Speeches & Writings

2020 State of the University Address

by President Martha E. Pollack

As prepared for presentation
October 9, 2020
Ithaca, New York


Good morning, everyone. It’s great to have so many of you with us, from all over the country and all over the world.

The Trustee Council Annual Meeting looks very different this this year, and so does Cornell. We’re doing a lot of things in ways we’ve never done them before, including this State of the University presentation. But the state of our university right now, while it is different, is also remarkable, and I’m so glad to be able to share with you just a few of the highlights of the past year

I want to start out this morning by reminding you of Cornell’s mission: which is to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge, to educate the next generation of global citizens, and to promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community.

This past year, and in particular, this pandemic, have shone a spotlight on how essential that mission is—by highlighting for everyone how a healthy, functioning society relies on the values of knowledge and truth; on the ability to communicate across difference; on a commitment to diversity, equity, and excellence; and of course, on education and research—in particular, the kind of exceptional education and research that are the hallmarks of Cornell.

The pandemic has also reminded us that our lives and society, and really our whole world, depend on a huge range of expertise: whether it’s in public health and vaccine development, or supply chains, or labor policy, or communication, or teaching innovation, or technology. And of course, we also need the art, music, and literature that are helping all of us survive and understand the strange times in which we’re living.

One might say that we need both “any person, and any study.”

And so it was clear to us, from the moment that we made the decision to deactivate our campuses in March, that we needed to begin working on ways to keep Cornell moving forward. And as we did that, we embraced an important principle: that our decisions around reopening would be based on science.

We began with detailed epidemiological modeling, tailored to our circumstances here in Ithaca. Those models, which were developed under the supervision of one of our faculty members, Professor Peter Frazier, showed us something surprising: that our goal of having the healthiest possible semester (both for our Cornell community, and our Ithaca neighbors) would be best met by inviting our students back to campus, with a range of measures, including an extensive surveillance testing program.

That result—that it was actually safer to bring students back to campus than to have a wholly online semester—seems counterintuitive. But it followed from the fact that the majority of our students here in Ithaca live off campus, and we knew from student surveys and discussions with landlords that a large number of them were going to return to Ithaca no matter how we taught this semester.

To control the spread of the virus, we needed to test those students frequently, along with our faculty and staff; to identify infected individuals as early as possible and get them into isolation; and then to identify, quarantine, and test their contacts. Test, isolate, contact trace: those three steps are Infection Control 101.

Now here’s the thing: if we had not reopened for instruction, then as I’ve noted, thousands of students were still going to return to Ithaca and move into their privately leased apartments—we had no legal way of preventing that.

If we had kept our campus deactivated, we would not have had the ability to influence their behavior by compelling them to sign and abide by a behavioral compact, and requiring them to be tested on a regular basis, to comply with contact tracing, and to isolate if necessary.

In short, we needed a way to enforce all of the necessary public health requirements, and we could only have that with an active campus.

In fact, our epidemiological model estimated that the kind of in-person semester we planned would result in a reduction of infections by a factor of six to nine relative to an all-online semester, where we would have less influence with our students.

Once we knew that, we got to work—reconfiguring our classrooms, dining halls, and study spaces for physical distancing; upgrading our ventilation systems; putting together a public health campaign; sourcing adequate supplies, including PPE; designing a behavioral compact, and putting in place mechanisms to enforce that compact; and handling the almost endless number of changes that we would need to mount the semester safely. But of all the challenges we met this summer, I think that the most extraordinary was the need to stand up our own laboratory for coronavirus testing.

Called the CCTL (Cornell Coronavirus Testing Laboratory), it is housed in the Animal Health Diagnostic Center of the College of Veterinary Medicine, led by Dean Lorin Warnick, and developed under the leadership of Dr. Gary Koretzky, Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and Vice Provost for Academic Integration. In creating it, we worked in close collaboration with the Cayuga Health System and the Tompkins County Health Department. Indeed, I cannot say enough about the incredible value of our collaborations with the local health system, the county health department, and other local governing bodies, both throughout our planning process, and now, into the semester.

The CCTL uses pooled PCR testing and can process almost 50,000 samples per week, with a turnaround time of less than 24 hours. That capacity enables us to do extensive surveillance testing of everyone in our Cornell community. This is different from testing for cause; we’re not testing just the people with symptoms, or just the people who have had contact with someone who’s known to be positive. We’re regularly testing everyone—in the case of undergraduates, twice a week. Of course we also do testing for cause, and we’re also doing what’s called adaptive testing, where we expand our testing beyond formal contacts of known positive cases, to further ensure that we catch all positives early: for example, if a student in a sorority tests positive, we might test all of the other members of the sorority.

