Speeches & Writings

2022 State of the University Address

by President Martha E. Pollack

As prepared for presentation
March 26, 2022
Ithaca, New York


Every year, one of the biggest challenges in putting together these remarks is choosing what news and achievements to highlight from what has always been a very full twelve months. This year, the challenge is doubly compounded. I have not twelve but seventeen months to report on since my last State of the University address. And none of those months have been ordinary months.

But neither is Cornell an ordinary university.

Despite all the challenges of the pandemic and the other crises we’ve faced since my last report, these months have been extraordinarily productive ones, even by the standards of Cornell. We’ve launched new departments, a new school, and a tremendously ambitious new philanthropic campaign. Our faculty, students, and staff have achieved at the highest levels, and their work has been recognized with an impressive range of accolades and awards. And as the public health landscape has continued to evolve, we’ve continued to rely on science and the expertise of our faculty in ways that are both new and that stand at the heart of our 157-year-old mission: creating new knowledge and educating new generations of global leaders with a public purpose, for a changing world.

This weekend, we’ll celebrate the life of one of Cornell’s giants: our ninth president, Frank H. T. Rhodes. President Rhodes was a visionary in many ways, and he spoke often and eloquently on what he saw as the role of the university — not just for its own faculty, students, and graduates, but for all of humanity. “It has become,” he wrote, “the quiet but decisive catalyst in modern society; the factor essential to its effective functioning and well-being.”

Today, Cornell is that catalyst in countless ways. We are an institution like no other — one that combines Ivy League scholarship and research with a land-grant mission; the liberal arts with the professions; a rural identity with urban campuses; an incredible breadth and depth of world-leading expertise with a culture of collaboration; and a foundational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

This constellation of strengths has made us uniquely agile in our ability to respond to the changes and challenges of our times. And it puts us in a unique position to carry forward Ezra Cornell’s vision and become the model of a modern research university for the 21st century — one that creates the knowledge, the expertise, the global citizens, and the innovative solutions for the future. One that fulfils the role of the university as President Rhodes saw it: as an “engine that drives humanity forward.”

That all begins, of course, with our academic distinction.

Our Cornell faculty, across our colleges and campuses, are world-class, with achievements that span the disciplines and the planet. Since my last State of the University address, in October of 2020, eight Cornell faculty members have received some of the highest honors bestowed on researchers and scholars in this country: election to the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Medicine, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In fact, one faculty member, Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics, was elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — yes, in the same year.

Of course, there are many awards each year recognizing our faculty’s achievements, and if I tried to do justice to every single one that was received by a Cornell faculty member since October 2020, we wouldn’t just still be here at lunchtime — we’d still be here at nine o’clock tonight.

So just a few notable examples, chosen from that very, very long list:

Deborah Estrin, the associate dean and Robert V. Tishman ’37 Professor at Cornell Tech, has been named the 2022 recipient of the very prestigious Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) John von Neumann Medal. A pioneer in the development of mobile and wireless systems to collect and analyze real-time data, Professor Estrin’s research focus is broad but includes the study of what she calls “small data” — the digital breadcrumbs we leave as we go about our lives — and how that can be used to personalize health care without sacrificing privacy.

Sallie Permar, the Nancy C. Paduano Professor of Pediatrics and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, has been honored with the 2020-2021 Society for Pediatric Research Award in honor of E. Mead Johnson. This prize recognizes her groundbreaking work to protect infants from mother-to-child HIV infection and prenatal infection with cytomegalovirus, or CMV. She is a leader in the field of perinatal infection, and her work focuses on the development of perinatal vaccines against both the HIV and CMV viruses.

Scott Emr, Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics and director of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, was awarded the extremely prestigious Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine this past summer for the landmark discovery of the Endosomal Sorting Complexes Required for Transport, or ESCRT, pathway (if there was a Shaw Prize for best acronym, his lab would have won that one, too). The ESCRT pathway is central to several important biological processes including cell division, remodeling of neurons, and processes that slow or stop cell growth — processes involved in cancer, neurodegeneration, Parkinson’s disease, and the release and transmission of viruses.

