Speeches & Writings

2022 State of the University Address

by President Martha E. Pollack

Friday, October 14, 2022

As prepared for publication

Good morning. It’s great to see so many of you here in Ithaca, and to have so many Cornellians around the world joining us online via today’s livestream.

This weekend marks the first time we’ve ever held two Trustee–Council Annual Meetings in one year: the one we held this past March, which we had to put off from last October because of the pandemic, and the one we’re having right now. For me, that means another first: two State of the University addresses in a single year.

Last spring, I had to cram 17 months of achievements by our incredible faculty, students, and staff into just one speech. I talked really fast, and I packed in everything I possibly could. And when it was over, I thought, now what am I going to say at the next State of the University, which is just seven months away?

I shouldn’t have worried. This is, after all, Cornell.

And even in just seven months, our amazing Cornellians still managed to do what they do every year: give me way more to talk about than I can possibly squeeze into just 25 minutes.

But before I launch into how much we have to be proud of at Cornell, I want to start by thanking you for everything you’ve done to turn ambitions into achievements, through our campaign “To Do the Greatest Good.”

Those words were taken from a letter Ezra Cornell wrote in the early days of planning this university, when he was looking “to do the greatest good,” for posterity, with his fortune. We chose that phrase for this campaign because of our deeply held belief in the transformative capacity of higher education: the impact it has not only on individual lives, but on entire societies, across generations.

It isn’t hubris to say that our institution has played an outsized role over the last century in the development of American higher education. Today, all major research universities, even those established long before Cornell, follow Ezra Cornell and Andrew White’s radical blueprint: combining research and education across a broad range of disciplines, valuing diversity and the free exchange of ideas, pursuing academics that aren’t tied to a single philosophy or designed for a single kind of student. And the modern research university, after the Cornell model, has been a key driver in propelling the United States to its role as a powerhouse of human knowledge and creativity, and a training ground for engaged citizens and capable leaders.

I deeply believe that higher education is critical to the future of our society, and our planet. But leading universities like ours need to set our sights even higher. If we’re going to find our way to a sustainable future—with the innovations, the leadership, and the civil society to meet all of the challenges that we face—we need a thriving ecosystem of higher education, working in new, and forward-looking ways.

Universities that employ evidence-based innovations in teaching, making students into lifetime learners.

. . . that embrace cross-disciplinary collaboration to solve real-world problems that don’t fit neatly into one field.

. . . that power their collaborations with translational research, bringing the work of laboratories out to improve lives.

. . . that train students to communicate across difference, to understand the value of science and the humanities, and to work together for solutions that are equitable, sustainable and scalable.

. . . that embrace and honor diversity and respectful interaction, while also upholding the critically important value of free expression.

And there is no university better placed to be that new model—To Do the Greatest Good into the 21st century—than Cornell.

It all begins, of course, with our academic excellence;

and our academic excellence is where I’ll turn now.

Cornell’s faculty, as in every year, have been recognized with a broad range of awards, from inductions into the distinguished academies, to honors from academic societies and beyond. So with apologies to everyone I’m not mentioning (and there are so many of them) I’m going to choose just a few of our faculty to highlight today—adding that faculty support is a key part of our current philanthropic campaign, and I’m so grateful to all of you who have helped strengthen our terrific faculty. Professors like:

Geoffrey Coates, the Tisch University Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, who won the 2022 Eni Award for Advanced Environmental Solutions for his innovations in sustainable materials, especially recyclable and biodegradable plastics. Coates is developing a new class of high-performance plastics that work just as well after being recycled; along with a new class of cost-effective, biodegradable plastics made from renewable materials; and plastic fibers for fishing use that will cleanly degrade in sunlight to non-toxic materials—innovations to help decrease plastics pollutions of our soil, oceans and waterways, while simultaneously reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Margaret Rossiter, the Marie Underhill Noll Emerita Professor of the History of Science, has been awarded the 2022 Sarton Medal from the History of Science Society, recognizing her lifetime of research on the discrimination and obstacles faced by women in scientific fields. Her work on the lives and work of women scientists has redrawn the history of science: bringing to light the structural inequalities that systematically wrote women out of science, and using a historian’s toolbox to write their stories back in.

