the class of 2023, more than 13% are the first in their families to attend college, almost half identify as students of color, and 23% are underrepresented minorities. But it’s not enough just to admit a diverse student body: we also must support them, creating an environment in which each student has the opportunity to succeed.

The world-class education students receive at Cornell is expensive to provide, and the cost of a Cornell education is always a concern, especially for middle-class students. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni, combined with a strong institutional commitment, we continue to meet the full financial need of every admitted domestic student, and move more of our aid away from loans and into grants: last year, we awarded $257 million in grant aid. And this year saw the lowest percentage increase in undergraduate tuition in decades.

While a Cornell education remains a very solid investment—according to Payscale, the twenty-year return on investment ranges from about 650 to nearly 800 thousand dollars—we know that we still need to do more, both to hold the line on the cost of attending Cornell, and to increase the socioeconomic diversity of our student body. It is impossible to overstate the importance of financial aid to our students, and to the future of our university. Not only is it key to meeting our “any person” commitment, it is essential for us to remain competitive. I want to sincerely thank all of you who have contributed over the years with gifts that help us provide financial aid, which remains a primary fundraising priority.

I also want to thank everyone who made possible our historic announcement last month at Weill Cornell Medicine: a new program that will eliminate new debt for all medical students qualifying for financial aid. This is a huge step forward for the medical college and its students, one that will allow them to choose their paths based on where they can do the most good, not whether they’ll be able to pay back their loans.

There’s another aspect of access that has been more and more in the spotlight lately, and has to do with changes in both law and practice surrounding immigration policy.

International students have been part of the Cornell community since our earliest classes, which included students from Bulgaria, Canada, England, Haiti, Hungary, and Russia. Today half of Cornell’s graduate students are international, as is roughly 10% of our undergraduate class, and they contribute immeasurably to our community and our nation. So it’s incumbent upon us to do what we can to keep the doors open to them, and we have been working to do so, by signing on to relevant amicus briefs with other Ivy-plus schools; writing to each member of New York State’s congressional delegation ahead of key votes, and, last March, authoring an op-ed on the risks of curtailing student visas.

Access describes students’ ability to come to Cornell; inclusion is about what happens after they arrive, and it was a focus of the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate that I convened shortly after coming to Cornell. I’m pleased to report that about two-thirds of their recommendations, a number of which were shared by the Provost’s Task Force on Faculty Diversity, have now been put into practice. Today I’ll just mention one of the goals, which was creating, through an inclusive campuswide process, a statement of Cornell’s Core Values.

The statement describes and reaffirms Cornell’s values of

When people ask me, “What are you going to do with that statement now that you have it?” my answer is, “I’m going to use it, and I hope you will too.” It’s there to be used: both as a tool to explain the Cornell ethos to those new to our community, and as a benchmark against which to make the tough decisions that face us as leaders and as Cornellians.

The last priority I want to talk about today is One Cornell. One Cornell is about capitalizing on our strengths both within and across our various campuses—Ithaca; New York City; Geneva, NY; and Qatar—ensuring that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Cornell Tech continues to grow and thrive in its Roosevelt Island home, and to drive the ongoing tech revolution in New York City. It is ahead of all scheduled milestones for square footage and for students and faculty; it’s given rise to 64 startup companies, six of which have been acquired, and which together employ over 250 people and have raised over $78 million in investment capital. Our first class of students in the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity will spend next summer at Cornell Tech, and the second class has now joined them in what has become one of the most sought-after programs at Cornell: giving undergraduates the combination of liberal arts and tech education in Ithaca and in New York City.

A few months ago, I saw a tweet from a professor of biology at Cal State named Terry McGlynn, who wrote, “The sciences ask, ‘Can we do this?’ The humanities ask, ‘Should we do this?’” In an age when technology seems unstoppable, these twin questions—“can we,” and “should we”—are key, and the Milstein fellows are being equipped to answer them. (In the spirit of full disclosure, that wonderful line was posted above a picture of brownie-batter-flavored hummus. As an AI researcher and a university president, I feel fully qualified to say that while the answer to the “can” question here may be “yes,” the answer to the “should” question is, “absolutely not.”

In addition to our amazing Cornell Tech campus, we now have a new footprint at the former RCA building at 570 Lexington in New York City, where eleven Cornell programs, including from ILR, Human Ecology, and Engineering, now have dedicated space across four floors. It’s tremendously important not just to have a permanent home for all of these New York City programs, but to have them in one shared location—where students and faculty can interact, collaborate, and feel at home as part of One Cornell.

As Cornell’s size and distinction grow, so do its reputation and its impact. Cornell researchers are tapped for their expertise in every area imaginable—just about every morning, you’ll see major news outlets consulting and quoting Cornellians. Cornell was also very much in the New York City news earlier this year, when Governor Cuomo tapped our dean of engineering Lance Collins, along with Mary Boyce, the head of engineering at Columbia, to help find a way to avert a dreaded L train shutdown for 15 months of repairs to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. A quarter of a million New Yorkers ride the L train every day, and the closure had been dubbed the L-pocalypse.

Enter the engineers, who headed down for a midnight tour of the tunnel under the East River to see the situation for themselves. As they were walking, Governor Cuomo warned Dean Collins not to pet the “cats”—because they weren’t cats. Dean Collins did not pet them, and thanks to his leadership, an alternative solution was developed that has allowed the L train to continue to run during repairs. 

I want to close today by quoting an author who, although not a Cornellian, captivated many of us with her memoir of intellectual awakening: Tara Westover, author of the book Educated. In an interview last summer, Dr. Westover was asked how being educated changes us as people. She answered, “I don’t think education is so much a state of certainty as it is a process of inquiry. … I don’t think [an educated person] is someone who can recite an army of facts… but someone who has some flexibility of mind, who’s willing to examine their own prejudice, who has acquired a depth of understanding that allows them to see the world from another point of view.” To me, education is exactly that—a process of seeking that becomes a way of being.

For one hundred and fifty-four years, Cornell has welcomed students into a community of learning and scholarship like no other—a community for any person, and any study.

It has taught them, challenged them, awakened them, and engaged them.

It has sent them out with, yes, the knowledge, but also the understanding and curiosity and flexibility of mind to seek truth wherever it may lie, and to put that truth to work.

And it has sent them out with a love of this institution—which has done so much good for so many—and which continues, year after year, to provide returns on Ezra Cornell’s investment to do the greatest good.