And Derrick R. Spires, associate professor of literatures in English and affiliate faculty in American Studies, Visual Studies, and Media Studies, has won the Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book for The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States. His book explores the parallel development of early Black print culture and legal and cultural understandings of U.S. citizenship between 1787 and 1861. The award committee called The Practice of Citizenship a “gorgeously written, powerfully argued and extensively researched book that casts vivid new light on a timely and important topic.”

The success of our faculty, of course, isn’t only reflected in the prizes they win. There are many ways to measure faculty impact, and another metric is research activity. Faculty compete for research funding with their peers around the nation and the world, and in fiscal year 2021, our sponsored research expenditures were $804.6 million, continuing a steady, multi-year upward trend. Indeed, over the last five years, we’ve seen a 36 percent increase in federal funding, including a 61 percent increase in funding from the National Institutes of Health. And we’ve also had a 52 percent increase in corporate research funding.

Our research is done in departments and programs and centers across our campuses, including ones that are truly unique in what they offer, such as the Cornell Center for Historic Keyboards, which provides an unparalleled resource for historically informed performance and musical scholarship.

And we provide facilities that are available nowhere else, like Cornell’s High Energy Synchrotron Source, or CHESS, which enables research on topics from next-generation energy storage to more stable food colorings to the design of optimized enzymes for biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. CHESS is not only an incredibly valuable resource for Cornell faculty and students, it also hosts over 1,000 scientists and scientists-in-training each year, who visit to collect data for their research programs.

Across the university, concerts, installations, exhibits, and performances enrich the life of our community — for example, our many exhibits in the Johnson Museum of Art, such as this sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man II, and the exhibit now on display in Mann Library by our current MFA studentDavid Nasca, examining the form and nature of marine invertebrates.

Our Institute of Politics and Global Affairs raises the discourse and deepens understanding of political and global events through both research and public engagement. Recent events have shed light on everything from rebuilding New York State’s infrastructure to the use of armed drones to the plight of Afghan interpreters — providing, as the Institute’s director, Steve Israel, puts it, “an oasis of bipartisanship and common ground.”

And through our new initiative on Migrations, we bring our multidisciplinary expertise to bear on the unprecedented scale and complexity of movement on our planet — not just of humans, but of plants, animals, ideas, and pathogens.

In many cases, Cornell research also leads to new products and companies. Our Center for Technology Licensing has seen a 40 percent increase in licensing income over the last five years, and thanks to our new approach to licensing, we have a strong and growing $30 million portfolio of start-up equity. Also over the past five years, Cornell research across our three campuses has led to 81 new start-ups, which have raised a total of nearly $1.5 billion in total funding and created 1,700 new jobs.

Many of these start-ups have come from our programs at Cornell Tech, our hub of human-centered tech innovation on Roosevelt Island. As we look ahead to Cornell Tech’s tenth anniversary this summer, the campus is flourishing. With eight master’s and five PhD programs, it currently has 500 graduate students and 38 spectacular faculty members, as well as more than 1,200 graduates. Its academic programs continue to grow, building on the 2020 launch of our Public Interest Tech and Urban Tech initiatives. And this past year saw its campus expand with the opening of the Verizon Executive Education Center and the Graduate Hotel.

Consistent with our theme of being “One Cornell,” the work at Cornell Tech is tied to and integrated with that on our other campuses. Cornell as a whole is rated No. 2 in AI and No. 3 in computer security. Our new cross-campus AI Initiative will further advance Cornell’s already stellar reputation as a leader in AI research, education, and ethics. And through our K-12 programs in the New York City schools, as well as our Break Through Tech program, we’re not only building the future of education for the age of AI, but also blazing a trail for access and inclusion in the tech ecosystem.