And assistant professor Antonio Fernandez-Ruiz, the Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in the Life Sciences, has been awarded the 2022 Freedman Prize for Exceptional Basic Research from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. His research asks how small imbalances in neuronal dynamics can lead to cognitive dysfunction in brain diseases, and develops new methods for researching brain circuit dynamics, using them to better understand how we remember and learn.

Our academic excellence, of course, is also made possible through the strength of our colleges and schools. As I shared with you in March, thanks to the incredible generosity of our alumni and friends, last year we named two schools and a college at Cornell. To update you, very very briefly:

First, the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy celebrated its first anniversary last month, as it welcomed the first class of undergraduates who will spend all four years of their educations enrolled as Cornell Brooks students, as well as the first class of graduate students who will enroll in the school’s Master of Public Administration program. The Brooks School brings the university’s broad-ranging expertise in public policy teaching, research and engagement together with our many policy-focused institutes and programs, from Cornell in Washington to the Cornell Center for Health Equity.

Second is the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, created in December 2020, which recently passed the milestone of 2,000 undergraduate majors—a sixfold increase over the last decade. Today, 76 percent of Cornell undergraduates take at least one class in Cornell Bowers CIS. And this afternoon, the college formally breaks ground on a new building, which will provide the space and the resources to accommodate its phenomenal growth.

And third is the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, which last month marked the first anniversary of its naming, as it also celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. Part of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, the school continues to train the leaders of the global hospitality industry, and to create its future—while making traveling Cornellians feel at home wherever they go. That’s Michelle Cannon ’13 and Alyssa Belezos ’10, who were waiting for me when I checked into my hotel in London last summer. (I think I can count on one hand the hotels I’ve been to as Cornell president where I didn’t meet a Hotelie!)

This past summer we also celebrated the tenth anniversary of Cornell Tech, and a decade of incredible achievement and progress on our Roosevelt Island campus. We’ve completed Phase I of our construction, and are moving forward on Phase II, which will enable us to meet our goals of expanding our student body from about 500 students today, to 2,000 students 20 years from now. And I could fill another whole talk with the incredible work being done at Cornell Tech, in pathbreaking fields like urban tech, public interest tech and health tech.

Within and across all of Cornell’s colleges and schools, we continue to build our academic distinction through an incredible range of innovative, forward-looking programs that meet the needs of our times.

For example, the newly named Cornell Mui Ho Center for Cities, within the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, which advances action-oriented research toward more equitable and sustainable cities—developing approaches that can address urban challenges from climate adaptation to urban mobility to clean air and water.

And the Clinical and Translational Science Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, which crosses the boundaries of translational research and innovation to accelerate the clinical application of basic science discoveries: turning laboratory discoveries into improved patient health. The CTSC just received a $61 million grant—the largest in Weill Cornell Medicine history—from the National Institutes of Health, continuing its funding through 2027.

And then there’s the Cornell Riney Canine Health Center within the College of Veterinary Medicine, a world-leading home for canine expertise built on Cornell’s unparalleled history of animal health research and care. (That’s Rosie and Winnie, by the way—two of our veterinary blood bank donors.) You might not know this, but more than half of routine canine vaccines were developed right here at Cornell.

And our Active Learning Initiative, which last month celebrated its ten-year anniversary: approaching the practice of teaching and learning with the same evidence-based rigor and drive for innovation that we bring to every other part of our academic mission.

And just one more: we’re moving forward with plans for a new Center for Racial Justice and Equitable Futures, part of our institutional commitment to further racial equity and justice through our teaching and our scholarship. The new center will both support, and build on, our existing academic programs and our campus commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion: a commitment to build and deploy best practices for everything from support for first-generation students to our public safety framework.

That may seem like a lot, but I haven’t even gotten started on our amazing students.