And we’re doing all of that with capacity we built at Cornell—we’re not drawing down local resources.

In fact, last week, in collaboration with the Cayuga Health System, we donated $160,000 worth of our testing capacity to the Ithaca City School District, testing more than 1,200 local students as the district prepared to reopen for in-person instruction this Monday.

Having our own lab is really what made it possible for us to even consider having an in-person semester, and our testing program is what distinguishes our reopening plan from that of many of our peers.

To date, we have tested just under 165,000 samples since the start of classes on September 2.

And in that period, we have had a total of only 101 positives, including a total of only 10 in the past 2 weeks. This is in a community of about 28,000 faculty, staff, and students here in Ithaca this fall. We are seeing remarkably low testing positivity rates, and remarkably low overall rates of infection—significantly lower than our epidemiological model had predicted, even when run with optimistic parameters.

This is due, in no small part, to our amazing students, who have tackled this semester as true Cornellians: taking great pride in doing what many people said couldn’t be done, and in showing the world that, even without football or hockey, Cornell can still beat Harvard.

That said, we know that our success is fragile. And so we will remain vigilant: monitoring the situation carefully, keeping appropriate protocols in place, and making adjustments as needed.

Now, while I’ve been focusing on our testing program, it’s of course not the only thing we’re doing differently at Cornell this year.

Move-in is always an incredible logistical feat at Cornell, and this year, I need to give Student and Campus Life staff the credit they deserve, and call it a logistical triumph. (And yes, that’s our vice president of student and campus life, Ryan Lombardi, on the right behind the Cornell mask.)

It took ten days and almost 200 staff volunteers to bring our students back into our residence halls. Each arriving student was tested for COVID and then quarantined overnight, until they received their results. That required 12,099 bed nights in area hotels, 1,349 shuttle bus rides, and approximately 30,000 quarantine meals picked up from three distribution tents—some of them under our inclement weather plan, because this is Ithaca, and we always need our inclement weather plan.

Classes began on September 2, with about 30% held with an in-person component, and the rest being taught virtually. Masks are of course required, and students sit in assigned seats, with appropriate distance between them. And when students want to find a place to study, they can use our new Book a Study Space app, which finds and reserves available spaces, like unused conference rooms or classrooms.

Our dining halls are open, operating at reduced density. Students can dine in, at distanced tables if they make reservations with the OpenTable app, or they can get take-out food, from existing dining halls or one of three satellite locations, with reusable containers available to reduce take-out waste. We’ve been careful to keep student favorites available across campus; yes, it’s a pandemic, but this is still Cornell, and our students need their Cornell ice cream.

In the absence of athletic competition, our student athletes have found ways to stay motivated and stay together; whether it’s the football team learning plays together over Zoom, or throwing themselves into Mask-Up Mondays, a public health campaign that the seniors on the team launched. And even though we’re now finding new and different ways to beat Harvard, I do want to note that before their season was interrupted by the pandemic, our men’s and women’s hockey teams were both ranked #1 in the nation.

Despite all the changes and the challenges, our students overwhelmingly chose to return to their studies this fall; we have a remarkable 97% of last year’s fall enrollment. Of those, about 6000 are studying away from Ithaca this semester, including almost 500 international students at 11 Study Away sites—these are partnerships we developed with universities around the world, enabling our students to live and take classes at a partner university, while also taking classes remotely at Cornell and receiving Cornell credit.

So, while we still have essentially full enrollment, we also have a significantly de-densified campus.

We have full enrollment at Weill Cornell Medicine, and about 90% enrollment at Cornell Tech—a drop that we expected, given that students were making their decisions about what to do this fall just as New York City was ground zero for coronavirus in this country. However, we saw enormous interest in our new Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech, and we are quite optimistic that Cornell Tech enrollment as a whole will bounce back next year.

And this is where I want to shift gears a little bit, from how we’ve adapted our operations to the pandemic, to how we’ve continued to pursue our mission throughout this extraordinary year.

All of the work and planning, and the enormous investment of resources that went into our reopening, were done to enable that mission to continue. And I just want to touch on a few highlights of Cornell’s activities, across our four priorities of academic distinction, educational verve, civic responsibility, and One Cornell.

I’ll start, as I always do, with Academic Distinction.

