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Inaugural Address

by Martha E. Pollack, 14th President of Cornell University

As prepared for delivery
August 25, 2017
Ithaca, New York


Thank you, Chairman Harrison. I am deeply honored by the trust you and the other members of the Board of Trustees have placed in me. The trustees have a remarkable level of talent, passion, and commitment to Cornell. I have come, in a very short time, to understand and to share that passion, and my pledge to you today is one of commitment: to do everything I can to ensure that Cornell continues to thrive and to reach its highest aspirations.

Thank you also to my predecessors, the prior presidents of Cornell, four of whom are here today. It is perhaps de rigueur on an occasion such as this to state that one is humbled. But humbled I am, to follow in the footsteps of these four men, who so wisely guided this university over four decades. Honestly, it is humbling because, as if it weren’t enough for them to be extraordinarily accomplished academic leaders, one of them also wrote a definitive field guide to the fossils and another a book on how to win at Monopoly, a third had an offer to try out for the Baltimore Orioles, and the fourth played flute on the stage with Wynton Marsalis.

It is also fitting that we remember President Elizabeth Garrett, whose own inauguration was less than two years ago, and whose time at Cornell was tragically cut short.

I am grateful to President Hanlon for his kind comments, his support, and his friendship; to the faculty, students, and staff of Cornell, for being here today and for being Cornell; and to the state, local, and tribal leaders who have joined us.

It also brings me great joy to share this weekend with family and friends who have traveled here from around the country. To the large contingent from the University of Michigan, though, I have a word of warning—we don’t sing “Hail to the Victors” here. I just didn’t want you waiting for that.

Finally, a very special thanks to my immediate family—my amazing husband, Ken Gottschlich; our children, Anna and Nick; and my father, Martin Pollack, who at 83 still works full-time because he wants to, and who taught me, from a very early age, the ultimate value of education, hard work, and family.


Inaugurations provide a moment to reflect on history, and at Cornell, it seems to me, we have a particularly strong appreciation for our history. More so than at other universities, our students, faculty, and staff know the story of our founding—of Ezra Cornell, the farmer-mechanic, who made his fortune as a founder of Western Union; of Andrew Dickson White, the historian and professor, who met Cornell when both were serving as New York state senators; and of the opportunity that the two men saw in the Morrill Act of 1862—the federal statute that established land grant colleges—an opportunity to create not just a new university, but a new kind of university.

The vision that Cornell and White had is embodied in our founding principle: to be a place “where any person can find instruction in any study.” Their vision embodies two ideas that were quite radical when Cornell was founded in 1865: first, that this university would be open to any student, not restricted by gender, race, religion, or nationality; and second, that it would be open to any study, not limited to (but certainly not excluding) the classical liberal arts, and expansive in including a wide range of professional fields.

Seventy-five years after Cornell’s founding, during celebrations marking that anniversary, the eminent Cornell historian Carl Becker gave a speech that has been quoted many times. Most often, people quote Becker’s description of the Cornell ethos as one of “freedom and responsibility.” Important though that characterization is, today I want to reflect on a later portion of the speech, in which Becker discusses the purpose of universities:

There is [he said] . . . no reason for the existence of Cornell, or of any university . . . except in so far as they serve to maintain and promote the humane and rational values which are essential to the preservation of democratic society, and of civilization as we understand it.

And he continued:

Democratic society, like any other society, rests upon certain assumptions as to what is supremely worthwhile. It assumes the worth and dignity and creative capacity of the human personality as an end in itself. It assumes that it is better to be governed by persuasion than by compulsion, and that good will and humane dealing are better than a selfish and a contentious spirit. It assumes that man is a rational creature, and that to know what is true is a primary value upon which in the long run all other values depend. It assumes that knowledge and the power it confers should be employed for promoting the welfare of the many rather than safeguarding the interests of the few.

Becker gave this speech in 1940. It was a time at which terrible, unspeakable acts were occurring in the world. It was arguably the moment in the 20th century at which democratic society was most threatened.

