Presidential Archives

Reunion 2005 State of the University

Jeffrey S. Lehman

June 11, 2005

Fellow Cornellians!

I hope that your reunion weekend so far has lived up to your hopes and expectations. Kathy and I have very much appreciated the opportunity to share in your activities, and most especially the chance to be with Cornellians from across the years, across the decades.

The State of the University. What a privilege it is to speak with you this morning about the state of an institution that has, for 140 years, dared to be visionary. And that has, for 140 years, confounded the skeptics and shown the world of higher education what can be accomplished by a community of excellence that has the confidence to be itself and the courage to look to the future.

The State of Cornell University today was shaped by the towering ambition of Ezra Cornell. Listen once again to the words of Cornell’s creed. “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

How could a practical man of business say such a thing? Any person? Any study? How could a sensible university commit itself to such a vision?

It is obviously not the case that literally any person has the requisite preparation to do the work that we require of our students. And there are obviously scores and scores of subjects that we do not offer within our curriculum.

If one looked only to the distance that remains between where we are today and the goal that our founder articulated, one would not see the tremendous progress we have made.

But the genius of Ezra Cornell, and the genius of Cornell University, is to understand the horizon. When we walk towards the horizon, it always recedes before us, remaining just out of reach. But when we walk towards the horizon, we walk in a direction, and we make progress in that direction. If we are consistent and diligent we might even cross the continent.

The greatness of our university is not to be found in the distance between where we are today and the goals that we have embraced. Rather, the greatness of our university is to be found in the distance we have gone in the direction of the goals we chose.

And what an extraordinary distance that is! No, not just any person can study here. But long before many of our peers, Cornell was home to men and women from around the globe, of all races and creeds, children of farmers and doctors alike.

No, we do not find instruction in any study here. But where else can one spend four years pursuing a curriculum in which one is educated by the world’s foremost authorities on everything from Wordsworth to horseshoes, from multi-photon microscopy to tree rings?

And what role did the horizon of “any person, any study” play in helping us to get where we are today?

It is this. By announcing that we are committed to the pursuit of a distant horizon, we made it legitimate to ask two of the most important questions in life: “Why not?” and “What if?”

We saw that not everyone was receiving instruction from Cornell and we asked, Why not? For one thing, not everyone has the time or the ability to spend four years in Ithaca, New York. So Cornellians asked, what if we found a way to distribute the fruits of our research to people who aren’t here? What if we created a system of outreach and extension that could bring the research of the campus outward to every county in New York state?

We saw, a few years ago, that we did not have a department of biomedical engineering, and we asked, Why not? For one thing, the College of Engineering is in Ithaca but the Weill Medical College is in Manhattan. So Cornellians asked, what if we created a single department that spanned both colleges, that included faculty members from both, and we linked our campuses by air service, videoconferencing and a daily luxury bus service?

This past October, after a year-long Call to Engagement process, I offered my own suggestions about how we might renew Cornell between now and our sesquicentennial celebration ten years hence.

To renew our Beloved Cornell, we must begin with the faculty. We must concentrate our energies on attracting and retaining extraordinary men and women. And we must ensure that our students are reaping the full benefit of their presence, both inside and outside the classroom.

We must remain committed to assembling at Cornell a diverse and actively integrated community of talent. To preserve the socioeconomic diversity that has characterized Cornell since the founding will require careful coordination of our tuition and financial aid policies, so that we can preserve Cornell as an option for students from low- and middle-class families.

And to be a transnational university we must recruit and enroll the most talented students in the world. We must expose others around the world to the research and teaching of Cornell faculty. We must have outstanding faculty who study the histories, cultures, politics, and economies of every part of the world. Our curriculum must be rich with offerings about foreign languages and cultures as well as the many languages and cultures that are found within our nation.

To renew our Revolutionary Cornell we must ask ourselves how Cornell can make distinctive and important contributions to humanity, contributions that no other university can make. I believe that we can do so by identifying complex challenges that implicate the full range of Cornell disciplinary strengths and that are susceptible to the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration that is our hallmark. I suggested that these are, almost by definition, challenges that have, for far too long, been understood as narrowly scientific or technical, and that cry out for new perspectives from the humanities and social sciences.

