At Reunion, Pollack talks free speech, Cornell distinctiveness

Martha Pollack and Joel Malina
Jason Koski/University Photography
Cornell President Martha E. Pollack speaks at Bailey Hall during Reunion Weekend 2017. The talk was moderated by Joel Malina, left, vice president for university relations.

At a Reunion Weekend event, President Martha E. Pollack gave alumni a sense of her academic background and inspiration, traced her path to Cornell, and gave full-throated affirmations of free speech on campus, the value of a college education and the expanding opportunities for Cornell in its Ithaca and New York City campuses and programs.

Pollack spoke to a crowd of more than 1,000 alumni in Bailey Hall June 10; others watched the event online.

Moderator Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, noted that Pollack had been meeting many students, faculty, staff and alumni in just under eight weeks on the job as the university’s 14th president.

Pollack described her undergraduate experience at Dartmouth College and her anthropology professor’s suggestion that she create a self-designed major in linguistics. Pollack credited that conversation with her professor as the moment she realized she could be taken seriously as a scholar; that she could create a major that would become her field of study; and that she could forge a career in academia and work with students, changing their lives the way her professor changed hers.

Her study of linguistics led her to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania for computer science, where she studied artificial intelligence and natural-language processing. After six years at the nonprofit research institute SRI International, she joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, before moving on to the University of Michigan as a professor of computer science. She became Michigan’s provost in 2013.

Malina asked her why she chose Cornell at this point in her career.

“Well, everybody in this room knows ‘why Cornell,’” she said to applause. “It’s an extraordinary university.”

Cornell is “unique in being an Ivy League university that’s a land-grant university,” Pollack said. “So it means you combine, in this incredible way, world-class academics, a strong commitment to liberal arts, with a deep instinct for outreach and making a difference in the world.”

Cornell was also the right place for her because of its “deep, abiding commitment to diversity, from day one,” she said. And the timing was exciting because of the upcoming opening of the Cornell Tech campus in New York City, she added, describing the school, which is beginning its move to the new Roosevelt Island campus this summer, as “a game changer.”

Pollack noted that Ithaca “will always be the heart and soul of this university.” Talking about Cornell Tech, she said coupling the Ithaca campus with Cornell’s centurylong presence in New York City, and building on those expanding opportunities, means the possibilities are endless.

She noted the many advantages Cornell will get from being on Roosevelt Island. “We’re going to be preparing graduate students for digital technology, we’re going to be innovating with new ways of learning… that are very hands-on [with] direct connection with companies, entrepreneurial training, but we’re also going to be providing opportunities that link back to Ithaca,” she said. “… The flow of information, the flow of people, the flow of opportunities, goes in both directions.”

Pollack took time to describe her commitment to free speech and political diversity on campus.

“I firmly, firmly believe that this needs to be a place that allows all voices to be heard, that you can’t shut down speech no matter how heinous it is,” she said. “What I try to explain to students is, in particular, if you’re concerned about those voices that have historically been excluded, you need to stand on the side of free speech. …

“At the same time, that means we need to double down on our commitment to diversity, we need to double down on making sure that voices that historically have been marginalized have a voice,” she added.

When asked whose speech we protect if a choice has to be made, she said: “We don’t choose. That’s the point. Everyone’s speech is protected. Full stop.”

What is the biggest challenge facing higher education? “I think the biggest challenge higher ed faces today is a sense in the country that a college degree is not worth it,” she said. “And that’s just wrong. It’s wrong even on financial grounds.”

She said the answer to the affordability question will always be managing a balance – holding costs down without impacting Cornell’s core educational experience, continuing and improving the university’s financial aid commitments, keeping the loan burden on students as low as possible, and remaining accessible to lower-income students.

“We have challenges in the middle-income range, and we need to work on that,” she acknowledged.

She said the amount of additional earnings the typical college graduate gets over the course of a career has never been greater. But a college education is more than a return on investment.

“To be corny about it, you live a better life,” she said. “You appreciate the arts, you appreciate the humanities, you have reasoning skills, you have communication skills. So I think the biggest challenge is … to make that case.”

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John Carberry