Speeches & Writings

2023 State of the University Address

by President Martha E. Pollack

As prepared for presentation
October 20, 2023
Ithaca, New York

Before I begin my comments, I want to acknowledge the horror and pain of the current moment. The atrocities perpetrated by the Hamas terrorist organization in Israel have left the world reeling with shock, horror, anger, and grief. The brutal attacks have shattered countless innocent lives, and challenged our very understanding of humanity. Along with the senior leadership of the Cornell Board of Trustees, I stand here to once again condemn terrorism in the strongest possible terms.

I also want to acknowledge the extraordinary pain of all innocent people who are suffering now: Israelis, Palestinians, and others with ties to the region. As I said earlier this week, I am a grandmother, and my heart just breaks for all the babies, all the children, who are caught up in this violence. We’ve also watched with distress the increasing acts of violence directed at Jews and Muslims in the United States.

Here at Cornell our community feels a great deal of pain, anger, and fear. I understand. We live in a divided world. But I know that this community can come together in difficult times, and stand as we always have, against hatred of all forms. Today I ask all Cornellians to offer compassion and empathy, and to provide the support to one another that is so needed.

We are an academic community, connected not only by our collective humanity but also by a set of core values that characterize what it means to be a Cornellian.

Five years ago, we undertook, as a community, to put into words what it is that distinguishes us. And today it is more important than ever that we reflect on these values that define our ethos:

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.

Our core values are a reflection not just of our past and our present, but also of our potential: describing who we are, and what we aspire to be.

What I’d like to do today is place the achievements of the past year into the context of those core values—showing you just some of the many ways that we’re working to be the university that Ezra Cornell imagined—but now reimagined for the 21st century.

It begins, of course, with purposeful discovery.

We are an academic institution, and our excellence rests on our academic distinction: on the work of our faculty and our students to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, and to deepen our understanding and appreciation of our world, in all its beauty and complexity.

We do that through the work of faculty like Sadaf Sobhani, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who just last month was selected for a 2023 NASA Early Career Faculty Award, supporting her work using machine learning and novel ionic liquids to develop thermally stable, low viscosity, high-performance heat transfer fluids—necessary to help spacecrafts’ thermal control systems work smoothly even in extreme heat or cold.

And Cornell Architecture, Art, and Planning Professor Sara Bronin, a leading expert on historic preservation law and land use, who received U.S. Senate confirmation in December as chair of the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation: helping to ensure that the rich history of our nation is protected and celebrated, in ways that will bring education, continuity, and a sense of common identity to future generations of Americans.

And Sasha Rush, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Cornell Tech, whose work to make generative AI systems safer and easier to use has been recognized with an NSF CAREER award and a Sloan Fellowship. Rush works in natural language processing, specifically the kinds of AI that generate text: the incredibly useful applications that translate languages, summarize documents and datasets, and answer to “Hey, Siri!”

Rush is part of our universitywide AI Initiative, which connects all of the innovative and visionary work being done across Cornell to shape a future in which human-centered, ethical AI benefits our lives, societies, and planet: helping us do things like predict and prevent heart failure in cardiac patients; make the world more accessible to people with disabilities; ensure the fairness of systems that recommend job candidates; and farm more productively and sustainably.

And of course we are paying close attention to the utility and impact, current and potential, of AI on our campuses: with new guidelines for incorporating generative AI into our teaching; active exploration of AI applications in our operations; and guidance for our community about the opportunities, limitations, and risks of AI tools.

Purposeful discovery also drives the 84 graduate students who were selected as National Science Foundation research fellows this year, comprising the largest group of new fellows Cornell has ever fielded in one year—and representing more than 4% of all the NSF fellowships awarded nationwide. Yes, one in 25 of all of this year’s NSF research fellows are here at Cornell.

The kind of purposeful discovery that we prize at Cornell is only possible because of our next value: Free and Open Inquiry and Expression.

