With passion, candor and a sprinkling of humor, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack spoke and took questions during a meeting of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly May 1 in Malott Hall.
The final GPSA meeting of the 2016-17 academic year was extended by 30 minutes to allow for the president’s presentation, part of an already packed agenda. Approximately 40 students, including 18 voting members of the GPSA, attended the meeting.
For a half-hour, Cornell’s 14th president engaged with master’s, doctoral and professional students on topics including diversity, shared university governance, and free speech and academic freedom. Pollack, who took office April 17, spoke for approximately five minutes then answered questions.
“I’m really, really happy to be here,” said Pollack. “… It’s really an amazing institution, in large part because of the graduate and professional students. As a faculty member myself [in computer science, information science and linguistics], I know how incredibly important all of you are to the life of this university. You cannot have a great public or private research university without a strong graduate program and strong graduate students.”
Pollack, the sixth Cornell president with ties to the University of Michigan, stressed her desire and need to hear from as many of her constituents as possible. She also made clear some of her core values, which she said will inform every decision she makes.
“By far the most important is integrity,” she said. “Without integrity, you don’t have trust, and without trust, you don’t get anywhere. I think that when two people trust each other, you can make lots of progress even if you vehemently disagree. For me, starting from a point of integrity is essential.”
Other values she touched on included quality, excellence and innovation, noting: “I told the undergraduate assembly last week that if I could offer any piece of advice, it would be to learn to be flexible, and learn to be adaptable. … The people I know who are successful – yes, they’ve been smart and, yes, they’ve worked hard – but they’ve also sort of rolled with the punches in life.”
Many of the students’ questions were related to diversity.
“I very much value diversity as a celebration of difference,” she said. Noting that embracing diversity and offering opportunities to people from all backgrounds is the right thing for universities to do, she added, “There’s a lot of evidence that you get better solutions, better outcomes to difficult problems when you bring diverse perspectives to the table.”
Her passion also shone through when describing her “fundamental, unwavering commitment” to free speech. That means free speech should be afforded to everyone, she said, and not just people with whom you agree.
“That can be difficult,” she said. “That means you have to be willing to accept offensive speech. But history has shown that when you take away free speech and start clamping down on freedom of expression, it’s marginalized groups that suffer most.”
One student asked Pollack for her thoughts on gender diversity. The president repeated a humorous line from the November press conference announcing her hiring: “This is a true story – when I went to Michigan in computer science, there were more faculty members named Igor [two] than there were females in the department [one – Pollack].”
She reminded the group that diversity comes in many forms – including “gender diversity, racial and ethnic background, ethnic origin, ability status, political thought,” she said.
“We are also an educational institution,” she said, “and one of the most important ways you can enhance diversity, not just on this campus but in the world … is to teach about the importance of diversity.”
Pollack also told the students that one of her core values is “fun,” and one of the perks of being the president is picking a new flavor of Cornell ice cream, which will debut at her Aug. 25 inauguration. “I’ve been hard at work,” she said with a smile.