Today there is no less of a call for universities to “maintain and promote the humane and rational values” that preserve democratic society. Today, it is just as important as it was in 1940 to roundly reject bigotry, hatred, and fascism. Today, it is just as essential to stand firmly on the side of democracy, human dignity, and the well-being of the many.

We meet these obligations in many ways in universities: through the pursuit of distinguished scholarship that betters humankind, through thoughtful education of the next generation, and through the fulfillment of our civic responsibilities. At a high level, these are relevant to and shared by all great universities. But we must understand and realize them within the unique history, culture, and strengths of Cornell.


Let me start with academic distinction. If, as Becker states, knowing what is true is a primary value for democratic society, then universities surely have a critical role to play through our core work of discovering, curating, and preserving knowledge.

It is not just our ambition but also our responsibility to do this work with as much distinction as possible, so as to contribute to society as much as possible. We must always aspire to distinction in both senses of the word: we must be distinguished and we must be distinctive.

Cornell is academically distinguished because our faculty are distinguished, leaders in their fields of expertise. Although I have been here only four months, I have already had remarkable conversations with faculty members who are renowned for their scholarship in everything from the literature of the African diaspora, to the electrostatic interactions in DNA and RNA, to genomic analyses of high-yield rice cultivars, to the sensory aspects of marketing wine.

To maintain our academic distinction, we must and we will invest in our faculty, and we will work to ensure that Cornell provides an environment in which faculty thrive, as teachers and as researchers.

We must also explicitly and intentionally build on what it is that makes us Cornell, on what it is that is intellectually distinctive about us. We have an unusually fierce commitment to the notion that there is a compelling synergy between the liberal arts, on the one hand, and professional study across a swath of disciplines on the other. We are extraordinarily broad. We are an Ivy League college, and we are a land grant university. We treasure knowledge for its own sake, and we eagerly pursue applications of knowledge that positively impact the world.

We are at a moment in Cornell’s history that affords us an additional dimension of distinctiveness. I refer, of course, to next month’s official opening of our Cornell Tech campus in that other “bustling town,” New York City. (Non-Cornellians: see the words of our alma mater for the reference!) Cornell has had a significant presence in New York City for well over a century, most visibly in our outstanding medical school—Weill Cornell Medicine—which opened in 1898. But the creation of Cornell Tech represents a doubling down of our involvement in and impact on New York City, and I believe that the opening of our Roosevelt Island campus will be nothing less than transformational.

Let me be clear: Even as we expand in New York City, we remain fully committed to our Ithaca campus. As I have said many times over the past few months, Ithaca is a magical place—a community centered on scholarship and education, in which informal interactions among faculty, students, and staff happen routinely and effortlessly; a physically glorious setting “centrally isolated” in a way that fosters a remarkable experience of learning and intellectual growth. Ithaca itself is a key distinctive feature of Cornell, and it is our heart and soul.

But extraordinary opportunities arise from our expansion in New York City: cultural opportunities, opportunities for more immediate access to industry, opportunities to engage firsthand in developing solutions to the challenges of an urban setting in a world that is increasingly urban. Just as we have a long tradition of recognizing and building on the complementary strengths of the liberal arts and applied fields of study—just as we have been able to successfully combine Ivy League values with those of land grant institutions—so too will we combine and benefit from the synergistic advantages of our rural and our urban campuses. “One Cornell” we shall be, and we shall be stronger and more distinguished because of it.


The second pathway for maintaining and promoting humane and rational values is education. Arguably, it is through the education we provide to our students that we do the most to promote those values. As we teach—and learn from—thousands upon thousands of remarkable students each year, we develop and refine their ability to assess truth, to appreciate beauty, to uphold and defend the core principles of a democratic society, and to improve the world they inhabit.

As we do this, we must aspire to what I like to call “educational verve.” If you, like me, are an avid solver of the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, you’ll recognize “verve” as a periodic entry, clueing answers of “élan,” “zest,” “vim,” “brio,” and “gusto.” These are the characteristics that must describe our educational work.

