President Martha E. Pollack delivers her fifth annual address to staff.

Pollack praises staff for advancing mission through pandemic

At the end of a stressful week for a campus community that has already weathered 20 months of a global pandemic, President Martha E. Pollack on Nov. 12 thanked university employees for persevering and helping Cornell thrive.

 “We’ve done so much more than just stay open,” Pollack said in her fifth annual address to staff, hosted by the Employee Assembly. “We’ve been moving full speed ahead with our teaching and our research and engagement – all the work that makes so much difference in so many people’s lives.”

Speaking in person in the Biotechnology Building and via Zoom, Pollack emphasized that the impressive work of the past year would not have been possible without the exceptional staff who kept academic departments, labs, libraries and offices moving forward; ensured that dining halls, residence halls and the Cornell COVID-19 Testing Laboratory ran smoothly; and maintained buildings, roads, vehicles, gardens and other spaces.

Pollack offered special thanks to the Cornell University Police Department and other emergency personnel for their responses both during a Nov. 7 bomb scare – later determined to be a hoax – and, two days later, a local law enforcement incident that unfolded near North Campus.

“What we saw this past week was true heroism,” Pollack said. “We saw police and emergency responders who rushed into the unknown, into a potentially very dangerous situation, without hesitation, to protect the rest of us. I am very grateful to everyone who handled the situation with such professionalism and commitment.”

Pollack also paid tribute to Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, who last month announced plans to leave the university in June, for her quarter-century of service.

Opperman’s care and compassion, Pollack said, have transformed the experience of working at Cornell for tens of thousands of people, helping the university earn a No. 2 rank on Forbes’s list of best places to work in New York state.

“I am just so grateful that she’s been our chief human resources officer through some of the most challenging times that this university has faced,” Pollack said. “Her professionalism, her experience … and her ability to really focus on the big picture, as well as every single piece of it – all of that has made a tremendous difference to our entire leadership team, and to everyone who works and studies here.”

Opperman thanked Pollack and colleagues for their words of appreciation.

“For me, Cornell is its people,” Opperman said. “That’s where our greatness comes from. It always has, and it always will.”

Those recognitions followed the Employee Assembly’s presentation of its annual Appreciation Award – for a group of employees who have gone above and beyond in their support of the university – to the Cornell COVID-19 Testing Laboratory.

Acknowledging ongoing strains and uncertainty from the pandemic, Pollack highlighted examples of accomplishments employees have enabled over the past year.

They included the College of Veterinary Medicine’s establishment of a new Department of Public and Ecosystem Health focused on healthy food systems, emerging health threats and biodiversity conservation; $3.3 million in federal grants to the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability to improve vocational rehabilitation outcomes for out-of-school youth involved in the justice or foster care systems; and an innovative Weill Cornell Medicine study focused on the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, funded by a three-year, $8.9 million grant.

Advancing sustainability goals, the university opened Toni Morrison Hall and Ganędagǫ: Hall, the first North Campus Residential Expansion (NCRE) buildings – “amazingly energy- and resource-efficient” facilities, Pollack said, whose rooftop solar panels will provide 35% of the NCRE’s electricity, and reduce energy costs to about 45% below industry standards.

Pollack thanked Alumni Affairs and Development staff for launching a five-year, $5 billion fundraising campaign, “To Do the Greatest Good.” Among its goals, the comprehensive campaign seeks to raise $500 million for undergraduate financial aid to support student access – “so that we really are always a place for ‘any person,’” she said. Pollack said the effort would help ensure Cornell’s future as a great university, one she believes can be “the model of a leading research university in the 21st century.”

The university’s achievements and aspirations depend on its people, she told employees.

“Cornell is Cornell because of all of you,” she said, “who’ve done your work every day, who’ve brought so much dedication, skill and commitment to keeping this incredible institution up and fulfilling its mission.”