President-elect Martha E. Pollack received a Big Red welcome, complete with a standing ovation, from students, faculty, trustees, staff and alumni gathered at a luncheon in her honor in the Statler Hotel’s Carrier Grand Ballroom Nov. 14.
“I really can’t even begin to express how thrilled, honored and humbled I am to be standing here right now,” said Pollack, who is provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. She will assume the Cornell presidency April 17, 2017.
“One of the most wonderful things about Cornell is its abiding commitment to the liberal arts with a strong engagement in the more practical fields of study,” she said. “It has an enduring focus on the creation and curation of pure knowledge complimented with the application of that knowledge to make a real, lasting and positive difference in the world.”
One of the things that drew her to Cornell, she said, was its openness to innovation, perhaps evidenced most dramatically by Cornell Tech.
“The environment for universities is changing, and the universities that will survive and thrive are those that are willing to adapt and try new things,” she said. “Cornell’s combination of a proud history of academic excellence and its spirit of innovation ensures that it will thrive as a leader in higher education.”
An expert in natural language processing who received her undergraduate degree in linguistics, she also noted one other unique feature of the university: the term “Cornellian.” “I really don’t know if there are any other universities in the world that have their own demonym,” she quipped, using a term that means a word that identifies residents or natives of a particular place, derived from the name of that place.
Pollack outlined several broad areas that she will focus on as president, including reinforcing the university’s academic strengths and determining where investments are needed to solidify those distinguishing areas of strength; ensuring the continued excellence and importance of core liberal arts; enhancing diversity and ensuring an inclusive campus climate; and tightly interweaving the activities of Ithaca and New York City to realize the vision of “One Cornell.” Last, she emphasized the need for innovation and creative ways to ensure a stable financial future for Cornell.
“And if I have any say in it, we’ll all do this while having a lot of fun,” she said. “I can’t wait to become a Cornellian myself.”
Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the board of trustees, described some of the reasons Pollack will make “a great president.” She has proven herself as an adept leader of an institution – University of Michigan – that rivals Cornell in its complexity.
“She is a bold thinker who will inspire faculty and students,” he said, and her academic background in computer science will serve her extremely well as the university creates new links to Cornell Tech. And she serves on the board of the University of Michigan Health System, which includes a medical school and hospital. “Her familiarity with the issues facing academic medicine will be invaluable to Cornell as we continue to grow Weill Cornell in New York City,” he said.
Harrison praised Interim President Hunter Rawlings for his “selfless service to the university. None of us in this room, nor any Cornellian anywhere, will ever forget it,” he said. Harrison also thanked the search committee and Jan Rock Zubrow ’77, committee chair, for their “time, thoroughness and meticulous attention.”
Zubrow, who also is chairman of the Executive Committee of the Cornell Board of Trustees, said Pollack’s “bold, strategic” leadership at Michigan and strong managerial capabilities make her uniquely qualified. “And then there are Martha’s wonderful personal qualities: She is warm, enthusiastic, straightforward, honest and down-to-earth,” she said. “In summary, Martha Pollack is exactly the leader we set out to find.”
During the lunch, Provost Michael Kotlikoff pointed out that Pollack is first and foremost a scholar who understands the academy in a way that is difficult to achieve without having been a faculty member, department chair, dean and provost. “She brings a depth of understanding of academic leadership that’s really quite extraordinary,” he said.
Pollack’s approachability is among her most important attributes said Dean of the University Faculty Charles Van Loan. “Cornell runs off good ideas from students, faculty, staff. She’s going to be very receptive, she’s very friendly,” said Van Loan, who was a member of the search committee.
Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Joanne DeStefano said, “Martha Pollack seems like she’s going to be an amazing president.”