Often one hears assertions about the impact of the internet on teaching. The claim is made that traditional approaches to teaching have been rendered pointless, because students have ready access to all the information they could ever need, right there on the cellphones that they’ve super-glued to their palms.

Well, yes. Our students do have ready access to information—we all do—and the conveyance of information per se cannot be our main goal in teaching. But that’s nothing new. Here is Alfred North Whitehead, the British mathematician and philosopher, writing in 1929:

So far as the mere imparting of information is concerned, no university has had any justification for existence since the popularization of printing in the fifteenth century. . . . The justification for a university is [instead] that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest for life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. . . . [The] atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities.

Or as Bill Nye (the science guy, and a Cornell alumnus) put it when he was on campus for his 40th reunion this past June: “The essence of a Cornell education [is] . . . to feel the joy of discovery.”

Excitement, imagination, joy, . . . verve.

This is what we must aspire to in education: a vitality that leads our students to a lifetime of discovery, a passion for ideas, and a commitment to seeking truth.

Importantly this is not an indictment of lectures. Lectures can be captivating, as full of verve as you can imagine, and there is a place for them in the university. But we should also adopt, and we have been adopting, alternatives to the lecture: the flipped classroom, for example, or programs for engaged learning, where students go out into the community to apply what they have learned in the classroom, and then to sharpen their understanding through reflection on those experiences.

We must additionally explore new technologies that include, but go beyond, making course material available online: technologies that allow students to chart more personalized paths through individual courses and through entire curricula; technologies that provide early warnings to faculty about students who are struggling; and technologies that allow us to analyze the data we have about our students, to create an evidence-based understanding of what is most effective in teaching and learning.

In my experience, faculty who explore teaching innovations often find the process to be deeply satisfying, and come away feeling enriched about a meaningful component of their work. There is reward in being open to new ideas and methods that enhance our ability to prepare students for the important work of educated citizens, work that is grounded in the joy—the verve—of continual learning.


Beyond our core work of research and education lies the third pathway to promoting humane and rational values: an interlinked triad of civic responsibilities that universities must satisfy.

These responsibilities begin with an obligation to stand up for the very notion of knowledge and truth.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former United States Senator from New York, famously said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. Yet, over the past decade or so, we have seen a growing disregard for evidence in shaping both individual beliefs and public policy. We have become, as a society, sloppy in assessing information, too frequently content to conclude that something is true—or false—on the basis of hearsay, without rigorous examination of evidence.

There are many reasons for this: the glut of information we encounter every day, which makes it taxing to discern what is accurate and what is not; the degree to which social media facilitates the seemingly endless repetition of unsubstantiated assertions until they take on the aura of truth; and perhaps the complexity of the modern world, in which highly specialized knowledge may be required to evaluate claims of fact and ascertain their veracity.

We don’t know everything, but, as others have noted, not knowing everything does not mean we know nothing. That there are competing hypotheses does not mean that on balance the evidence doesn’t point to one as most likely. That there may be multiple interpretations of an event doesn’t mean that some aren’t better justified than others.

The physicist Edwin Hubble observed that science progresses through successive approximations of the truth, and I’d argue that that’s the case for understanding our world and our lives more broadly.

The growing failure of our society to have a common understanding of what makes information reliable is a dangerous trend, one that threatens the coherence of our democracy. As an institution committed to the value of knowing what is true, we at Cornell must forcefully and publicly defend the notions of evidence, reason, and yes, truth itself, and we must be intentional in providing both our students and the public the tools needed to assess evidence and determine the reliability of information.

Cornell’s faculty understand this. Yesterday’s academic symposium provided outstanding examples of faculty members who study the nature of truth and the reliability of information. Late last spring, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution on reliable knowledge calling for us to initiate “educational activities . . . [that] explain established academic practices for discriminating between fact and opinion, validating facts, . . . and exposing the communication practices that distort, confuse, and seek to repress or censor reliable knowledge.” The resolution suggested a set of concrete activities, and I will gladly support their implementation.