Without the right of our faculty and students to freely explore all ideas in the search for understanding and truth, we could not fully satisfy our mission of creating new knowledge, nor of preparing students to be global citizens. So this year, we’ve chosen to celebrate and explore that freedom, as a community, through our universitywide theme year: “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell.”

Our goals are both to deepen understanding of the issues surrounding free expression, and to provide opportunities to develop the skills essential to civil society: such as active listening, and leading controversial discussions, and effective advocacy. We’re pursuing those goals in ways that reflect the breadth and depth of our academic excellence, and the diversity of our community: with invited speakers and panels exploring the foundations of First Amendment law; exhibits that explore how clothing, art, and appearance can function as symbolic speech and expressive conduct; and the new John W. Nixon ’53 Distinguished Policy Fellows program, a part of the Brooks School of Public Policy’s Learning and Leading through Difference Initiative. The inaugural fellows are Democrat Julián Castro, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Virginia Republican and former Congressman Tom Davis.

Last month we hosted a sold-out production of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, performed in Willard Straight Hall: celebrating the civility and shared values that enabled a famous judicial friendship to flourish across deeply held difference; with the world’s first rage aria about Constitutional originalism. And there are many, many more activities across all of our campuses.

The title of our theme year comes from the words of the late Supreme Court Associate Justice, Benjamin Cardozo, who called freedom of speech “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” Freedom of expression is, indeed, the indispensable condition not only of our academic enterprise, but of our democracy. And it is under attack in this country, from across the political spectrum—we’re seeing everything from speakers being shouted down, to very dangerous laws banning books from libraries and ideas from classrooms.

But it is our responsibility to ensure that our students have the opportunity to engage with ideas that challenge them. Because being exposed to ideas that one disagrees with is a core part of a university education: key to learning how to evaluate information and develop considered beliefs; key to developing intellectual humility; and key to learning how to advocate for one’s own deeply held values.

That is what we must maintain at Cornell. And that leads to our next value: being A Community of Belonging.

Cornell was of course created as an institution for “any person”: with the understanding that our teaching, our research, and indeed, our society, all benefit from a university that welcomes many different kinds of people, with many different perspectives, and puts them in an environment where they can learn with, and from, each other. We honor that foundational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in many ways.

For example, our Office of First Generation and Low-Income Student Support, which brings together the resources and programs that enable students from less advantaged backgrounds to navigate, and thrive at, Cornell—under the leadership of Peggy J. Koenig ’78 Associate Dean of Students for Student Empowerment, Dannemart Pierre. Cornell is the first Ivy to establish an endowed position like Pierre’s.

The number of first-generation and low-income students at Cornell continues to grow, thanks to the generosity of our alumni and friends. To date, we’ve raised $360 million for undergraduate affordability, toward our three goals of increasing the number of aided students at Cornell by 1,000 (while increasing the size of our student body by 650); decreasing average student debt at graduation by 25%; and ensuring that every aid-eligible student has the opportunity to participate in an academically enriching summer experience without worrying about meeting their “summer earnings expectation.” We have already added nearly 850 aided students; have increased grant aid (and thereby decreased loan aid) by an average of $14,000 over academic year 2020; and as of Fall 2024, most families with annual incomes up to $75,000 will receive no-loan financial aid packages.

Cornell’s military tradition, including ROTC, adds an important dimension of diversity to our campus. We support active military members and veterans on their paths to Cornell with a dedicated Military/Veteran Admissions and Enrollment Services team. And we also provide resources to veterans once they’re here, for example, through our Veterans’ House: a campus residence that serves to integrate and support all members of Cornell’s military community.

I also need to mention our response to last summer’s Supreme Court decision regarding race-conscious admissions. Although we were deeply disappointed by this ruling, we abide by the law, and we have modified our admissions practices accordingly. At the same time, we continue, within the bounds of the law, to pursue our mission: seeking to build academically outstanding classes that are broadly diverse.

To advance this goal, we are now implementing the best practices recommended by the Cornell Presidential Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions: everything from partnering with organizations that support high-achieving students from economically under-resourced communities; to simplifying the transfer of credits from community colleges; to streamlining and enhancing our financial aid processes.

