Despite the challenges of the pandemic and other crises, Cornell has been extraordinarily productive, President Martha E. Pollack said at her State of the University address March 26.
Drawing on the words of Cornell’s ninth president, Frank H.T. Rhodes, Pollack reflected on Cornell’s role as a university, as “an engine that drives humanity forward.” Since her last report in October 2021, she said, Cornell has launched new schools, a new college, new departments and a “tremendously ambitious” new philanthropic campaign, while its faculty, students and staff have been recognized with an impressive range of accolades and awards across fields and disciplines.
“And as the public health landscape has continued to evolve, we’ve continued to rely on science and expertise in our faculty in ways that are both new, and that stand at the heart of our 157-year-old mission: creating new knowledge, and educating new generations of global leaders – with a public purpose, and for a changing world.”
Pollack spoke as part of the joint annual meeting of the Cornell Board of Trustees and Cornell University Council at Alice Statler Auditorium. She reported on 17 months of activity since her last address, in October 2020, rather than the usual 12, since her 2021 address was postponed due to COVID.
Pollack opened her address with an appreciation of Bob Harrison ’76, who is poised to step down after 10 years as chair of the board of trustees and 22 years as a member of the board, including two as student-elected trustee.
“His leadership, his wisdom, his exceptional judgment and tremendous expertise, have all helped bring us to the place we are today as a university,” she said.
That place begins with academic distinction, she said. Since fall 2020, eight Cornell faculty members have received some of the highest honors bestowed on scholars in this country: including election to the national academies of Engineering, Science and Medicine, and the American academies of Arts and Letters and Arts and Sciences, among many others. She highlighted the work of several faculty members including Derrick R. Spires, associate professor of Literatures in English in the College of Arts and Sciences, who won the Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book for “The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States.”
The success of Cornell’s faculty can also be measured in terms of their research activity, Pollack said. “Indeed, over the last five years, we’ve seen a 36% increase in federal funding, including a 61% increase in funding from the National Institutes of Health,” Pollack said. “And we’ve also seen a 52% increase in corporate research funding.”
Cornell research often leads to new products and companies. For example, the Center for Technology Licensing has seen a 40% increase in licensing income over the past five years. And thanks to a new approach to licensing, the university has a strong and growing $30 million portfolio of startup equity, she said.
But Cornell research and education mean much more than publications and startups, Pollack said. “They mean a future in which we can better understand and treat systemic lupus, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and both acute and post-acute COVID infection. They mean more livable cities, and more ethical technology, and a more just society. They mean a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, through the art, literature and music that connect our minds and feed our souls.”
Cornell also shapes the future through education – including tremendous growth at eCornell, which reaches more than 100,000 unique nontraditional students with online classes and “micro-credential” certificate programs; eCornell has also launched five new online professional master’s degree programs in the past five years. That growth has translated to net annual proceeds to academic units and the university growing from $3 million to $20 million over the last four years, she said.
Undergraduate admissions at Cornell is need-blind, and Cornell commits to meeting the full cost of attendance for students with financial need through a package of grants, loans, and work-study. But even the full tuition rate – paid by fewer than half of undergraduates – does not cover the full cost of a Cornell education, Pollack said, making the university’s endowment critical to maintaining its academic excellence. In 2021, it had investment returns of 42% – the largest gain in more than three decades.
The endowment supports students’ remarkable achievements at Cornell. “And when you look at the paths that so many of our students have taken after graduation – that so many of you have taken after graduation – the impact they’ve had on our world is astounding,” she said.
“Today, in a world changing more rapidly than ever before, humanity needs an engine that is more agile and more powerful: able to provide the world-leading research and education and engagement we’re going to need in the decades ahead. And it’s with that goal in mind that we’ve launched our new philanthropic campaign: To Do the Greatest Good,” she said.
Cornell aims to raise over $5 billion, which it will use to strengthen financial aid, enhance academic programs, support faculty and increase the socioeconomic diversity of its student body.
During the campaign, the university has named two schools and a college: the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, and the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.
Thanks to the Cornell community’s support, so far the university has raised $3.1 billion: resources that will strengthen its ability To Do the Greatest Good, now, and in the decades to come, Pollack said.
“However the world changes, whatever comes next, I am convinced that Cornellians will be out in front: leading, and exploring, and helping humanity rise to every challenge,” she said. “A catalyst for society; an engine driving humanity forward; and a university to do the greatest good.”