Tightly linked to our commitment to truth is our second civic responsibility, to protect freedom of speech. Without an ability to hear all ideas, we cannot come to know what is true. We can only have successive approximations to truth if we allow statements that are at odds with the currently understood approximation.

While there are significant distinctions in the way in which the United States Constitution affects public versus private institutions such as Cornell, there can be no wavering in our commitment to the values and rights inherent in the First Amendment to that Constitution. As a university—an institution whose very mission is tied to the free interchange of ideas—we have a special responsibility to be open to all thought.

When faced with speech that is obnoxious, offensive, even hateful, we must remember what history has shown about the perils associated with suppressing speech: that so often it is the powerful majorities who suppress the speech of the less powerful. From abolitionists and suffragettes in the middle of the 19th century, to labor organizers in the early 20th century, to those who marched for civil rights in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, those seeking to advance freedoms and to fight oppression have had to fight for their rights to assemble, speak, and protest. The groups that we might aim to protect today by shutting down some offensive speech are the groups that would have stood to lose the most in the past had freedoms of speech been abridged.

This does not mean that there are no limits to speech. Threats and conduct that incites imminent violence are not protected under the Constitution, nor would we tolerate such actions on our campus. Persistent harassment that targets an individual, or behavior that reasonably is deemed to disrupt university activities is also unacceptable. The lines are messy, and debate about them is an appropriate and healthy activity for our universities. But our first instinct must be to protect freedom of speech. While there are those who may promulgate messages that we collectively and institutionally abhor, we cannot allow them to push us into curtailing the rights that we cherish. Instead, it is our duty to use those rights to identify and confront evil, to educate, and to vigorously support, empower, and defend the dignity of those who are targeted by abhorrent speech.


This leads to our third civic responsibility: to work diligently for a future in which all groups are included in the conversation, and to create a community at Cornell that is truly diverse, inclusive, and egalitarian.

Multiple imperatives underlie this responsibility: our knowledge, backed by research, that learning is enhanced in diverse settings and that diverse perspectives lead to better solutions to problems; the stresses in our society that will only be addressed when our citizenry has an increased capacity to work across difference; and the moral imperative of equality that is fundamental to democracy.

An openness to all people is embedded in Cornell’s identity as a university for “any person.” Yet even with our deep commitment to egalitarianism, Cornell has not always been successful in realizing this value. Moreover, we are part of a society in which discrimination and hatred have, tragically, not been vanquished. Our work must continue, to create a culture in which all members of our community feel that they belong, can do their best work, and can learn from one another. And as we work towards an ever more inclusive and equitable Cornell, so must we carry those qualities beyond our campuses and into the broader world.

Just as science progresses through successive approximations of truth, so too, I believe, does humanity progress through successive approximations of justice. Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently stated, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

I began this afternoon with some remarks about Cornell’s founding, and I would like to end in the same way, with a story about the depth of our founders’ commitment to equality. Despite their expressly stated desire to create a diverse campus, there were very few African Americans in the early classes, and in 1874, when none were currently enrolled, President White received a letter asking him whether the university did, in fact, welcome Black students. President White’s response was clear. He wrote: “If even one offered himself and passed the examinations, we should receive him, even if all our five hundred students were to ask for dismissal on that account.”


This is the essence of Cornell: a university bold in its ideals and fervent in its commitment to them.

Today, I stand humbled, committed, and ready to take on the noble work of this university, along with you, the Cornell community. Together we will sustain and enhance Cornell’s academic distinction, we will ensure a culture of educational verve, and we will do the difficult but essential work needed to fulfill our civic responsibilities. Together, we will take satisfaction in doing what universities like ours were created for: promoting humane and rational values, and thereby not simply preserving but also enriching democratic society, intellectually and morally.