Q&A with President Martha E. Pollack as she takes the helm

Cornell President Martha E. Pollack
Lindsay France/University Photography
Cornell President Martha E. Pollack

Martha E. Pollack began her tenure as Cornell’s 14th president today. An expert in artificial intelligence, she also holds academic appointments in the Departments of Computer Science, Information Science and Linguistics.

She spoke to the Chronicle recently about how universities innovate, the critical importance of free speech and academic expression on campus, and what has surprised her most about Cornell so far.

In your first visit to campus last November, you said, “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.” What innovations at Cornell exemplify this spirit, and where might we need to push further our adaptability?

One thing to recognize is that universities innovate all the time. In our research and our scholarship, we’re doing two things: We’re preserving the past, we’re analyzing and curating and teaching about existing knowledge; but we’re also innovating to create the future through discovery of new knowledge. So it’s not all about change – it’s about this combination of conservation and innovation.

In addition to the innovation that always happens in research, we’re seeing a lot of innovation at Cornell in the teaching realm. There are examples of active and engaged learning, there are “flipped classrooms,” there’s the novel use of technology to enrich the residential experience.

A great example of teaching innovation is taking place in the classics department, where Latin is being taught as a spoken language.

Engaged Cornell is full of examples of teaching and learning innovations that connect Cornell students directly to the world.

We should also be open to the innovation driven by the analysis of data about our students, because today we can look at what’s effective, and what’s not, for individual students and move toward what is sometimes called “personal learning.”

With the renewed emphasis on “One Cornell,” linking the Ithaca and New York campuses – something I strongly support – we have opportunities for another type of innovation: the development of new educational and research programs spanning two locations with very different characteristics that are complementary in ways that can greatly enhance the Cornell experience. An example of that is the Hinge project, an initiative spearheaded by Hunter Rawlings that supports Ithaca-based faculty, primarily those in the humanities, policy and social sciences, who want to teach or conduct research in New York City.

Another area of innovation that will serve us well is the exploration of new programs and curricula that connect to societal needs, including the needs of industry, such as those Cornell Tech master’s programs. It’s critical, of course, to maintain academic rigor in these, like all our programs. And yet Cornell, as a land-grant institution, knows how to construct applied professional programs that are academically very rigorous.

Finally, we should be open to new forms of educational delivery – for example, with certificate programs for non-Cornell students. These kinds of programs are ways of making good on our mission to have an impact on the broader world, and they also generate revenue that can help support our core programs and ensure that they continue to thrive in an era of constrained resources.

Freedom of speech and academic expression are integral parts of Cornell’s foundation as a community of scholars. Given today’s polarized political environment and many universities facing challenges on how to present and freely discuss diverse opinions, what principles will you turn to in ensuring that robust discussion and debate can flourish?

I am an adamant supporter of freedom of speech and academic expression. Last month, the Cornell community, and especially Cornell students, beautifully modeled civil, respectful dialogue about controversial ideas during the Newt Gingrich speech.

We must, as a community, honor free speech. There are many reasons for this, and among them is the fact that an essential part of our mission is the discovery of truth. We can’t get at truth unless we’re willing to entertain all ideas, including ones we disagree with. To ignore and shut down opposing ideas is to let your own ideas degrade to cant. Instead, you must to be able to defend your ideas well – rigorously and vigorously.

What about ideas that are patently offensive and clearly false? In our democracy, even those ideas have to be allowed to be expressed, lest we open the door to having discourse more generally suppressed. History has shown that it’s often the most marginalized groups whose voices are shut down when free speech is abridged. While we have an obligation to refute and even express our disgust with offensive ideas, we cannot bar them from being said.

Based on all this, it should be clear that I will uphold the principle of freedom of expression at Cornell and do everything I can to ensure that all voices are allowed to speak. When those voices are at odds with the core values of Cornell, I’ll also ensure that there are venues for opposing voices – and I’ll make clear my own opposition. But we cannot allow the hecklers’ veto to shut down speech.

