Stirring the Waters: Cornell President Becomes Third Ivy League Leader to Step Down Since December

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Martha E. Pollack of Cornell becomes the third Ivy League President to step down since December 2023, following Harvard’s Claudine Gay and UPenn’s Elizabeth Magill Image: Cornell Chronicles and The Washington Post

By Jessica A. Dennehy

On May 9th, 2024, Martha E. Pollack declared her retirement after acting as Cornell University’s 14th President for over 7 years. Her departure date is slated to be June 30th, 2024, with Michael I. Kotlikoff scheduled to begin acting as interim president on July 1st. Kotlikoff, at the behest of the Cornell Board of Trustees,  will serve a two-year term as interim president.  The board plans to form a search committee to formally select Cornell’s 15th president with their search scheduled to conclude six to nine months before Kotlikoff’s term termination. Following her retirement, Pollack will be recognized for her contributions through the title of President Emerita, given by the Cornell Board of Trustees. The Latin-based term emeritus/emerita is a selective honorary title given to someone who has retired from a position of prestige, typically in academia or politics. This allows for the continued usage of their previously held title while also potentially allowing the individual to maintain some of their former duties.  

Some of Pollack’s contributions to Cornell’s academics include teaching computer science, information sciences, and linguistics. An expert in artificial intelligence in her own right, she is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Her impact on her students and the school cannot be easily erased. Additionally, as an administrator and president, Pollack created the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, named the Cornell Colleges of Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, and the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, while also launching a plethora of unique new programs ranging from digital agriculture to artificial intelligence and design/technology. She also impressively expanded external research expenditures by nearly 50% and oversaw the improvement of academic facilities. Further acknowledging the circumstances that occurred under her administration, such as the global pandemic and the conflict in Israel and Palestine, her accomplishments are not to be lightly dismissed.

Questions regarding the announcement’s correlation to pro-Palestinian encampments on college campuses, including Cornell’s, were partially addressed in her retirement announcement, acknowledging that, “Indeed, I began deliberating about this last fall, and made the decision over the December break; but three times, as I was ready to act on it, I had to pause because of events on our and/or on other campuses…There is so much more to Cornell than the current turmoil taking place at universities across the country right now, and I hope we do not lose sight of that.” She has made statements denouncing violent student comments, along with Prof. Russell Rickford’s crude remarks regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet has not explicitly said anything about the conflict itself, despite herself being Jewish. Pollack’s announcement comes as House Speaker Mike Johnson continues to call for Columbia’s President Minouche Shafik to be fired for her handling of protests there.

As the third president of an Ivy League school to step down since December, the burgeoning trend of retirements warrants further examination. Dr. Claudine Gay, the former Harvard President and a current professor of Government and African and African American studies, tendered her resignation letter for her presidential title on January 2nd, 2024. This decision followed anti-semitic accusations, particularly concerning her and her institution’s reactions to events on October 7th, and later, various plagiarism accusations in relation to  her research papers. Upon examination, her papers showed no intentional deception, only minimal errors that might consider some citations inadequate.

Dr. Gay, along with former UPenn President Liz Magill and current Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth, PhD, attended a congressional hearing hosted by the House Education Committee. The meeting focused on debates regarding the merit and propriety of how their respective institutions handled antisemitism on campus. Elizabeth “Liz” Magill, a law scholar and tenured professor at UPenn, later resigned her presidential title four days after the congressional meeting. Circumstances surrounding UPenn’s pro-Palestinian encampments were suspected to be related to her resignation.