State of the University Address 2016

by Hunter R. Rawlings III, Interim President

As prepared for presentation
October 28, 2016
Ithaca, New York


This morning I want to give you my perspective on Cornell, after having been immersed in the national landscape of higher education for five years as head of the Association of American Universities. There is no doubt that, as a group, U.S. research universities are more important than ever to the country. They generate the ideas that lay the foundation for innovation—both immediate and longer term; they educate future leaders, not only of this country, but of many others, because the world now comes here for higher education; and they contribute to the greater good because they serve public purposes, not just private ones.

Among America’s great research universities, Cornell is unique. It is a private university with a public mission—and it now has a further distinction: It is the only large institution that bridges New York’s Upstate-Downstate divide.

The Upstate-Downstate divide is not just a question of geography. It is also demographic, economic, cultural, and political. Upstate is largely white, economically challenged, politically to the center right, and heavily rural. Downstate has a highly diverse population, a booming economy, a liberal political order, and a densely urban environment. New York’s public universities reflect that split—with SUNY’s 64 campuses Upstate, and CUNY’s 24 campuses Downstate.

Cornell is the only large institution that bridges that divide, with enduring relationships with both the State of New York and the City of New York. Cornell has engaged in a “joint educational venture” with the State of New York since its inception in 1865. As a result, the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Human Ecology, and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations have become first-rate programs of enormous benefit to the entire state and the world. Through Cornell Cooperative Extension, we have a presence in every county in the state and in all five boroughs of New York City—reaching an estimated 1.9 million New Yorkers a year directly and millions more through digital and print media.

Before now, though, we have been perceived as a university essentially located in Upstate New York, though our medical school has been in Manhattan for over 100 years. With the advent of Cornell Tech, we cannot be perceived that way any longer. In 2011, Cornell and the City of New York began another “joint educational venture,” with each partner contributing substantial resources to extend Cornell’s academic and research prowess to the heart of New York City. Cornell Tech holds the same promise of academic excellence and public benefit that Weill Cornell and our Ithaca-based colleges have manifested for years. In fact, as we’ve heard, we already have almost 200 graduates of Cornell Tech, and we are currently seeking bright, entrepreneurial and highly motivated students for the first class to occupy the new Roosevelt Island campus. Please spread the word: if you apply to Cornell Tech and are admitted, you will be in the inaugural class on the Island.

In addition to Weill Cornell Medicine, several Ithaca-based colleges have a presence in the City, and all will become increasingly visible with the advent of Cornell Tech. Even now, for fiscal year 2016, 49 percent of Cornell’s revenue is from New York City area sources. Yet we have not even begun to take full advantage of the opportunities that our Upstate-Downstate footprint makes possible; seizing those opportunity represents Cornell’s biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for the future.

Cornell’s future lies in its ability to integrate its three New York State campuses—Ithaca, Weill and Cornell Tech—into a cohesive whole. We need to become more than ever before “One Cornell.” If we succeed in connecting these parts, Cornell will become even stronger academically and in research, and serve the state and the world more effectively.

Because of some very good decisions made at its conception, Cornell Tech is beginning life inextricably tied to Ithaca. All faculty appointments and tenure and promotion decisions go through Ithaca departments. This is a huge advantage for both Cornell Tech and Ithaca, enabling us to build strong departments on both campuses. To date we have hired 29 new faculty members for Cornell Tech: 7 in Engineering; 11 in Computer Science; 7 in Information Science & Law; 4 in Business.

Cornell Tech’s dean, Dan Huttenlocher, is partnering with the deans in Ithaca to land top faculty who fit Cornell Tech’s mission of taking research and teaching to the public through tech transfer, outreach and external engagement. This means direct interaction by the faculty member with organizations beyond academia—in industry, consulting, entrepreneurship, policy work, executive education and pre-college education, for example—in order to benefit both those organizations and the faculty member’s research.

