Cornell President Martha E. Pollack gives her State of the University address Oct. 20 in Call Auditorium.

State of the University highlights innovation, excellence

From faculty who are shaping the future of artificial intelligence to students engaging with each other across difference to alumni winning some of the world’s highest honors, Cornell advanced its unique mission through a wide range of achievements in 2023, President Martha E. Pollack said in her State of the University address Oct. 20.

Speaking to alumni, students, faculty and staff in Kennedy Hall’s Call Auditorium, and via livestream, Pollack opened her speech by acknowledging the Israel-Hamas war.

“I know that this community can come together in difficult times, and stand as we always have, against hatred of all forms,” she said. “Today I ask all Cornellians to offer compassion and empathy, and to provide the support to one another that is so needed.”

Even as we all continue to struggle with world events, Pollack said, Cornell’s good work goes on. She cited examples of contributions from faculty, students, staff and alumni over the past year that embodied the university’s core values – “showing you just some of the many ways that we’re working to be the university that Ezra Cornell imagined – but now reimagined for the 21st century.”

She described the university’s AI Initiative, in which researchers across colleges and disciplines work together to harness the technology to improve the world – in ways that are human-centered and ethical. She also discussed the theme year, “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell,” which is celebrating and exploring issues surrounding free expression through invited speakers, panel discussions, exhibits, performances and more.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that our students have the opportunity to engage with ideas that challenge them,” she said, “because being exposed to ideas that one disagrees with is a core part of a university education: key to learning how to evaluate information and develop deeply considered beliefs; key to developing intellectual humility; and key to learning how to advocate for one’s own held values.”

In addition to AI, cross-disciplinary projects around Cornell include the new Paul Rubacha Department of Real Estate, a collaboration between the College of Architecture, Art and Planning and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business; the multicollege Department of Design Tech, advancing innovation in design and emerging technology on both the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses; and the first Intercampus Vaccine Symposium, which drew students and researchers in vaccine technology, host immunology, vaccine policy and communication.

“The depth and the breadth of our faculty’s expertise across disciplinary boundaries, and our willingness to delve into new fields of study, fuel innovation across an incredible range of areas,” Pollack said.

Cornell’s commitment to sustainability is embodied by researchers across the university, supported by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the 2030 Project, as well as numerous efforts to reach the goal of carbon neutrality on the Ithaca campus by 2035, she said. Among those efforts: a planned new 110-megawatt solar voltaic project in Batavia, New York, which, combined with existing renewable energy sources, will enable the Ithaca campus to meet its energy needs with 100% renewable energy.

Pollack also noted the public engagement work that advances Cornell’s land-grant mission, including student projects aimed at improving lives in Tompkins County and around the world.

“Our international engagement is strengthened by the work of our Global Hubs, launched last fall – a network of 19 peer institutions in universitywide partnership with Cornell, each connecting all of Cornell with their communities, countries and regions by exchanging students and faculty, and facilitating collaborations in teaching and research,” she said.

The ongoing “To Do the Greatest Good” campaign, which includes efforts to make a Cornell education more accessible for lower- or middle-income students, is continuing with “tremendous momentum,” Pollack said – with the last two years the best fundraising years in Cornell’s history. Major capital projects, such as a new 16-story residence for graduate and medical students at Weill Cornell Medicine, construction of Atkinson Hall and the new Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science building, and the renovation of historic McGraw Hall, will help provide the resources and facilities to help Cornellians succeed at the highest levels, she said.

Pollack announced plans for the new Meinig Fieldhouse, named for former Board of Trustees Chair Peter C. Meinig ’61 and set to open in 2026, which will support students with expanded space for physical activity. She noted recent honors for Cornell athletes, including the 31st Ivy League championship for men’s lacrosse, a winning season for women’s field hockey, and gold and silver medals for wrestlers at the September World Wrestling Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. Recent alumni achievements included a MacArthur “genius” grant for fiction writer Manuel Muñoz, M.F.A. ’98, and the Nobel Prize in economic sciences for Claudia Goldin ’67.

Pollack closed her speech with thanks: “to all of you, for everything you do, to make Cornell a place for ‘… any person … any study’ – where our imagination is matched by our innovation, and our ethos by our excellence.”

A transcript of the speech can be viewed here.

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Lindsey Knewstub