Calling staff “the unsung heroes of the university,” Cornell President Martha E. Pollack used her first address to staff to set an appreciative tone and broad context for the integral roles they play in Cornell’s success.
“I can’t do my job without the support of staff; our faculty can’t do their jobs without the support of staff; and our students can’t study and learn without the support of staff,” Pollack said to a packed house in Klarman Hall’s Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium Oct. 10. About 330 staff members were in attendance, with more than 100 also watching in the Groos Family Atrium and 700 others viewing the livestream via CornellCast or the Employee Assembly Facebook page.
“We all have a role – and we all have a stake – in helping Cornell live up to its founding vision as a university ‘where any person can find instruction in any study,’” she said.
“We have faced some very difficult incidents on campus this fall, and we’ve got to work through them as a community,” Pollack said. “We must be a community grounded in mutual respect and kindness.”
Among the values Pollack holds dear are integrity, quality, adaptability and innovation – and Cornell’s long-standing commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity.
In her prepared remarks and during the question-and-answer session that followed, Pollack described the upcoming work of the Presidential Task Force to address issues of bigotry and intolerance at Cornell and make recommendations to foster greater respect, understanding and inclusivity. She said the charge and timeline for the task force are being developed, along with processes for selecting members, to ensure that the input that leadership has received from the community is taken into account. More generally, she said that as we work for a more inclusive climate, “we need community involvement – from the various constituent assemblies, including the [Employee Assembly], and from all of you.” Other civic responsibilities Cornell community members fulfill include contributing to reliable knowledge and upholding free speech while also “speaking out forcefully to counter speech that we abhor,” she said.
Staff are also integral to the university’s priorities, including its primary emphasis on academic distinction, Pollack said. Cornell faculty are critical to that distinction, and one of her priorities is the recruitment and retention of the very best faculty. “That means recruiting and retaining the very best staff,” she said.
Staff also contribute to educational “verve,” or vitality, as is evidenced by the new Center for Teaching Innovation, which “combines expertise in academic technology with more traditional support for faculty and teaching professionals.” She cited the center’s staff as a resource faculty members could use to address diversity in the classroom and facilitate faculty-student conversations.
To promote innovation, “take risks,” Pollack said. Innovation often comes through responsible risk-taking, and it is important that leaders create conditions that “allow insights and good ideas to emerge from throughout the organization,” she said. “In my own office, I try to encourage everyone to speak up when they think a process has become outdated and no longer needed, or if they think they have a better way of doing something.”
Pollack also believes in the value of having fun. She noted that she has seen firsthand “how hard everyone at Cornell works. But I’ve also seen the pride – and the joy – that people take in doing a good job.” Her inaugural celebration was “an incredible example of the Cornell spirit” that took “an incredible amount of work,” she said. “I want to thank everyone … for all the work you did and for making it fun for everyone.”
Following her remarks, Pollack took questions from the audience. Most focused on the upcoming work of the Presidential Task Force and the need for all members of the Cornell community to feel a sense of belonging at the university and connect to its mission.
Pollack’s address, which was sponsored by the Employee Assembly, was preceded by remarks from employee-elected trustee Chad Coates, EA Chair Ulysses Smith ’14 and Executive Vice Chair Jeramy Kruser.