So think of Cornell Tech as an extension of Ithaca departments into the City, but not only through the hiring of new faculty members. We want to enable Ithaca faculty members, including from Arts and Sciences, to teach and do research at Cornell Tech too, when their work fits the Tech mission of external engagement. To this end, we have started, with substantial help from my friend and former board chair Pete Meinig, to create what we call the “hinge project”: this is a fund to provide incentives and seed money for Ithaca faculty to put a foot on Roosevelt Island while keeping a foot in their Ithaca department. The idea is to build bridges between Upstate and Downstate Cornell, to provide flexible opportunities for our faculty to extend their influence to New York City in visible ways.

Similarly, we are in the process of building closer ties among Weill Cornell, Cornell Tech and Ithaca, particularly in research, but in other areas as well. Here are just a few examples:

In late August, Senators Gillibrand and Schumer announced first-year funding from the National Cancer Institute for a new Center on the Physics of Cancer Metabolism, led by Claudia Fischbach-Teschl, associate professor of biomedical engineering here in Ithaca, and Dr. Lewis Cantley, the Meyer Director of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. The new center’s goal is to combine the strengths of various interdisciplinary research groups in Ithaca, Weill Cornell, and elsewhere to gain unprecedented understanding of the biological and physical mechanisms regulating how tumors function and spread in the human body.

Similarly, researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine and at Weill Cornell are collaborating in the hopes of discovering better treatments for lymphoma, a group of blood cancers that develop in the lymphatic systems of both humans and dogs. As Dr. Kristy Richards, who has a faculty appointment in both colleges, explained in an interview last spring, “Cornell is really perfectly poised for this. It has both a top notch veterinary school in Ithaca…and…world class clinical trials and basic and translational research at Weill Cornell in human lymphoma research. It really is a win-win situation…”

Here’s another example: Dr. Monika Safford, chief of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell, is working to establish the Cornell Center for Health Equity. Her proposal includes, among other components, a rural health equity program in combination with Ithaca-based faculty and community groups. Here is a new example of Cornell’s ability to bridge the State’s divide: to reach from the City to the Upstate region and begin to impact the health care of many poorer residents of Upstate New York.

Earlier this week, we announced another significant development that will tap the resources of all three campuses. Weill Cornell Overseer Ellen Davis and Cornell Trustee Gary Davis have made a $2 million gift to establish an immune monitoring core at Weill Cornell Medicine in order to accelerate the development of immunotherapy as a weapon in the fight against cancer. A portion of their gift will fund research collaborations among investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell-Ithaca, and Cornell Tech, strengthening the critical bridges between Upstate and Downstate Cornell.

We have, of course, many other examples from several colleges where innovative collaborations between Ithaca and New York City are already under way and poised for further growth:

The College of Human Ecology recently created the Cornell Institute for Fashion and Fiber Innovation, which bridges the fashion industry and our Ithaca-based program in fiber science and apparel design. Members of the institute include a number of fashion companies and organizations based in New York City, including the largest producer of fashion trade shows in the U.S. Additionally, the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design organizes annual student study tours to New York City, visiting fashion companies and creating networking opportunities for students who will enter the field. Looking ahead, the college is awaiting state approval for a new Master’s in Fashion Studies to be delivered in New York City. Students will work collaboratively with industry partners and take advantage of Cornell’s world-renowned expertise bridging technology and fashion.

The College of Architecture, Art, and Planning’s facility in New York City offers versatile, state-of-the-art studio space created by the architecture firm Gensler, whose founder is M. Arthur Gensler, Cornell Class of ’57. Some of you may have heard about the space from Robert W. Balder ’89, the Gensler Family Sesquicentennial Executive Director of AAP NYC, during his “university spotlight” presentation yesterday afternoon.

The ILR School has had a presence in New York City since 1948, and today its midtown offices provide support for many of its extension and outreach activities. Midtown-based extension faculty and staff in the ILR Worker Institute, for example, recently took a high-tech approach to helping day laborers, in partnership with organizations representing such workers: a smart-phone application to prevent wage theft and other labor rights violations that often keep low-wage and precarious workers in New York City from being paid for the work they do.

Then there is ILR’s Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability. It is in the third year of a five-year demonstration project called New York State PROMISE, designed to improve the success of youth who receive Supplemental Social Security Income in transitioning to employment. The project serves more than 1,300 youth from New York City, many of them with significant disabilities and living in economically disadvantaged single-parent households. One of the issues facing the country is inequality, and the ILR School has been working to address this problem for some 70 years.

