Martha E. Pollack

Martha E. Pollack

President: 2017 to 2024

Martha E. Pollack, an expert in artificial intelligence with a research focus on natural-language processing, automated planning, and the design of assistive technology for people with cognitive impairment, served as the 14th president of Cornell University and professor of computer science, information science, and linguistics. She advanced and championed Cornell’s world-class academics and its unique identity as both a land-grant and an Ivy League university, bringing Ezra Cornell’s vision of “the first truly American university” forward to meet the present and future.

Pollack led significant advances in Cornell’s academic distinction. During her tenure, the university established the Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy, creating a shared home for Cornell’s multidisciplinary public policy expertise, and positioning that work for greater reach and impact. Pollack launched the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, dedicated to exploring cutting-edge technologies and their impact on individuals and society. The college also enhances new interdisciplinary cross-campus programs, such as digital agriculture and the university wide AI Initiative. Cornell Tech, the university’s pathbreaking technology campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, also expanded significantly, opening new areas in human-focused technology research and education, such as health tech, urban tech, and public interest tech.

In the fall of 2020, Cornell became one of a handful of U.S. universities, and the only Ivy, to invite all its undergraduate and graduate students back to campus for an in-person residential semester. A science-based approach to planning and response, a communitywide culture of public health responsibility, and mitigation measures such as extensive surveillance testing conducted by Cornell’s in-house COVID-19 testing laboratory, enabled a successful in-person residential year.

Pollack achieved ambitious goals for student affordability and access, increasing by 1,000 the number of undergraduates receiving financial aid, reducing student loan burden by 25%, and ensuring that all students receiving financial aid would have the opportunity to participate in an internship or other summer educational activity. Weill Cornell Medicine also transitioned to debt-free education, offering full scholarships to all medical students with financial need.

The broad increase in student financial aid was enabled by Pollack’s leadership of Cornell’s ambitious philanthropic campaign, To Do the Greatest Good. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the campaign led to two of the most successful fundraising years in the history of the university, strengthening key areas including endowed professorships and research support. The campaign also supported major capital projects including Atkinson Hall, the Meinig Fieldhouse, a new building for Cornell Bowers CIS, a new student residence building at Weill Cornell Medicine, and a full renovation of the historic McGraw Hall. At the time of Pollack’s retirement, the campaign had achieved 96% of its $5 billion goal, two years before its end date.

Pollack drove meaningful advances in educational verve across the university, expanding new, evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning through the Active Learning Initiative, which by 2024 reached about 10,000 students on the Ithaca campus each year. She also extended the impact of Cornell’s teaching and learning beyond its campuses, overseeing the growth of eCornell programming to more than 140,000 students in the last year of her tenure, up from 19,000 in 2017.

To reaffirm the university’s core values in a contentious era, Pollack engaged stakeholders across Cornell’s campuses to identify and describe those values. The resulting statement of Core Values—purposeful discovery, free and open inquiry and expression, a community of belonging, exploration across boundaries, changing lives through public engagement, and respect for the natural environment—served as a compass and a guide for her leadership, notably through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout her tenure, Pollack significantly advanced the university’s progress toward carbon neutrality, both by applying existing technology to reduce emissions and using its resources and expertise to explore new solutions with the potential for broader impact. She spearheaded numerous improvements to student-centered facilities, notably the construction and opening of the new North Campus residential halls, which added housing for over 2,000 students and enabled the university to guarantee housing and co-curricular programming for all first- and second-year undergraduates.

This focus on environmental sustainability in Cornell’s campus operations included exploratory research and planning for Earth Source Heat. Under Pollack’s leadership, Cornell became the first Ivy League university to achieve STARS Platinum status with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), and the first American university to achieve the status five times in a row.

To enhance the student experience, Pollack established an office of First Generation and Low Income Student Support with an endowed deanship, along with a range of other programs to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. She also led the creation of the Department of Public Safety, integrating public safety services units on the Ithaca campus to better meet the needs of a diverse community; oversaw the establishment of a Veterans’ House; led a complete overhaul of the Student Code of Conduct; and expanded mental health services.

In the last year of her term, Pollack also led a university-wide theme year, “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell,” engaging the entire community in an exploration of the centrality and challenges of free expression through more than 90 events and activities across the university.

From 2000 to 2017, Pollack was a faculty member at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she also served as dean of the School of Information, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs, and finally, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. She earned her Ph.D. and M.S.E. in computer and information science from the University of Pennsylvania, and her A.B. in linguistics from Dartmouth College. Pollack is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.