Starting in outer space: Rocky An ’23, a biological and mechanical engineering double major in the College of Engineering, who may have solved the mystery of why astronauts’ immune systems become suppressed in outer space. His paper, “MRTF May Be the Missing Link in a Multiscale Mechanobiology Approach toward Macrophage Dysfunction in Space,” published in Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology last month, identifies a transcription factor, MRTF, as a likely culprit. An hopes that his work will be a first step toward a spaceflight immune treatment. By the way, this is not his first paper; earlier this year, he was also first author on a paper on CFD–DEM Simulation of Microbial Communities in Spaceflight and Artificial Microgravity. And I know I said this already, but: undergrad.

Across the Atlantic, a team of students from Cornell Cuvée, the University’s wine education and blind tasting society, competed in the Millésime wine competition in Lausanne, Switzerland last summer, and another group of Cuvée students traveled to the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup in Bordeaux, France. As part of those competitions, students were given unknown wines and expected to provide the grape, place, associated classification, vintage and producer, along with a pairing.

Europe has two and a half millennia of winemaking tradition. But Cornell has Hotelies.

Cornell teams took first place at both competitions.

One more student story, this one from New York City: CALS senior Bryce Demopoulos ’23 probably wasn’t expecting to directly save any lives as a summer research intern in the Division of Regenerative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine last summer. But in August, waiting for the no. 6 train downtown, he saw a man stumble and fall right onto the tracks. And did this:

Video: Cornell student rescues man from NYC subway tracks seconds before train arrives

Did you see the light of that oncoming train?

Cornell’s newest undergraduates, the Class of 2026, have a lot to live up to. But they are simply remarkable, hailing from 67 countries, with more than 18 percent identifying as the first generation in their families to attend college—just some of the students whose life-changing Cornell educations we are supporting through our philanthropic campaign, with its ambitious goals of increasing the socioeconomic diversity of our student body.

They’re also the first class to be welcomed to a fully open and operational North Campus Residential Expansion, or NCRE, which opened its last three buildings over the summer: Barbara McClintock, Hu Shih and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Halls. Altogether, NCRE brings over 2,100 new beds to North Campus—along with the truly spectacular new Toni Morrison Dining Hall, which some of you had the chance to experience for yourselves last night. I can’t overstate the degree to which NCRE will transform undergraduate residential life on campus, enabling more Cornell undergraduates to spend more of their time at Cornell living in a residential environment designed and built to foster their academic and personal growth.

For many of our Cornell students, athletics are a key part of that growth. Students like Caroline Ramsey ’23, who this year became the first Cornellian named to the U.S. national team in field hockey. And Yianni Diakomihalis ’23, who won his third NCAA wrestling title this year, becoming just the 50th athlete in history and second Cornellian to win three national titles.

And Siva Subramaniam ’24, who became the first Cornellian to claim a national title in squash this year, with a dramatic victory over a Boston-area college that I won’t identify—other than to mention that our men’s ice hockey team has now beaten them a total of 79 times.

(While skating around fish.)

And all of our amazing student athletes in the sailing, lacrosse, ice hockey, basketball, track, gymnastics and equestrian teams, who this year qualified for Ivy and ECAC tournaments, made it to NCAA championships, won the Ivy Show, and gave us so many reasons to come together and cheer on the Big Red. Like our nationally ranked men’s soccer team, who recently upset the now no. 5-ranked Syracuse, just a few days after beating . . . the same Boston-area college I mentioned earlier.

All of Cornell’s excellence is supported and enriched by the vital role played by our staff: people like Sean Gnau, a web designer in Cornell Information Technology’s Web Accessibility team. As the lead trainer in Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Sean shares his knowledge across the university, and is always looking for ways to make Cornell’s resources more accessible to those with disabilities.

