Capping a historic day for Cornell University following the inauguration of Martha E. Pollack as its 14th president, a festive crowd of Cornellians, friends, family and colleagues numbering nearly 700 filled Barton Hall Aug. 25 for a reception and dinner.
Among the many Cornell faculty, staff, students and alumni was a large delegation from the University of Michigan, where Pollack spent 16 years on the faculty and administration, most recently as provost.
Members of Yamatai, Cornell’s taiko Japanese drumming group, kicked off the dinner program with a dramatically spotlighted performance on three sides of the hall.
Joel Malina, vice president for university relations and co-chair of the Inauguration Steering Committee, welcomed guests and introduced Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, who worked with Pollack at Michigan for two and a half years while she was provost.
“We’re enormously proud of Martha Pollack,” Schlissel said. “At her heart, she’s a faculty member, a researcher and an educator who has lived the core mission of a research university throughout her entire career.”
Schlissel noted that while Pollack “is a leading researcher in the area of artificial intelligence, she also comes hard-wired with a profound appreciation of human social intelligence.
“[She] also deeply understands the nature of academic leadership,” he said. “You can define the agenda and shape the discussion as a president, but leadership at a great university means helping to support faculty, students and staff to achieve their own highest ambitions while at the same time steering the institution towards new levels of excellence.”
President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings, who introduced Pollack, said what struck him the most about her was that “she’s a person of principle. These days, we hear a lot about values – values are good things, but values change, and they change these days fairly rapidly. Principles do not change; they are first, that is the origin of the word,” he said.
Rawlings noted that Pollack truly cares about students, faculty and staff, understands university budgets, and is perfect for guiding the opening of the Cornell Tech campus in New York City in September.
“She understands information technology, digital analytics, tech transfer, academically inspired startups and the role that a great research university can play in a major city, a state and a region,” he said.
“Martha has her feet on the ground and her head in the clouds – both real and digital,” Rawlings noted. “You will not see Martha faking anything or anyone, least of all, herself.”
Minutes later, as Pollack came up to speak, she asked Rawlings to stay for a moment as she stood by his side.
“Before Hunter leaves the stage – look at him, look at me,” she said, gazing upward at the 6-foot, 7-inch Rawlings. “Who has feet on the ground and head in the clouds?”
Pollack noted that one of her first joys as president was to design her signature ice cream, Martha’s Bits & Bytes, created by Cornell Dairy.
One of the first postings on her @cornellpresident Instagram account was of her and her husband, Ken Gottschlich, conducting one of the ice cream taste tests, she said. A few weeks later, she was a judge for a department’s grilled cheese tasting competition, also featured on social media, and sometime later she was pictured giving out awards.
“At about that time, my daughter Anna, who follows me on Instagram, texted me and said, ‘Mom, are you a college president or a camp counselor?’” Pollack said to laughter. “So Anna, I hope that after today, you believe that I am actually a college president.”
Pollack, who often speaks of the profound impact faculty members can have on students, recognized two of her own faculty mentors who attended the dinner: Hoyt Alverson, professor emeritus of anthropology at Dartmouth, who was her undergraduate adviser, and Barbara Grosz – Cornell Class of ’69 – a natural sciences professor at Harvard, who was her graduate school mentor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Alverson “demonstrated to me that I could be taken seriously as a scholar – an emerging scholar, but a scholar nonetheless – and for that I will be forever grateful,” Pollack said. Grosz “challenged me, pushed me, but she knew when I needed encouragement and she provided that; she helped me find my academic voice.”
Pollack also thanked Gottschlich, for 33 years of marriage and his “steadfast love, support and, really, willingness to follow me around the country.”
“It is such an incredible privilege to have been asked to lead this university, and it is such an incredible privilege to have all of you as partners,” Pollack said. “I so look forward to the coming years. It’s been a great day, and it’s been a great day because of all of you.”
The dinner prepared by Cornell Catering showcased seasonal and locally sourced menu items, many with connections to Cornell.
Performances by the a cappella groups The Touchtones and Cornell Chordials closed the dinner program as guests headed to a dessert reception featuring local cheeses and Martha’s Bits & Bytes ice cream.