Speeches & Writings

To Do the Greatest Good campaign launch remarks

by Martha E. Pollack, President

October 21, 2021

One hundred and fifty-six years ago, Ezra Cornell was looking for a way to build a better future for his country, and for the world. He was looking, as he put it, for a way to “do the greatest good” with the resources he had—and to do it for posterity.

He had plenty of options. There wasn’t any shortage of people to help, or ways to help them. But ultimately, he decided that the way to have the greatest, most lasting impact, was by founding a university. And not just any university—but this university, with its rallying cry of “any person, any study.”

Ezra Cornell understood something that was as true then as it is now: that educating one student reaches generations of others. He understood that the impact of a community seeking truth for its own sake, and knowledge for a public purpose, would go far beyond those who were directly part of that community. And he realized that the best way to build a better world was to invest in the people with the potential to build it.

For 156 years, Cornell has educated the brightest and most talented students from every background. It’s done so without regard to their gender, race, religion, nationality, or ability to pay. And for generations, Cornellians have gone out into the world with the unique ethos of Cornell: an ethos of seeking truth and valuing knowledge, of Ivy League excellence and land-grant responsibility, of inclusion and respect.

Ezra Cornell dreamed of building a university that would combine the liberal arts with practical and professional education, that would reflect the diversity of our nation and our world, and that would provide not only the education, but also the research and the engagement that would drive our country forward into a better future.

His university—this university—went on to do so much more. Described as the first truly American university, Cornell became the model of the great research university as we know it today. It demonstrated, beyond any doubt, how essential education and research—particularly the world-class education and research we strive for at Cornell—are to our society. And it showed that investing in that kind of education and research really is, as Ezra Cornell believed, an investment in the greatest good, for posterity.

The world has changed over the past 150 years, and so have universities. We live on a planet where we’re all interconnected, where information flies instantly around the globe, and where the challenges we face—from climate change, to inequality, to public health—affect us all.

Today’s complex global challenges may not be the ones that Ezra Cornell in 1865—but the university he built is uniquely ready to take them on.

Because they’re challenges that demand world-class expertise, across an incredible breadth and depth of disciplines. They demand a drive for innovation—in engagement and research, and in educating global citizens and leaders. They’re challenges that demand an embrace both of technology, and of humanity; an ability to communicate across difference, and to collaborate across boundaries. One could almost say that today’s challenges demand a particular kind of ethos, and a particular kind of education—one that, while contemporary, is still for any person, and any study.

Today I see Cornell as standing at a pivotal point in its history, poised to be the model of a great research university for the next 150 years—doing the greatest good in our changing world. Toward that end, we have three priorities:

First, educating students to be leaders who carry the Cornell ethos forward. This means committing to and supporting student access—so that we are always a place for “any person.” It means ensuring student wellness, of body and of mind. And it means building on a culture of educational verve—pursuing new ways to teach and to learn that are creative, evidence-based, and always moving forward.

Our second priority is tackling some of the world’s most challenging problems, from theory to practice and back again. Cornell is a place with a remarkable openness to innovation and an unparalleled breadth and depth of expertise, across critical areas such as global sustainability, human and animal health, human creativity, social and economic equity, technology and society, and entrepreneurship. Our goal is to maximize our expertise, and the impact of that expertise: recruiting faculty at the very top of their fields, and giving them the resources to do, and to share, their best work.

Our third priority is connecting Cornell with the world: through public engagement; through our international programs and global reach; and of course, through our expanding presence in New York City, which complements our core programs in Ithaca.

Cornell is its people, now and in future: so we have ambitious goals for endowment funds, to support both our remarkable faculty, and our amazing students. That includes, critically, protecting our founding commitment to diversity, inclusion, and affordability.

Our commitment to being a place for “any person” is central not only to our institutional identity, but also to our ability to be a world-class university: one that attracts the very best students at every level. For us to remain true to our Cornell ethos, and competitive with our peers—we need to do more to honor that commitment. We need to increase the numbers of lower and middle-income students at Cornell; to ensure that they have the same opportunities here as their non-aided peers; and to reduce the amount of debt they bear when they graduate.

Our goals for this campaign are ambitious, in line with our ambitions as a university. We’ve set a target of $5 billion, which includes $3 billion for our Ithaca campus, $1.5 billion for Weill Cornell Medicine, and $500 million for Cornell Tech—supporting critical needs across our campuses, such as academic programs, endowed professorships, research, and clinical care. As part of our overall goal, we’re aiming to raise $500M for undergraduate financial aid, with a specific goal of increasing the number of aided undergraduates by 1,000 students.

For generations, Cornell has prepared students not only for their own lives and careers, but also to lead and to thrive in a changing world. It’s taught them to value the sciences and the humanities, to understand and work with data, to listen to other opinions, and to communicate across difference. And in every generation, it’s sent them into the world with the knowledge, and the social understanding, and the technical skills, to take on the challenges of their generations—in all their aspects.

That’s something Cornell is particularly—and perhaps uniquely—capable of doing. And that, really, is what this campaign is all about—rising to that challenge, meeting the challenges that face us together, and doing the greatest good for the future with everything we have now.