Research, teaching and outreach focused on ensuring the safety of our food supply is a tremendous strength across the entire university—from the pre-harvest food safety research conducted by the College of Veterinary Medicine, to the new Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence housed on the Ithaca campus, to the clinical work at Weill Cornell, to the recent game-changing investments by the State of New York in our New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, which are transforming the station into a hub for food system innovation.

In the College of Arts and Sciences, the Jewish Studies Program, directed by Professor Jonathan Boyarin, is expanding its scope to include the Jewish experience in Europe and America, the adventure of migration, and the challenges of modernity. New York City is one of the greatest scenes of that adventure, and Professor Boyarin hopes in time to make New York’s Jewish and other ethnic riches the core of a new Arts College semester in New York City for undergraduates. As a first step he has instituted a lecture series at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, inaugurated last month by Professor Ross Brann.

“One Cornell” also refers to our many colleges in Ithaca. When they are collaborating, Cornell is better. This year I have asked the faculty to take on the issue of curriculum across the seven colleges in Ithaca that have undergraduate students. The truth is that they rarely discuss curriculum together. The result is that the colleges have their own curricula, their own requirements, and they do not have much to do with each other.

This past year the College of Arts and Sciences began a review of its curriculum for the first time in about 15 years. This is important because when Arts and Sciences reviews its curriculum, the other colleges have to listen. The Arts College has core departments such as English, Philosophy, History, Government, Physics and Math. Fortunately, these are extremely strong departments, with many faculty members who are leaders in their fields. Most students at Cornell, no matter what college they are in, take courses in the Arts College.

Given what is going on in the country now, this is a central academic undertaking: As you have no doubt noticed, many people in the U.S. have lost faith in liberal education. From governors to legislators, from pundits to parents, Americans increasingly view higher education as purely instrumental—as a ticket to a job, nothing less, nothing more. This vocational view sees college as a commodity: you purchase education the way you buy a car, and the return on investment is measured in strictly financial terms:

  • How much do graduates make?
  • How much do individual majors make?
  • What percentage of new graduates get jobs?
  • Why major in subjects that do not lead directly to high-paying jobs?

The Arts College does not see itself as a vocational school. Neither do our other colleges, which depend significantly upon the Arts College for many of their fundamental courses. When the Arts College reviews its curriculum, it has implications for the entire campus, so this year takes on particular significance for Cornell’s commitment to liberal education.

What is liberal education? I take “liberal” in its original Latin sense as an education for free people; that is, people who do not live in a dictatorship, but have an active role to play in the life of their society. Liberal education liberates students to think for themselves as individuals, to develop their creative capacities, and to contribute to public life, not just earn money as a cog in a machine.

American universities live by an essential principle: their curricula belong to the faculty. Not to the administration, the deans, the provost or the president, and not to the Board of Trustees. I am happy to say that the faculty in Arts is tackling this matter with the seriousness it deserves: the college has a committee doing an in-depth review, with everything on the table. At the same time, a provost-appointed task force is looking at the humanities and arts with the same kind of close attention. In addition, Dean of Faculty Charlie Van Loan is organizing a forum on the curriculum and liberal education that will take place in February. This is a new thing at Cornell: to talk about curriculum across colleges.

When I finish my remarks this morning, three faculty members—Verity Platt from Classics, Tracy McNulty from Comparative Literature, and Julia Thom-Levy from Physics—will discuss some of these issues with each other and with you.  I am looking forward to their remarks, and to your questions and comments.

A university’s curriculum says a lot about what that university purports to be. The Stanford faculty recently published a well-conceived report on the Stanford curriculum. Princeton is about to release its report on the same topic. In its turn, I would like to see Cornell give strong and clear answers to the following questions:

  • For tomorrow’s world, what should a well-educated person know?
  • What should she be able to do with her mind?
  • To contribute to her society?

