Cornell Community Welcome

Dear Cornellians,

It’s been wonderful to see the campus come alive over the past week, as our new and returning students, and so many of our faculty and staff, have arrived and returned to campus. Whether you are here in Ithaca, in New York City, in Geneva, or somewhere else in the world, welcome to all of you! I’m so glad to have you as part of our community, beginning this new academic year together.

After so many months of hybrid instruction, remote offices, and a de-densified campus, returning to a fully in-person semester is a major transition that has taken a great deal of hard work and preparation by all of our faculty and staff—including those who have been working on campus throughout this pandemic. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who has done so much to bring us to this point, and look forward to the opportunity to see, and thank, many of you in person over the course of the semester ahead.

Thanks to our exceptionally high levels of campus vaccination, we are looking forward with optimism to an in-person semester of nearly normal operations. While the most predictable thing about this coronavirus has been its unpredictability, we’ve learned a great deal over the last year and a half: about the pandemic, and about how to keep our university moving forward throughout it. Yesterday, at New Student Convocation, I distilled those experiences into two lessons for our newest Cornellians, and those who were unable to be with us in person last year.

The first lesson: respect knowledge.

Cornell University is, first and foremost, an academic institution. Our mission is to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge; to educate the next generation of global citizens; and to promote a broad culture of inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community. Over the course of this pandemic, we’ve found these goals to be intertwined in ways we had never experienced before. We’ve relied on the knowledge and expertise within and beyond our community to operate our university safely, and we’ve committed as well to contributing to that knowledge. We’ve found new ways to teach and to learn; and ways to reimagine, when we needed to, the experiences of a residential university.

To advance our knowledge, we’ve relied throughout on science: an approach to knowledge premised on the understanding that knowledge—like the world around us—is not static. Knowledge grows and evolves as we seek it—because in science, knowledge is based on evidence. Our commitment to respect knowledge—to rely on science, and base our decisions on evidence—has been key to our ability to manage the pandemic as it’s unfolded. It means that we make and change our plans, not on the basis of what seems intuitive, or what was true last month, but on the best data we have now.

In a world without a map, knowledge and science hand us a compass. They give us the ability to discern data from disinformation; to evaluate evidence; to choose a direction based on that evidence; and to change direction as that evidence evolves. When we respect knowledge and science—when we use that compass well—we have the tools to plot the best possible course of action.

And that brings me to my second piece of advice:

Be kind.

Of everything we’ve learned throughout this pandemic, perhaps the most important lesson is that respecting knowledge and science is necessary, but it’s not enough. We also need to respect each other.

One person who’s wearing a mask, who’s vaccinated, who’s committed to staying home when they’re feeling under the weather, who does everything the science indicates—that one person still won’t be safe unless the people around them care that they’re safe—care enough to wear their masks, vaccinate, and stay home too.

Knowledge gives us a compass. But kindness is what gets us down the road. To quote an African proverb one of my mentors was fond of sharing: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

In this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, there actually is no such thing as going it alone. As we work together to create and share the science and the knowledge that we will all need in the years to come—to overcome this pandemic and those that will follow; to slow the changes to our climate and build more resilient societies; to combat enormous issues of inequality, both nationally and globally; and to create the art, music, and literature that help us connect with each other—we will need both the compass of our minds and the compass of our souls.

Both of them are essential to our planet and our future. Both of them are essential to your educations, and your lives, as Cornellians.

As we begin this new year together, I ask you each to chart your course with knowledge and with kindness. Measure your progress both with the skills you build and the competence you gain—and with the connections and the respect and the kindness shared between yourself and your fellow travelers.


Martha E. Pollack