The first such challenge I spoke of was the challenge of life in the age of the genome. Here Cornell has something unique to contribute, even if one remains focused on the narrowly scientific and technical dimensions of the question. For who else can offer such extraordinary faculty quality in the study of plant, animal, and human biology, and human medicine, as well as in such relevant fields as physics, engineering, information science, and chemistry? And who else can offer the kind of extraordinary leadership that we see from our superb deans of Arts and Sciences, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Computing and Information Science, Engineering, Human Ecology, Veterinary Medicine, and at the Weill Medical College in New York City?

But perhaps our greatest contribution might be Cornell’s special capacity to bring our humanists and our social scientists into the conversation. For breakthroughs in the life sciences have the capacity to change our conception of our place in the universe, our relationships with other species, our relationships with machines, and our relationships with one another. We could face a new set of questions about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

All of these questions are shaped by science, yes, but also by culture and by politics. Cornell has the capacity to help people around the world understand these questions with subtlety and with nuance, the capacity to light the way to more robust and effective answers.

Second is the challenge of wisdom in the age of digital information. Cornell has led both in the development of computing and information science and in its propagation throughout the university. And the trajectory of our College of Engineering and our College of Computing and Information Science, led by their superb deans and superb faculties, leaves no doubt that we will continue to do so.

But once again, Cornell’s special voice derives from its capacity to include our humanists and our social scientists in the formation and analysis of new questions. What consequences will the next generation of developments in information technology hold for the way humans live? How do we transform mere information into true human-centered wisdom? We must highlight the work of scholars whose research focuses on the effects of technological change, its impact on the nature of work, and the nature of communication and community.

Third is the challenge of sustainability in the age of development.

In his remarkable Olin Lecture yesterday afternoon, Frank Rhodes, president emeritus and geologist extraordinaire, spoke of mother earth as our aging parent. He reminded us that she is ancient, benevolent, crowded, changing, and needy. And he called on us to take seriously our responsibilities to help our needy parent. Sustainable growth, he told us, is an oxymoron. Sustainable development, in contrast, might well be possible.

The scientific issues associated with sustainability are broad and deep, and Cornell scientists are at the forefront of their study. Whether we are thinking of earth and atmospheric science, environmental science, environmental remediation, energy production, or ecology more generally, Cornell professors are framing the scientific and technological questions, and then they are developing the answers.

But once again, Cornell’s unique leadership role may well lie in its capacity to integrate this kind of scientific leadership with leadership from non-scientific, non-technical disciplines. To bring to the table expertise from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, the Hotel School, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the Johnson Graduate School of Management, and the Law School. And once again, the vision and drive of the superb deans and superb faculties of those schools is making that possibility a reality.

Humanity has embarked on a journey in which sustainability is a relative concept. Although the ideal may be a form of absolute, infinite sustainability, it is highly unlikely that we will, in our lifetimes, encounter such an ideal. Rather, the more immediate and practical challenges concern notions of relative sustainability. For example, if current practices in any domain cannot be sustained for more than 80 years, are there other practices that might work for 150 years? And remembering that technical sustainability challenges are embedded in larger social and human systems, how can human society pass through an indefinite series of necessary transitions, from technology to technology, in ways that are minimally disruptive and that make economic sense? Cornell, uniquely, has the capacity to illuminate those profoundly difficult questions.

Life, wisdom, and sustainability. These are daunting challenges to present to our campus. And they have the quality of a horizon, an important direction, even though we know we will never be able to stop and say we have arrived.

And yet, over the course of the past eight months I have seen deans and professors across this campus step forward with intellectual vision and courage, working across disciplines to imagine the contributions that Cornell might make. Across the university, faculty members have been talking about how their own research might touch on these domains, and how new collaborations might yield new insights.

But it is important for us to understand that, important and exciting as these challenges are, they must never be thought of as mandates. Under our cherished principles of academic freedom, each faculty member has the freedom and the responsibility to chart her or his own course, pursuing truth and creative insight wherever curiosity might lead. To choose her or his own horizon. These three challenges are there to help the community to recognize possibilities that large numbers of faculty members might find exciting. Whether a faculty member’s work is or is not associated with one of the three challenges doesn’t matter. What matters is a commitment to a certain quality of work — original, non-obvious, of exceptional quality.

Everywhere we look at Cornell, we see such greatness. We see individuals who cherish our university’s audacity to commit itself to a distant horizon. We see individuals who are willing to ask “Why not?” and “What if?”

We see it in our Asian Studies Department, where a bold new undergraduate major in Arts and Sciences called China and Asia Pacific Studies will enable our students to study Chinese language in Ithaca, China policy in Washington, D.C., and Chinese history and culture in Beijing. The creation of this major helped us to recruit to Cornell the nation’s very best historian of Chinese-American relations at work today, away from one of our peer schools.

