As announced earlier today, Cornell’s 14th president will also be its second female leader. Univ. of Michigan provost Dr. Martha E. Pollack has been selected to take over the helm from interim president Hunter Rawlings starting in April 2017.
Currently, Pollack is the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan, as well as a Professor of Computer Science. As a student, Dr. Pollack earned her degrees at two of Cornell’s peers – a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from Dartmouth College, and a PhD as well a master’s in computer science and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Her professional specialty is artificial intelligence, with years of research focused on the design of technology to help those with cognitive impairments, including natural-language processing, temporal reasoning, and automated planning.
Pollack has held a number of positions across the country. From 1985 to 1991, she was a computer scientist at the Artificial Technology Center of SRI International, a non-profit research institute started by, and still closely associated with Stanford University. In what be a good fit with Cornell’s trajectory, SRI was initially created in the 1940s to help spur economic development in the vicinity of Stanford – an area that would later become known as Silicon Valley.
Following her time at SRI, she was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh for nine year, moving to Ann Arbor in 2000 to join the computer science department at U. Michigan. It was at Michigan where she began to work her way up the academic leadership ladder – first as an associate chair of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department from 2004-2007, than as Dean of the School of Information from 2007-2010, then as a Vice Provost for Budgetary and Academic Affairs from 2010-2013, and then promoted in January 2013 to her latest position as Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs for the 44,000 student university. The provost role in higher education is basically the second-in-command, leading the administrations function of the university. Apparently, Michigan has a knack for turning out Ivy League presidents – Pollack accepted the provost position following colleague Philip Hanlon’s departure to take over as President at Dartmouth College.
Like many high-flying professionals, Pollack has earned a number of service and research awards over the course her career. When promoted in 2013, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman spoke of her glowingly, saying “it’s obvious to me that she’s somebody with enormous potential.” A colleague described Pollack as “gentle, kind and has always been a tireless advocate for our student body.”
The appointment to provost, originally for two years, was renewed by the university in December 2014, and came with additional praise. “Provost Pollack has been an innovative and disciplined academic and budget leader for the campus. … I appreciate her work to hold down tuition costs, provide more financial aid to our students, and her leadership of important new initiatives in digital education and engaged learning,” said Mark Schlissel, the new president of the university.
While at Michigan, Pollack has taken some heat from conservative circles for overseeing a change in student registrations that allowed students to select their own pronouns in respect those who are gender non-conforming. earlier this year, Pollack gave a speech to Michigan students and used the example of supporting transgender children as an example of how young people must “fill the empathy gap.”
Regarding her personal life, Pollack has been married for 32 years to Ken Gottschlich, an engineer and jazz musician, and has two grown children.
Although Cornell is large, well-respected and multifaceted institution, so is Michigan. A computer scientist with strong research acumen and academic connections seems like a comfortable choice for Cornell president. With her credentials, at a glance it appears that her appointment is a wise decision that fits with the university’s strategic goals.