Our next value, Exploration across Boundaries, is fundamental to our ability to address challenges that do not neatly fall into one field of study—which is to say, nearly all modern societal challenges. The depth and breadth of our faculty’s expertise across disciplinary boundaries, and our willingness to delve into new fields of study, fuel innovation across an incredible range of areas. And they’ve inspired new departments and programs across and beyond traditional fields:

Like the multicollege Paul Rubacha Department of Real Estate, an innovative collaboration between the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, designed to advance real-estate education and research.

And our campuswide Master of Public Health program, with a One Health approach recognizing the interconnections between people, animals, plants, and planet; offering concentrations like “Emergency Preparedness and Management” and “Food Systems and Health.”

Exploration across Boundaries means connecting not just our colleges, but our campuses, with collaborations that build on the complementary strengths of our Ithaca campus, Cornell Tech, and Weill Cornell Medicine.

For example, our newly launched multicollege Department of Design Tech, which works to advance innovation, research, and teaching at the intersection of design and emerging technology across our Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses;

And our first Intercampus Vaccine Symposium, which drew students and faculty from across our campuses to the Veterinary College in August for a two-day exploration of the state and future of vaccines: vaccine technology, host immunology, and vaccine policy and communication.

The knowledge and expertise created at Cornell have a reach far beyond Cornell. As the only land-grant university in the Ivy League, we have a mandate to take the work that we do here out into the world: by Changing Lives through Public Engagement.

So the students in Professor Max Zhang’s class on the Internet of Things spend six weeks learning how to build, code, and extract data from sensors—then they spend the rest of the semester putting that knowledge to work, as part of a National Science Foundation-supported project to design and implement a statewide Internet of Things network in New York. Last year, the students invented devices that monitor blood pressure and send data directly to health care providers; track needed road repairs for the Ithaca Department of Public Works; and notify Mutual Aid Tompkins when a food pantry needs restocking.

Cornell’s engagement reaches far beyond our city, county, and state, with programs like The Cornell-Keystone Nilgiris Field Learning Program in a very rural region of South India, where Cornell students, paired with local Indian students, work with NGOs and community health workers on issues like mental health and wellbeing interventions.

Our international engagement is strengthened by the work of our Global Hubs, launched last fall: a network of 19 peer institutions in universitywide partnership with Cornell, each connecting all of Cornell with their communities, countries, and regions by exchanging students and faculty, and facilitating collaborations in teaching and research.

Cornell’s learning and scholarship, our culture of collaboration, and our land-grant drive for engagement combine to give unique strength to our final value: Respect for the Natural Environment.

We continue to move forward in our goals of carbon neutrality on our Ithaca campus by 2035. I’m very excited about our planned new 110-megawatt solar voltaic project in Batavia, New York. Once it goes online, it will bring us to a critical milestone in our sustainability goals: meeting the electricity needs of our Ithaca campus with 100% renewable energy. We’ll also be using the project to continue developing best practices for sustainable design and operation, such as bifacial panels that capture energy on both sides, solar tracking, and of course, our most “cutting edge” technology, keeping grass and weeds off the panels at all our solar farms: solar mowers [sheep].

We’re moving forward with Earth Source Heat: our ambitious plan to heat our “somewhat chilly” Ithaca campus using deep geothermal heat. The data we gathered from our planning borehole last year were promising, and we continue to work to better understand the feasibility of designing and building a functioning demonstration project. If successful, the project could have impact in many locations beyond Ithaca.

Solving the crises of environmental degradation and climate changes will require countless solutions to countless challenges. And researchers across Cornell, supported by Cornell Atkinson and the 2030 Project, are working across all of our colleges and schools to find them: from floating solar panels, to sustainable alternatives to lawns, to new ways of upcycling polyester.

Cornell’s staff are key to the work of making our campus a model of sustainability, through projects like our annual Cornell “Dump and Run”—which collects unwanted items, from shower rods to sneakers to vacuum cleaners, from departing students in May, and sells them to arriving students in August.

