In 2009, Martha E. Pollack came to the Cornell University campus to deliver the Gerard Salton Lecture for the Faculty of Computing and Information Science, speaking on “Computing Outside the Box.”
“Interestingly, my comments there were all about how computer science needs to be even more interdisciplinary than it is,” said Pollack, who at the time was a professor of information, computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan. “It’s something that we’ve seen over the past nine or 10 years, and something that really ties into a strength of Cornell, what the provost describes as ‘radical collaboration.’
“I loved that visit,” she added. “I’ve loved every visit I’ve ever taken to Ithaca.”
She made those comments Nov. 14 during her most recent visit, when she was announced as the 14th president in the 151-year history of the university. Her election was made official by unanimous vote of the Cornell Board of Trustees earlier in the day.
She will conclude her tenure as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Michigan on Jan. 31, 2017, and take over at Cornell April 17.
In opening remarks before a gathering of around 30 media members and university officials – including Interim President Hunter Rawlings and Provost Michael Kotlikoff – Pollack called it a “privilege” to be accepting her new role.
“I am deeply committed to the notion that universities are second to none in affecting positive change in the world,” she said. “And nowhere is that more true than here at Cornell, a private university with a public mission … and a deep commitment to the liberal arts coupled with a passion for putting knowledge to work to address some of the world’s most challenging problems.”
Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees, praised the Presidential Search Committee for delivering “spectacularly well” in its quest to find a successor to the late Elizabeth Garrett, who died of colon cancer in March after just eight months on the job.
“The committee spent countless hours since last spring reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates, ultimately selecting the perfect one for Cornell,” Harrison said. “I want to especially thank Jan Rock Zubrow for serving as the chair of the committee, and for driving the entire process.”
Pollack, who’s been in higher education for 25 years, the last 16 at Michigan, acknowledged Garrett during a news conference as well as Rawlings, who stepped in as interim president in April following Garrett’s death at age 52.
“I am incredibly appreciative for all that Hunter has done,” she said. “And I also do want to acknowledge Beth, who is very much in my thoughts today.”
Zubrow ’77, chair of the trustees’ Executive Committee, echoed Harrison’s belief that the search committee had more than fulfilled its mission.
“Seven months ago, we set out to find a bold and strategic leader who would engage the entire Cornell community in furthering the university’s core mission,” said Zubrow, who also chaired the search committee that resulted in Garrett’s election as president in 2014. “We looked at a large number of truly world-class candidates, and one person emerged as our clear choice.”
Zubrow said what stood out to the committee about Pollack was her highly effective leadership at a “complex and big institution” such as Michigan, which features 19 schools and colleges and enrollment of 43,000 students.
“We were looking for a bold, strategic leader, someone who could really further the mission of the university,” Zubrow said. “What really impressed us about Martha is that she has demonstrated these leadership qualities at a very, very high-quality institution.
“People speak eloquently about her ‘velvet-glove approach,’” Zubrow added, “and I think she has the ability to realize the aspirations for ‘One Cornell,’ which is bringing people together.”
Pollack, who earned her bachelor’s in linguistics from Dartmouth in 1979, said she appreciates the special quality of a small campus. “I was an undergraduate in Hanover, New Hampshire,” she said, “so I understand the magic of a small-world community of scholars.”
She also said a member of the search committee likened Cornell to “an Ivy League university with a Big 10 heart,” meaning Cornell is a place that combines world-class academics with an embrace of applied, practical fields of learning.
On being a female president, Pollack said she recognizes that there was a time where that idea might have been more astounding than it is today. Her illustration of that fact produced the line of the day.
“When I got to the University of Michigan [in 2000], there were more computer science professors whose first name was Igor than there were female computer science professors,” she said, drawing laughter. “That said, I think the job of the president is to serve everyone – not to be the female president, but to be the president. I am extremely committed to diversity, not just gender diversity but diversity of all forms.”
While not laying out specific plans, Pollack mentioned a few of her priorities in terms of values she holds dear.
“I very much value integrity, that’s my first priority,” she said. “I value quality … I very much value innovation and adaptability; the world is changing quickly, and those institutions and people who survive are those that are able to adapt.”