Presidential Archives

The University for the 21st Century

Introductory Text Released to the Press, October 2003

The historian Frederick Rudolph has described Cornell University as the “first American university.” Forged in the immediate aftermath of the industrial revolution and the Civil War, Cornell was the first great university of North America where both humanistic and scientific instruction were provided with equal fervor and uncompromising rigor, and they were offered not only to men but also to women, and to students of all races and religions.

The past 50 years have brought scientific, technological, political, economic, and cultural change even more profound than the changes that led to Cornell’s creation. It is appropriate, therefore, to revisit questions about our purpose and our design. What should be the role of the world’s great universities in the years ahead? How can we best fulfill that role?

During this week of my inauguration as Cornell’s eleventh president, I have an extended opportunity, with widely varying audiences, to consider these questions. The inauguration takes place on three campuses across two continents, and so I will be able to approach these questions from three different perspectives. Each perspective offers partial answers, and each perspective poses important new subsidiary questions.

I believe that great universities must continue to nurture a transnational perspective on the human condition. To me, a truly transnational perspective is different from a global perspective because it transcends nationalism without insisting on a unitary global substitute. It acknowledges the coexistence of universal human aspirations with equally important regional, national, and local variation. It is open to the world, and eager to engage its complexity. Because Cornell is today a transnational university whose influence and presence are felt in every corner of the world, the week of my inauguration will begin in Doha, Qatar. In the heart of Education City, we will dedicate the campus of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, that country’s first coeducational institution of higher education, and its first institution of premedical and medical education.

I believe that great universities must continue to advance scientific understanding of our world’s unifying forces. For many years Cornell has been at the forefront of scientific research in the physical sciences and engineering. Today Cornell is uniquely well positioned to provide leadership in the post-genomic life sciences. Genome mapping has revealed the fundamental unity of all living organisms. To capture the implications of that discovery, Cornell must bring to bear the full measure of its breadth and depth of understanding in the fields of plant biology, animal biology, human biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, engineering, and computer science. This understanding is distributed across all three Cornell campuses. The second stage of this inaugural week will dramatize the importance of the campus of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will discuss a set of urgent challenges to global health.

I believe that great universities must continue to promote the peaceful and spiritually satisfying coexistence of people with one another and with our planet. Throughout human history, the dividing lines of race and religion have been especially powerful stimuli for conflict, mistrust, segregation, and war. And throughout human history, scientific and technological progress have challenged political and cultural institutions to adapt and to sustain humanistic and environmental values, at the same time that they have enhanced the quality of human life. Cornell has its own unique history, beginning with the words and deeds of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White and continuing through episodes that ranged from boundary-shattering progress to violent confrontation. The final stage of this inaugural week, on Cornell’s first campus in Ithaca, New York, will feature remarks and presentations from five contributors to contemporary human culture: poets Alice Fulton and Kenneth McClane, architect Richard Meier, international business leader Narayana Murthy, and jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Individually and collectively, their thoughts should offer reason for optimism that our world can continue to make progress in these domains.

I believe that we must once again consider the essential question of what we teach. What intellectual dispositions, character traits, and essential knowledge should we be nurturing in all our students? How can we produce critically skeptical, humane, and creative graduates who prize intellectual skill and hard work, who are inspired by insight and beauty wherever they are to be found? How can we help them to prize integrity and honesty, and to feel deep empathy for others?

And I believe that we must once again ask whether we are meeting our responsibility in the most effective way. Today’s students enter our university with a vastly different set of skills and experiences than did their predecessors. How should we adapt to the fact that our students enter our classrooms with a less comfortable relationship to the written word than they did 30 years ago? Should we turn to new technologies as sources of powerful and effective pedagogic opportunities, or are they little more than fool’s gold? How can we continue to draw vitality from the humanistic disciplines that preceded the founding of American higher education, as subjects of engagement and as vehicles to prepare young adults for a mature and well-rounded life of the mind?

Our students are preparing themselves for adult life on a complex and rapidly changing planet. Indeed, today’s college students may well be the first generation to establish human communities on other planets. We must assure that they are prepared for that mission of discovery — or whatever other missions of discovery might present themselves — and that they take the best of our knowledge and our humanistic values with them.