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The “Leading Cornell During the COVID-19 Pandemic” panel June 6, part of virtual Reunion. Clockwise from top left: Fred Van Sickle, vice president for alumni affairs and development; Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff; Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University; President Martha E. Pollack.

Cornell guided by principles in decision-making, Pollack says

Ezra Cornell could have imagined the world in 2020 all too well.

Amid a global pandemic, society is struggling with the same scourges Cornell was fighting when he founded the university in the aftermath of the Civil War, President Martha E. Pollack said at the “Leading Cornell During the COVID-19 Pandemic” panel June 6, part of virtual Reunion weekend.

“We’re living in such painful times,” Pollack said. “One of the best things we can do as a community during this difficult moment is stand up for the values of Cornell.”

Those values, Pollack said, include openness and respect for ideas, truth and people of any background. The challenges of the pandemic, as well as the recent upheavals over racism and injustice, have reinforced the importance of Cornell’s mission, according to Pollack and the other panelists – Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff and Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University. The panel was moderated by Fred Van Sickle, vice president for alumni affairs and development.

Over 30 minutes, the university leaders discussed the principles guiding their decisions and the lessons they learned during the tumultuous weeks preceding Cornell’s pivot to all-online learning, as well as Weill Cornell Medicine’s front-line battle against New York City’s devastating coronavirus outbreak.

Choi described the unprecedented onslaught of cases that vaulted the need for personal protective equipment from around 2,000 in non-pandemic times to 40,000 items per day, as well as the urgent need for masks, ventilators and redeployed doctors. Faculty, students and staff rose to the challenge, he said.

“We’re proud of these heroes,” he said.

Choi said COVID-19 has taught health care leaders how to enhance future responses to the pandemic. “We need to have preparatory units in all that we do – public health, medical help, equipment – as we go forward,” he said. “I’m very confident going forward that we – Weill Cornell and the community – will learn from this.”

Choi said he is immensely proud of the Weill Cornell Medicine community, and grateful to Cornellians around the world who rallied to help. In Ithaca, volunteers worked day and night to make visors and masks for front-line medical workers as faculty donated their labs’ stock for extra supplies and gear; in China, alumni helped secure and ship valuable N95 masks to Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca.

“All of them were showing the very best of Cornell,” Pollack said. “And all of that made me realize that when we say ‘One Cornell,’ we’re not just talking about Ithaca and our New York campuses and our Doha and Geneva campuses. Cornell is really more than any one place and collection of places – it’s our entire community, it’s the ethos of that community, and I’m just so proud to be a part of it.”

As the peak of the crisis wanes in New York City, the administrators said, myriad challenges remain. Every percentage point that national unemployment rises is projected to add $7 million to $8 million to Cornell students' financial need, Pollack said, but Cornell is committed to need-blind admissions and meeting students’ needs despite the cost.

“We are determined to find a way to continue to provide the same high-quality educational programs for our students, and the same kind of engaged, important research our faculty do every day,” she said. “Our faculty are working to cure diseases, to change the world. We will manage our finances in a way that protects that.”

Even as Cornell responds to the crisis, its work is continuing, Kotlikoff said. Researchers in the sciences are racing to learn more about the coronavirus; psychologists and social scientists are investigating the pandemic’s impact; and faculty members in the performing arts are exploring the meaning of creativity amid the pandemic, he said.

“Faculty have really been continuing to think about how we do discovery and create new knowledge in a new kind of world,” he said.

“Cornell is really more than any one place and collection of places – it’s our entire community, it’s the ethos of that community, and I’m just so proud to be a part of it.”

Martha E. Pollack

At the same time, instructors continued to educate students in drastically different circumstances. Bringing students back to campus for the fall semester is an “extraordinarily difficult problem,” he said.

“No one has solved this problem and we’re not sure how we’re going to address it, but we’re working every day to try and think about each of the challenges of a residential campus,” Kotlikoff said.

Planners are considering how behaviors and spaces on campus can be modified to protect students, he said, as well as how to administer sufficient testing and isolate infected students.

“Having said that, if that can’t happen, how can we teach the most creatively that we can and add the most value?” he said. “Cornell has absolutely world-class individuals thinking about how to deliver an education in the most creative ways using technology.”

As Cornell’s leadership team makes decisions about reopening, Pollack said she is guided by four principles: caring for students; safeguarding Cornell’s future; maintaining the staff; and seeking new knowledge.

“Having a set of principles doesn’t make the decisions for you, but it lets you keep your eye on the big picture,” she said. “Cornell has been here for 155 years. We’ve been through wars, we’ve been through the Great Depression, we’ve been through a great recession, and yes, we’ve even been through a pandemic before. So it’s absolutely critical that we take the long view, that we don’t make short-sighted decisions, and we always try to remember that our goal at the end of this isn’t just that Cornell is still here, but Cornell is still strong.”

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Rebecca Valli