Just across the East River from Cornell Tech, our faculty, staff, and students at Weill Cornell Medicine do work whose impact reverberates through the lives of countless people who never step onto our Ithaca campus — through education, research, and patient care. As just two of so many examples of Weill Cornell Medicine’s life-changing research, our physician-scientists at our New York City and Doha campuses are collaborating on the use of population-specific genetic screening tools to better diagnose genetic disorders, advancing personalized medicine. And with a new $9.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, our researchers will lead a consortium of health-care institutions in analyzing health data to unravel the complexities of long COVID.

Taken together, the research and education happening across Cornell mean much more than publications and awards and even new start-ups. They mean a future in which we can better understand and treat systemic lupus, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and both acute and post-acute COVID infection. They mean more livable cities, more ethical technology, and a more just society. They mean a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, through the art, literature, and music that connect our minds and feed our souls.

And through the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, they mean bringing our world-class expertise across so many disciplines together for a healthier, more equitable future on a stable and livable planet.

Here at Cornell, we’re tackling the problem of carbon neutrality with research into more efficient batteries, recyclable solar panels, and geothermal heating.

We’re putting our research into practice across our campuses, earning Platinum status from AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education — not just once, but twice. And we’re ranked fourth in the Sierra Club’s rating of Cool Schools — the only Ivy in the top hundred.

And this year, Cornell Atkinson will launch, in partnership with our colleges and schools, The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative, harnessing Cornell’s collaborative scholarship, science, innovation, and entrepreneurship to advance solutions in this decisive decade for climate action.

In sharing all of these achievements and accomplishments, I would be remiss if I did not mention the incredible contributions of our staff. From maintaining our facilities to supporting our academics to keeping our students safe, warm, and fed — and so much more — our staff are the backbone of our Cornell community. Staff like recipients of our Bartels Award for Custodial Service Excellence: Kathy Smith, Melissa Heuser, Rob Reis, and Zorica Mrdjen, who were recognized in December for their essential behind-the-scenes work, even more critical during the pandemic.

And following the pandemic year of 2020-2021, it was a true pleasure to celebrate our staff at our staff appreciation street fair last August, an event we planned throughout our socially distanced winter and that was made possible — and wonderful — thanks to the help of our students and our faculty volunteers.

Of course, Cornell doesn’t just shape our future through research. It also shapes the future through education. The undergraduate, graduate, and professional education we provide is critical to our mission, and the experiences our students have here — that were so formative for each of you — prepare them for their lives and careers.

Students come to Cornell for many reasons: for our world-class faculty, for the opportunities for research, and for our wealth of extracurricular activities, from a capella to aikido, beekeeping to ballroom dance — all the way to the Zambia Community Education Initiative. They come to be part of, and to cheer on, the Big Red. They come for the beauty they find here, and the relationships they build. They come for the diversity of our academic excellence, whether in the heart of Manhattan or high on the hill of our Ithaca campus.

And what they find here transforms them.

Thanks to our new North Campus Residential Expansion, where we first welcomed students last fall, we are now able to offer — and indeed, require — an on-campus residential experience, whether in a residence hall or other affiliated housing, to all of our first- and second-year undergraduates.

On North Campus, along with two new residence halls, we’ve also opened our newest dining facility, in Toni Morrison Hall — a truly spectacular 1,000-seat space where, last semester, I had the chance to share a pizza-making experience with some of our Meinig Family Cornell National Scholars — and the pizza expert standing next to me, sous chef Brian Wren, who was an excellent instructor!

Athletics, of course, is key to the Cornell experience for many of our students, building teamwork, leadership, and resilience. After sitting out over a year of practice and competition due to the pandemic, the Big Red is back with a vengeance. Eleven of our varsity teams have earned national rankings this year, and two of our athletes won national titles. And our men’s basketball team qualified for the Ivy League Tournament under 2022 conference coach of the year Brian Earl.