And through our Cornell Dining operations, which incorporate sustainability into all of their practices: from composting food waste, to smart refrigeration technology, to centralized oil recovery and refill systems. And while I’m on the topic of our amazing Dining staff: Cornell was ranked #2 by the Princeton Review for best campus food this year, and Cornell Dining has won the 2023 Gold Medal for Best Residential Dining Facility from the National Association of College and University Food Services for Morrison Dining.

Last year, I told you that Cornell had become the first university to receive a platinum rating from AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, three times in a row.

This year, we earned it for the fourth time.

Our success in reaching our ambitions—everything I’ve talked about today—is made possible by the ethos that connects our entire community: faculty and staff, students and alumni. That ethos is what makes us Cornellians. And it is what has driven so many of you to be part of our work To Do the Greatest Good.

Our campaign continues to move forward with tremendous momentum, with our last two years being the best two fundraising years in Cornell’s history.

Cornell’s campaign is primarily a campaign of people: supporting our faculty, our students, and our staff. But part of supporting our academic enterprise is providing the resources and the facilities our community needs to perform at the highest level, and to thrive in all aspects of their lives and work.

I’m delighted that we’re now moving forward on five tremendously important new capital projects:

At Weill Cornell Medicine, a new light-filled, energy-efficient 16-story residence will become home to 262 graduate and medical students—nearly doubling available student housing, and making a key investment in the education and wellbeing of our future doctors and scientists.

In Ithaca, Atkinson Hall will become home to the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the Department of Computational Biology, the Center for Cancer Biology, and the Center for Immunology, and will provide a hub to support the campuswide Masters of Public Health program. (Some of you will be going on hardhat tours of Atkinson Hall this afternoon—we scheduled two tours and they were both booked full in about two seconds flat.)

The new, state of the art Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science Building will provide space for the college’s rapidly rising student enrollment, and its ambitions to increase its faculty by 40 to 50% over the next few years.

And McGraw Hall, one of our oldest buildings, is now receiving a deeply deserved and much needed renovation: restoring its structural stability, modernizing its spaces, and adding both seminar classrooms and an active learning classroom.

Finally, I’m delighted to announce plans for our new Meinig Fieldhouse, named in honor of former chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees, Peter C. Meinig ’61. The Meinig Fieldhouse will support all of our students with expanded space for physical activity, year-round, on our central campus. And like our new Booth Field, dedicated last fall and now home to Cornell’s baseball team, the Meinig Fieldhouse will add more strength to the Big Red: including our men’s lacrosse team, which won its 31st Ivy League championship last year (the most of any school), and women’s field hockey, which has won ten of their thirteen games this season. Internationally, Cornellians won a gold and a silver at the world wrestling championships in Belgrade last month, and will be represented at the 2024 Olympics in Paris in triathlon and rowing.

Now, this is the point in my speech where I was planning on wrapping things up.

But just when I thought I was done, Cornell alumnus Manuel Muñoz MFA ’98 received a MacArthur genius grant, for his fiction which, in the words of the MacArthur Foundation, “renders with empathy and vivid detail the multifaceted lives of Mexican American communities in California’s Central Valley.”

And then, when I labeled this speech “final,” three of our Cornell faculty were elected to the National Academy of Medicine.

And just when I said, that’s it, I’m really done now, no more additions: Oslo came calling—about the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences awarded to Claudia Goldin ’67, for her pioneering work uncovering key drivers in gender differences in labor markets.

There is so much more I could tell you about the work we’re doing, in so many ways, to move our values and our mission forward: with the creativity and the solutions, the knowledge and the inquiry, and the global citizens and leaders our society needs to thrive. But if I don’t stop somewhere, we’ll all be late to lunch.

So, as I do every year, I’ll just end with my thanks—to all of you, for everything you do, to make Cornell a place for any person, any study: where our imagination is matched by our innovation, and our ethos by our excellence.