As provost at the University of Michigan, you helped launch several large-scale, interdisciplinary initiatives that required collaboration with constituents across the university. How would you describe your leadership style, and how do you go about building consensus at large, complex institutions?

The brilliance of universities is their reliance on shared governance, and my leadership style is founded on that. Let me take that example of interdisciplinary initiatives. Great universities hire brilliant faculty, and they task them with developing the very best curricula, along with doing research and scholarship. The job of people like me in the administration is to provide an environment in which they can thrive in doing this.

I sometimes describe my approach to academic leadership in these kinds of cases as “bottom up, top down, bottom up.” What I mean is, typically, ideas about new curricula bubble up from the faculty, often working with students, and then they come to the dean, the provost and the president. And then it’s our job – my job, leadership’s job – to assess these proposed initiatives in terms of university priorities, to identify where resources are available, to ensure that all the stakeholders are engaged, to work through any conflicts that arise, and provide suggestions and guidance that maximize the likelihood of success, based on prior experience. That’s the “top down” part. And finally, there’s the last “bottom up” part, and that’s the work of refining and implementing the ideas, which goes back to the faculty.

Having said all that, from the vantage point of a dean or a provost or a president, sometimes you do see opportunities that align well with university priorities, and in those cases you go out and talk with the relevant constituents and share your ideas and see if they spark interest. But again, it’s the faculty who own the curriculum. And it’s the job of academic leadership to support them.

You mentioned shared governance, of which Cornell has a strong tradition, with the faculty senate and assemblies representing employees, undergraduate students, and graduate and professional students. How do you see their perspectives contributing to your administration?

All these groups bring very important voices and ideas to the table. They don’t always agree with one another, either within each group or across groups, and of course there are university priorities, policies and resource constraints that can sometimes make it difficult or even impossible to achieve the desired outcomes of one or more of these stakeholder groups. But that said, it’s critically important to seek input, listen carefully and learn from all parties who will be impacted by any decision.

The assemblies at Cornell appear to function very well and provide a great way for the administration to hear their perspectives, and I look forward to working in good faith with all of them.

It’s been nearly five months since you were announced as Cornell’s president. What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the university?

That it really is a very steep climb up Libe Slope!

But seriously, I’ve been surprised and gratified to find out how pervasive Ezra Cornell’s “any person … any study” idea is as a guiding principle for the university. I see it quoted constantly; I see it used as the basis for many university decisions. I even discovered that several years ago it was named the best college motto by Motto magazine.

It’s a deceptively simple phrase, but it’s actually quite profound. The value and the seriousness with which Cornellians hold it has been surprising, and gratifying, to me. I know that the university has not always gotten it right – sometimes we’ve failed to live up to this principle. But it is clearly fundamental and descriptive of our aspiration as a university.

What are you and your husband, Ken Gottschlich, looking forward to discovering and doing in Ithaca and beyond?

Ken and I both love the outdoors, and so we’re looking forward to exploring the parks and the forests, and hiking in the area. We’ve driven around a bit; we’ve driven up the west side of Cayuga Lake and back down the east side of Seneca Lake, but we haven’t yet been here in nice enough weather to really take a hike. Ken is also a very serious fly fisherman, so he’s looking forward to exploring the local streams and lakes.

The community has been remarkably generous, the number of people who have offered to show us around. It’s been very, very nice.

We both love music, especially classical and jazz, so we hope to attend the Cornell Concert Series and some of the student performances, and we’re basketball fans, so look for us at some of the men’s and women’s basketball games.

Inaugurations bring the community together and help set the tone for a presidency. How will your Aug. 25 inauguration and its related events reflect what is important to you?

It’s my plan to spend these first few months getting to meet as many Cornell faculty, staff, students and alumni as possible, and using my interactions with them to help shape the vision that I will be sketching at my inauguration.

It’s very important to me that the inauguration represent the academic values and the academic strengths of Cornell. That’s why, for example, it will begin with events that celebrate the university’s scholarship. Of course, it will also have elements of fun, including, in the Cornell tradition, the unveiling of a new ice cream flavor.

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