And Denise Hubbard, an inventory coordinator in Student and Campus Life, who has taken incredible initiative in expanding Cornell’s culture of sustainability in new directions: establishing processes to reupholster and repair damaged furniture that can be restored instead of replaced, and connecting Cornell with area charities so that furniture at the end of its Cornell career can find new life elsewhere. Thanks to her, hundreds of beds and mattresses have been donated to area families, along with hundreds of other pieces of furniture that have gone to those in need, instead of to landfills.

Like many other universities, Cornell has an ambitious goal to achieve campus carbon neutrality: in our case, by 2035. Unlike many other institutions, though, Cornell isn’t pursuing that goal only by applying existing technologies; we’re also using our institutional strengths and resources to develop new ones. Over the summer, we finished drilling our two-mile-deep Cornell University Borehole Observatory, the first step in Earth Source Heat: our plan to warm our chilly Ithaca campus with carbon-free deep geothermal energy. (Just to give you a sense of how deep that is: the depth of this borehole is like walking from the Straight, to the Veterinary College, and back—straight down.) The idea is to pump water down there, naturally heat it, and then pump it back up to the surface to heat, via a heat exchanger, a separate water supply to heat our campus. If this approach is successful, it could not only enable us to reach our institutional goal of carbon neutrality on the Ithaca campus by 2035; it could also lead the way for similar renewable energy efforts elsewhere.

We continue to expand our work in sustainability: work that this year was recognized with a platinum rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education—AASHE. Only a handful of other universities have achieved this distinction, and Cornell is the first to achieve it three times in a row.

One of our key initiatives within sustainability is the newly launched 2030 Project: which draws on Cornell expertise to build real-world solutions across the immensely complex web of sustainability challenges.

Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, the 2030 Project has just released its first grants to faculty working on climate solutions, such as:

advanced materials for carbon capture and solar panels;

paths for auto workers to navigate the workforce transition to electric vehicles;

practices for reducing methane emissions in the dairy industry;

and the creation of new textiles for cooling and energy efficiency.

And that’s just part of our overall work toward sustainability, supported in tremendous measure by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability—which, thanks to the generosity of the Atkinson family, will soon have a new home on Tower Road: Atkinson Hall, which will also support interdisciplinary research and education in public health, cancer, immunology and computational biology.

The work Cornell is doing, in and across our colleges and schools, will reverberate across lives for decades to come, as we educate the next generation of thinkers and doers, scientists and scholars.

According to new data from the American Bar Association, Cornell Law School sent a higher percentage of its 2021 graduates to large law firms than any other U.S. law school. And the Association of American Medical Colleges reports that Weill Cornell Medicine continues to send, as it has for many years, the highest percentage of medical graduates of any American medical school into academic medicine as full-time faculty. Weill Cornell Medicine also continues to hold the no. 1 position for highest percentage of students who graduate with a combined M.D./Ph.D.

And Cornell’s academic distinction is not just shaping the next generation of world-class scientists and scholars, but also the generations that will follow them: a new study shows that almost 2 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the United States were trained at Cornell.

As a nation, we are at a critical juncture: where divisions in our society and erosion of trust in our institutions have brought new challenges to higher education, even as higher education has become more essential than ever to our progress, and our future. Yet in this time of division and distrust, the ethos and the expertise of Cornell inspire confidence far beyond our own community. In a recent survey of over 11,000 American adults, Cornell ranked in the top four among highly-ranked U.S. universities in public trust: a testament to our reputation, and to our impact.

Our challenge, now, is to continue to earn that trust, by living up to the potential Ezra Cornell saw in this institution, 157 years ago: to marshal the best among us— and the best in us—To Do the Greatest Good.

And even in these times when every day seems to bring news of another crisis, I remain deeply optimistic about Cornell—and about our potential to sway the course of our shared future, through the fulfillment of our core mission:

“to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge, to educate the next generation of global citizens, and to promote a culture of broad inquiry”

. . . with an openness to innovation and a determination to set our sights ever higher as the model of a 21st-century university.

So I want to close as I began: by saying thank you for all of your support, and for joining in our work To Do the Greatest Good for a new generation, and for the generations that will follow.

Thank you.