This year, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Title IX legislation, we also celebrate half a century of women’s athletics at Cornell — decades marked by Ivy League titles in field hockey, soccer, softball, and volleyball, and phenomenal student athletes like Taylor Knibb ’20, who ran cross-country here at Cornell and last summer became the youngest woman ever to qualify for the U.S. Olympic triathlon team.

And while I’m on the subject of Cornell’s Olympians — that’s Karen Chen ’23 on the left, who helped bring home a U.S. team silver from Beijing last month, and on the right, the Cornellian members of gold medalist Team Canada, including their assistant coach, Doug Derraugh ’91, the Everett Family Head Coach of Women’s Ice Hockey here at Cornell.

Wherever our students are headed, their Cornell education doesn’t begin or end in Ithaca. Part of our mission is educating a new generation of global leaders, and the uncertainties we live with now highlight the need for those global connections. Looking forward, we’re deepening our capacity for sustained, strategic engagement by developing Global Hubs that will launch this fall in several cities worldwide. They are designed to provide mutually beneficial relationships with university peers that will allow us to exchange students, develop joint research, engage with local communities and organizations, and connect more robustly with our international alumni.

And thanks to the tremendous growth of eCornell, our home for online education, each year we now reach over 100,000 unique nontraditional students across the globe with our expertise on topics such as leadership, diversity and inclusion, data analytics, and nutrition. Cornell is now a leader in the rapidly growing area of micro-credentials, with more high-quality, small-cohort-based certificate programs than any other university. And in the last five years, eCornell has also supported the launch of five new online professional master’s programs.

As eCornell grows, it continues to benefit both its own students and the broader university community, with annual revenue increasing from $23 million to $117 million over the last four years and net annual proceeds to academic units and the University growing from $3 million to $20 million — even as we invest more than $5 million per year in ongoing course development.

Tuition revenue is the largest source of income for our academic enterprise. But even our full tuition rate — paid by fewer than half of our undergraduates — does not cover the full cost of a Cornell education. Our endowment is critical to maintaining our academic excellence, and the skill and dedication of our investment management team resulted in extraordinary success this past year, with investment returns of 42 percent — the largest gain in more than three decades. As a very large school committed to access and inclusion, our endowment must go farther than others’, and even with last year’s terrific growth, our per-student endowment is below that of dozens of other universities. We remain extremely disciplined in our endowment payout practices, ensuring that, whatever the financial outlook, our endowment will always be there to support our university and our exceptional students.

Students like Annabella Maria Galang, ’23, a biological sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who last spring chaired the annual symposium of the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board, calling the experience of research “a way of having a distinct voice and a place within the academic community where you can dance on the edge of what’s known.”

And Patrick Mehler ’23, member of the Ithaca Common Council and president of Cornell Votes, a student-run, nonpartisan program of the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, dedicated to increasing voter registration, turnout, and civic engagement on campus. Thanks in part to their efforts, Cornell had 4,108 more students turn out to vote in 2020 than in 2016 — the largest increase in the Ivy League.

And the team of Cornell graduate students who won a grant from NASA’s University Student Research Challenge, which invites exploration of new concepts relevant to NASA’s aeronautics program. Our students came up with a proposal for a sensor that can detect conditions inside an object that’s being 3D printed. It does this by emitting sound waves through the object and interpreting that data using high-energy X-ray diffraction at CHESS — the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source I mentioned a few minutes ago. That type of analysis could help prevent catastrophic failures of aeronautical parts that are often 3D printed, like fuel nozzles and load-bearing airframe sections.

The achievements that I’ve just mentioned — everything from chairing a research symposium to leading a civic organization to applying for a NASA grant — speak volumes, both to the caliber of students we attract at Cornell and the kinds of opportunities they find here. And when you look at the paths of so many of our students after graduation, the impact they’ve had on our world is astounding.