Our faculty continue to lead their fields, and to be recognized across disciplines for their extraordinary contributions. I would need much more time than I have this morning to tell you all about our new Guggenheim, Wilson, and Packard Foundation fellows; our new inductees to the American Chemical Society, American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and our nine NSF Early Career Awards.

But I want to share just a few highlights, like

We’ve moved forward in our plans to further strengthen the social sciences at Cornell, advancing the creation of a new School of Public Policy, which will be a separate school with its own dean; as well as new or expanded “superdepartments” in economics, psychology, and sociology.

And we are deeply involved in helping to answer some of the most pressing questions of the pandemic, including the ongoing mystery of how one virus can produce no symptoms at all in some people, and lethal disease in others. Weill Cornell Medicine’s Clinical and Translational Science Center has been awarded a two-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to help answer that question, by investigating the role of social and biological factors in determining COVID-19 severity and outcomes in New York City patients.

In Ithaca, Cornell nutritional sciences professors Julia Finkelstein and Saurabh Mehta  are leading a systematic review of the evidence of coronavirus transmission via breastfeeding. Their work will inform the World Health Organization’s recommendations to governments and health care systems, which are being designed to help keep mothers and babies as safe as possible, everywhere.

Our second priority is educational verve, and in the words of Julia Thom-Levy, our Vice Provost for Academic Innovation, “we’ve never seen more educational verve [at Cornell] than we have this year.”

While everyone would obviously prefer to be living in a world where we could gather freely, and teach without constraint in classrooms—given that that isn’t possible right now, our primary goal is to set the standard for what is possible: finding the best ways to provide the world-class educational experience of Cornell, in a manner that is safe for our students, faculty, and staff.

For example, introductory physics, which is usually very hands-on and lab-dependent, this semester is being taught entirely online. As Professor Natasha Holmes puts it, “Our lab sequence asks, what does it mean to do an experiment in physics? And we’ve taken it farther than we used to, because we used to be restricted to what was in the lab. Now the options are almost endless.” Like entire labs on electricity and magnetism done with scotch tape; pendulum labs done with shoelaces and phone chargers;  and labs that explore Hooke’s Law of Elasticity done with standard weights that students quantify in their dorm rooms using everything from stacks of quarters to bottles of water.

If you’re taking entomology this semester, your lectures are online, and you’ll do your outdoor bug collecting with a mask, in a socially distanced manner. The professor also sends a treasure box of collection equipment and a cheap digital microscope to our remote students so they can collect insects from all around the world.

There are literally dozens of examples I could give you of the incredible innovation of our faculty as they teach this semester, but I don’t want to keep you on Zoom all day—so instead, I’ll turn to our third priority, civic responsibility.

If we have ever had a moment in our history where we have been face to face with our common responsibility for our shared future, it is now.

And Cornell’s goal of carbon neutrality is more urgent than ever. Even as we continue to invest in renewable energy sources like solar, we also continue to pursue Earth Source Heat, which has been part of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan since 2009. This is an ambitious proposal to heat most buildings on the Ithaca campus using a deep geothermal system that would draw on thermal energy stored deep within the Earth.

I’m delighted to share that in late July, Cornell secured a United States Department of Energy grant, expected to total about $7.2 million, to fund exploratory research—in the form of a 2-mile-deep borehole—to help verify the feasibility of this project.

Beyond that, in June, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) recognized our work by awarding Cornell its highest sustainability rating, STARS platinum. We are the first Ivy League university, and only the sixth university in the world, to achieve this status.

At Cornell, our purpose is not only knowledge for its own sake, but also knowledge with a public purpose. This year, thanks in large part to the generosity of Einhorn Collaborative, led by trustee David Einhorn ’91, fourteen teams of Cornell faculty and community partners have received Engaged Research Grants from the Office of Engagement Initiatives to increase undergraduate involvement in research that strengthens the well-being of communities—including projects that support the state’s dairy industry, protect our water supply, and strengthen food security.

Along with the pandemic, our nation was rocked last spring and summer by the killings of Black Americans, followed by months of protests for social justice. As an academic community built on the bedrock values of diversity, inclusion, and openness, we have an obligation to ensure that the forces of these events and our feelings drive us not backward, but forward—which is why we put into place a series of actions in response: strengthening community involvement in public safety, holding community conversations on race and racism, and supporting a range of faculty and staff-led projects that will expand our commitment to being a welcoming community for any person: a community that sends its students out to help create a more inclusive world.

Also as part of our commitment to our core values, faculty from our American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program are now advancing several initiatives that address the role of the expropriation of indigenous lands in the creation of land-grant universities like ours.