These are tough questions. They are particularly pertinent now, given the state of this country, when our national discourse has descended to the language of the gutter. It is the responsibility of universities to do what they can to raise the level of discourse. Here are a few thoughts:

First, we need citizens who can read closely and critically; otherwise they will be easy prey for political and Internet nonsense. Second, we need citizens who can reason intelligently and ethically; otherwise, we will continue to suffer from shallow arguments and dishonest leadership. Third, we need citizens who can speak and write clearly and persuasively; otherwise, they will be incapable of convincing others of their views. Fourth, we need citizens who can do independent research; otherwise, they will depend upon someone else to tell them what the facts are. Fifth, we need citizens who can analyze quantitative arguments common to math and the sciences; otherwise, they will be unable to assess issues of critical importance. Finally, we need individuals who have intellectual curiosity and a lifelong desire to keep learning; without those assets, they will not escape the vapid consumerism and celebrity culture that is all around us.

Those are general goals, as I see it, of a liberal education. It is up to the faculty to decide how the curriculum at Cornell best helps our students to achieve those goals.

By freeing us from our prejudices, a liberal education also helps us understand and empathize with the viewpoints of those who are not like us. The past 18 to 24 months have confronted us with many ugly events highlighting the racial and ethnic and class disparities in the United States. On campuses across the country, students and others have rightly drawn our attention to the damage these events do to our sense of community and equality. “One Cornell” also means that we are a tightly knit group of learners with a set of core principles that unite us, such as academic freedom, equality, and generosity of spirit. I see those principles evinced every day at Cornell.

Let me conclude with a few personal remarks. In my two previous incarnations at Cornell, I bent over backwards to be even-handed and disciplinarily neutral. Enough of that! The third time around I want to say what I think. And here’s what I think:

An education without the arts and humanities is like a frame without a picture: it is hollow and devoid of meaning. Human beings seek meaning, even when we are not aware of it. A lot of the angst and anomie we see in our politics today stems from people’s utter failure to find meaning in their lives. What is angst? It is non-directional fear and anxiety. What is anomie? It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community. How do you build such bonds? Religion is one way. Politics is another. There is a lot of good in these things, but I think we can safely say that both of those avenues are now also fraught with problems, not insurmountable, but difficult and full of tension and controversy. They seem now to divide us rather than to bring us together.

The humanities and the arts give us the results of human inspiration and imagination, and deep thought. A painting by Picasso, a poem by Maya Angelou, a play by August Wilson, the tenets of Laozi, the travails of Don Quixote. These works of art enthrall us, challenge us, immerse us in the lives of other human beings, teach us empathy and self-awareness and humility. In other words, they show us “all the light we cannot see” in this never-ending political season.

What do you do when you are not earning money or reading the latest blogs and tweets? Do you read a book? Visit a museum or art gallery? Go to the theatre? Discuss a speech or read an op-ed? You are engaging in the arts and humanities.

I cannot tell you how many alumni have told me after taking summer CAU classes that they wished they had taken courses in literature and history and art while going to Cornell; and while it’s never too late, as many of you know, it’s much better to take these courses when you are younger.

In my own case, I rue the day I persuaded my parents to let me stop taking piano lessons (look at the length of these fingers!), and I regret my failure to take art history at Haverford. My life has been poorer for both those decisions, and I mean “poorer” in a more important sense than financial—I mean intellectually and aesthetically.

Cornell has great departments in comparative literature and philosophy and history and Classics, and other humanities and arts. I know them well. When our students fail to take their classes, they are impoverishing themselves for a lifetime, literally. So when the faculty rethinks our curriculum, I hope it might consider putting the arts and humanities at the center of it, for ALL Cornell students.

But how can you get a job when you spend your time reading literature and history, and learning the intricacies of Greek verbs? Decades ago, when my uncles learned that I had decided to major in Classics in college, they told me I would never get a job. When I started a Ph.D. program, they again said I would never get a job. When I took a faculty position in the Classics Department of a university, my uncles asked me when I would get a REAL job. Well, I am sorry my uncles are no longer here, because I think even they would now say I have held some real jobs, one of them three times.

But I would say something different: being president of Cornell is not a job. It is a calling, and a pleasure: I am surrounded by some of the smartest people in the world, some of the most generous people in the world, and by people whose lives have meaning and give yours meaning.

Thank you for being Cornellians, and thanks for having Elizabeth and me back.