We see it at the intersection of computer science and engineering, where a member of our faculty created a machine that can build copies of itself. Imagine the practical possibilities for such an invention; it could be the basis for a new approach to designing machines for work in hostile environments, including space.

We see it in our music department, where Professor Steven Stucky won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra. A member of Cornell’s music faculty for 25 years, Professor Stucky is considered one of the leading American composers of his generation.

And we see it in the world of accelerator physics, where our professors have designed a new kind of linear accelerator, the energy recovery linear accelerator, which will create the most advanced source of X rays in the world. The extreme brightness produced by this new source will make it possible to determine the structure of cells and biological molecules that cannot be determined with current sources. And despite a year in which its budget was cut by 1%, the National Science Foundation concluded that this project is so very important that it awarded $18 million to fund the prototype — the only such new initiative this year.

The greatness of Cornell is evident among our students as well.

Last fall, students from across the political spectrum joined together to create the Mock Election project. The mock election project combined a voter registration drive with an impressive series of speakers and debates and culminated in an online election. The project was so successful that the student organizers were recognized with the 2004 NASC/Ruth Hollander Award for Outstanding Contributions to Democratic Participation.

Our student athletes set an all-time record at Cornell by capturing eight Ivy League championships. Our wrestling team finished fourth in the nation, and senior wrestler Travis Lee won his second individual national title.

And in the competition for prestigious academic fellowships, this year one Cornell student received a Rhodes Scholarship and another received a Marshall Scholarship.

Cornell is truly on a roll. The world outside our campuses has recognized that fact, and it has responded. Consider only three dimensions of recognition.

Consider the fact that this past year applications to Cornell rose by 17%. 24,000 applicants for only 3,050 seats in the entering class.

Or consider the fact that this past year, newspaper coverage of Cornell rose by 46%. And I am excluding sports coverage from this statistic. I am talking about the other dimensions of campus life.

Of course, nobody has responded to the excitement at Cornell more definitively and more generously than our alumni. During the first year of my presidency, 2003-2004, you set an all-time record for giving, and Cornell ranked number one in the country for alumni gifts. And although this fiscal year is not yet over, it also appears that these past two years could set an all-time record for any two-year span of giving to Cornell. Moreover, the momentum is dazzling. Yesterday I was told that in the first five months of 2005, each month of giving has set an all-time Cornell record for that month in history.

But as encouraging as these signs are for Cornell’s future, there is today an important obstacle to Cornell’s ability to realize its full potential. Over the past few months, it has become apparent to me that the Board of Trustees and I have different approaches to how the University can best realize its long-term vision. These differences are profound and it has now become absolutely clear that they cannot be resolved.

Imagine for a moment an airplane that is supposed to fly from New York to the beautiful island of Bali. It can get there by flying east. Or it can get there by flying west. But even if the pilot and the co-pilot are each highly skilled, even if they have the highest regard for one another, the plane will not reach its destination if they are unable to agree about which direction to take.

Cornell University is meant to fly. Its pilot and co-pilot must agree on the strategic direction to be taken. Since I now understand that it is impossible for such an agreement to emerge as long as I am president, I have notified the Chairman of the Board, Peter Meinig, that I will step down as Cornell’s eleventh president at the end of this month.

In my talk at last year’s reunion, I observed that Cornell enters one’s soul in a way that no other university does. It teaches us hope and optimism and it makes us brave. It nurtures the conviction that what we do in the world really matters, and it inspires us to take chances so that we will leave that world a better place than we found it. Cornell binds us to one another as a community that transcends all boundaries of time and place. And in turn that community inspires Cornell to continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of humanity.

My fellow Cornellians, our alma mater has entered my soul, and it will never leave. It has taught me to believe in the capacity of great institutions to evolve to meet the changing needs of humanity. And that lesson is a gift I will treasure forever.

Kathy and I are profoundly grateful for the many kindnesses you have shown us these past two years. You have taken us into your homes and into your hearts. You have made us members of your extended family.

Revolutionary and beloved, Cornell always has inspired me. This is the university that recognizes the transformative power of the horizon. This is the university of Why not? And What if?

Revolutionary and beloved, Cornell always will inspire me. This is the university of life, of wisdom, and of sustainability. I can imagine no greater honor than to have been asked to be the eleventh president of Cornell University. I have served with all the ability that was mine to offer. Thank you for having given me the opportunity to do so.