Consider alumni like Angela Hwang MBA ’94, Bob Langer ’70, and Leonard Schleifer ’73. You might not know their names, but they are leaders at Pfizer, Moderna, and Regeneron — companies that led the way in developing the COVID vaccines and therapeutics that are allowing us to meet in person today.

As we envision a world in which vaccine equity drives global health, the work of Peter Hotez, MD ’87, is building that world — through Corbevax, the easier-to-produce, patent-free COVID-19 vaccine he codeveloped, which has already brought millions of doses of effective, low-cost vaccine to low- and middle-income countries and is on track to hit one billion doses by the end of 2022.

For me, and perhaps for many of you, one of the real highlights of the last year was the broadcast, from 200 million miles away, of NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars. It was an extraordinary moment for humanity — one that was called, in real time, by a Cornell alumna, aerospace engineer Swati Mohan ’04.

Everything I’ve just mentioned — the world-shaping alumni, the exceptional education, the pathbreaking research — all of it stems from the remarkable and radical vision of our founder, Ezra Cornell, who sought “to do the greatest good” for his country and the world. His vision — of an institution for any person, and any study — became the blueprint for the university we know today, this engine driving humanity forward.

Today, in a world changing more rapidly than ever before, humanity needs an engine that is more agile and more powerful, able to provide the world-leading research, education, and engagement we’ll need in the decades ahead. With that goal in mind, we’ve launched our new philanthropic campaign: To Do the Greatest Good.

Our campaign goals are ambitious, in line with our ambitions as a university. We’re working to raise over $5 billion across our campuses — strengthening scholarships, fellowships, and financial aid for our undergraduate, graduate, and professional students as we enhance our academic programs, our facilities, and our campus life. Faculty support is a major priority, especially the endowed professorships that help us to attract the very best faculty in every field and enable them to do their best work once they’re here.

The outsize impact of Cornellians on the world stems not only from our exceptional research and education, but also from our foundational commitment to being an institution for “any person” — a place that welcomes the most talented and promising students, regardless of background or ability to pay. And so affordability is a key campaign priority — ensuring that cost is never an obstacle to a Cornell education.

Undergraduate admissions at Cornell is need-blind, and we commit to meeting the full need of every student through a package of loans, grants, and work-study. But we still do not have the level of socioeconomic diversity that we aspire to.

So as part of our campaign, we have a goal to increase the proportion of lower- and middle-income undergraduate students at Cornell, expanding that number by 1,000 as we grow our undergraduate student body by 650 students within the next five years. We’ll do this both through targeted recruitment and through an ambitious reduction in student debt by an average of 25 percent. And we’re also looking to waive one summer savings expectation for each of our lower-income students, enabling them to pursue unpaid career or research experiences.

Since my last report, as we’ve moved forward in our campaign, we’ve named the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, in honor of a gift from Peter Nolan ’80, MBA ’82, and Stephanie Nolan ’84 — a gift that will be directed entirely to student affordability.

We held the formal launch of the new Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy — a new school within Cornell that had been an aspiration for decades and is now a reality thanks to the generosity of Jeb E. Brooks, MBA ’70, and his wife, Cherie Wendelken, together with the Brooks Family Foundation.

And just over a year ago, the Faculty of Computing and Information Science became the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, thanks to the generous gift of Ann S. Bowers ’59.

Today, due to the incredible support of our Cornell community, we’ve raised $3.1 billion across our campuses, resources that will strengthen our ability To Do the Greatest Good now, and in the decades to come.

There’s a great deal we can’t predict about what lies ahead, for our university and our planet. The world we live in is a very different place than it was the last time we were together in this room. And it will be different again, in ways we don’t yet know, the next time we gather, and the next, and the next.

But however the world changes, whatever comes next, Cornellians will be out in front: leading, and exploring, and helping humanity rise to every new challenge.

A catalyst for society, an engine driving humanity forward, and a university to do the greatest good.

Thank you.