Campus-level activity, through our Belonging@Cornell framework, is being coordinated by our Presidential Advisors on Diversity and Equity, which is chaired by Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Avery August, pictured here at the kickoff event for the Belonging@Cornell Initiative.

And I could not talk about civic responsibility today without mentioning one alumna who lived that responsibility until the very last day of her life: the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, who frequently referred to the formative experiences she had as an undergraduate at Cornell, both in her classes, and outside of them. It was at Cornell that she learned to write, learned to cherish the Constitution, and met her husband, the late Martin Ginsburg ’53—whom she later referred to as “the first guy I ever dated who cared that I had a brain.”

I’m delighted to announce that a fund has been created for the Ruth Bader and Martin D. Ginsburg Program, established by Jeff ’79 and Christie Weiss and supported by a number of caring donors. It will be used to create a program at Cornell honoring the interests of the justice and her husband.

We also wanted to create a physical reminder at Cornell of Justice Ginsburg’s time here, and those discussions came together with ongoing discussions about how best to honor the memory of her fellow alumna, the late Toni Morrison MA ’55, critically acclaimed novelist, essayist, and professor, and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in literature, who is also being recognized through a series of events at Cornell this year.

For both these extraordinary Cornellians, we wanted to create a memorial that would be seen by, and have its doors open to, “any person,” at Cornell—reminding all of our Cornell students, not just those in a particular field or college, that their path from Cornell can take them anywhere.

So I am truly delighted to announce that we will be honoring Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Toni Morrison by naming for each of them one of the new North Campus Residential Expansion halls. The opening of NCRE will mark the beginning of a new chapter in residential life at Cornell, one that will be focused on building community and supporting communication across difference—revitalizing, and in many ways reinventing, the student experience here. In years to come, every Cornell freshman and sophomore will live on campus, starting their time here on North Campus—and every one of them will see, on that campus, the names of two of our most accomplished alumnae.

And that brings me to my fourth and final priority—One Cornell.

I cannot say enough about the way that the Cornell community, around the world, has come together during this crisis, offering assistance and support of every kind. Among the many challenges we’ve faced as an institution since March, one of them has of course been financial. The cost of transforming our campus, including mounting and running our own testing lab, has been enormous, and that impact has been compounded by lost income from our enterprise units, like our hotel and campus-to-campus bus; from lost tuition from international graduate students who haven’t been able to enroll; and from our reduced housing and dining income. But all of that is small relative to the increased costs of our commitment to meeting the full financial need of our undergraduates.

Our budget office anticipates that about 3,000 Cornell students will experience pandemic-related changes to their financial situations just this year, resulting in up to an additional $90 million in financial need—and we expect a significantly increased degree of need to continue for the next few years.

We’ve done a great deal to keep the university budget on an even keel throughout these changes, including hiring and pay freezes, targeted cuts in university spending, a modest increase in endowment payout rate, and reductions in employee benefits and/or pay (including significant voluntary reductions to my salary and those of other senior administrators). We’ve also frozen most construction, although we are moving forward with projects we’d already begun, such as the North Campus Residential Expansion.

Those measures have helped us to balance the budget for both the fiscal year that ended last summer, and, so far, the current fiscal year.

But there is no way that we could have managed to meet the financial need of our students without the incredible generosity of so many of you. Here I want to particularly thank Dave Duffield, who helped get the Cornell Promise initiative for student financial aid off to a strong start, and everyone on the Board of Trustees who has stepped forward to help, or is planning or considering gifts as we head toward year-end. Thanks in large part to you, gifts to the Cornell Promise now total over $26 million. And thanks to you, we’ve continued to meet the full need of every student and continued to honor Ezra Cornell’s promise to keep our doors open to any student, for any study.

And that’s the note I want to end on, before turning to your questions. Those of you who were at TCAM last year might remember that I talked about how Ezra Cornell, in the turbulent years of the Civil War, sought ways to invest his fortune that would return not the greatest dividends of money, but the greatest dividends in good.

For the last 155 years, that’s exactly what Cornell has done—pursued its mission of teaching, engagement, and research to create the greatest good not just for our students, but for our community, our society, and our world. In good times and bad, through wars, upheaval, unrest, and yes, more than one pandemic, we’ve continued on, as an institution where any person can find instruction in any study, where truth is sought for truth’s sake, where knowledge has a public purpose, and where our ideals are matched by our excellence.

I am so proud to be part of this incredible community, and so grateful to all of you for keeping Cornell strong—on our campuses, and wherever Cornellians might be.