President Pollack reflects on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dear Cornell community,

Each year, on the day that celebrates the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I reread his speech, “I have a dream.” Each year, his words—words of grief, words of determination, words of hope—ring down through the decades, to rouse and challenge us anew. They remain, year after year, both a yardstick by which to measure the justice of our society, and a mirror in which to reflect the soul of our nation.

Today, as I reach for his speech yet again, the injustice and pain of the past year form a stark backdrop to the familiar words. This year, we have been surrounded by devastating examples of our continuing failures, large and small, to become the nation Dr. King envisioned. We’ve watched a Black man die under the literal knee of the police, one life of too many stolen. We’ve seen, in countless ways, how our country has disproportionately failed to protect Black, brown, and Indigenous lives from the effects of the pandemic, as more have become ill, more have lost their jobs and their homes, and more have died. Less than two weeks ago, we saw Confederate flags and Nazi symbols—vile displays of bigotry and hatred—brought into our Capitol building, as white supremacists threatened our democracy, within sight of where Dr. King proclaimed his belief in our country’s potential for goodness and love.

Cornell, as all of us know, was founded on an ideal of inclusion: on a promise to educate men and women of all races, all religions, and all nationalities. Yet despite this foundational commitment, and the value that generations of Cornellians have placed on our “... any person ... any study” motto, we cannot pretend that Cornell is an oasis apart. We are not. We are, each of us, a product of our imperfect society. We live, each of us, in that imperfect society: a society in which messages of hate now have new ways to spread, and seed themselves, and grow new roots. In recent weeks, many in our community have experienced this firsthand. Yet each and every one of us—faculty, students, and staff—has a responsibility, individually and as a community, to hold fast to our Cornell ideals: to condemn that hate, as we strive to become better than we are.

Today, and every day, Cornell remains committed to living up to its founding ideals. And as we reflect on the words of Dr. King’s dream, those words demand that we commit ourselves anew to living those ideals in every moment of our lives—that we remind ourselves, as Dr. King put it, “of the fierce urgency of Now.”

At Cornell, we endeavor to live our ideals every day, not only through our words, but through our actions. We strive to live them through our teaching, our research, our patient care, our public safety practices and our engagement with the broader society. We strive to live them by addressing racism in all its odious forms: explicit, implicit, systemic, structural, and institutional. And we strive to live them through careful examination of our practices and policies making changes wherever we find ways to better promote equity and a sense of belonging. We have now accomplished 50 of the 60 recommendations that were made by the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate. Our colleges and schools, and many other units, have also put in place an array of programs to advance inclusion and address structural inequity. And last summer, I announced additional actions, in areas such as our public safety practices, staff programs on cultural competency and the development of teaching and research programs in anti-racism. As we did in the fall, we will provide the community with an update on the progress of these actions at the beginning of the upcoming semester.

Faith, Dr. King said, is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase. Our actions can seem small, their impact limited, the forces against them entrenched. We know the voices of hate will, regrettably, always find a way to be heard. But we also believe in the power of education and of ideas, and in the responsibility of our academic community to be a model for others. That is why we have committed, and remain committed, to finding ways to create an ever more inclusive and welcoming campus; to communicate across our differences; confront systemic racism and bias, and to make the Cornell community a place of equity and belonging for all its members.

“The arc of the moral universe,” Dr. King said the day before he was assassinated, “is long, but it bends toward justice.” On this Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of 2021, I ask you all to remember that the universe’s moral arc does not bend of its own volition. Its parabola is not fixed. It is shaped, today and every day, by every one of us.


Martha E. Pollack

For more information on Cornell’s ongoing work to combat racism and promote an inclusive and equitable campus climate, please see our regularly updated Institutional Initiatives for Diversity and Inclusion and other diversity and inclusion resources.