Presidential Archives

Reunion 2007 State of the University Address

President David J. Skorton

As prepared for presentation
June 9, 2007
Bailey Hall

Thank you, Pete, and welcome, everyone, to this glorious reunion weekend. Robin and I were here last year—before we had made the official transition to Cornell. That was an incredible introduction to Cornell alumni, and I have to say that you’ve outdone yourselves again this year!  Everywhere we’ve been this weekend—from yesterday’s Olin Lecture, featuring our own Professor Jim Bell, to the various class receptions and dinners—we’ve been overwhelmed by your energy, your enthusiasm, your engagement, and your love of Cornell.

Cornell’s alumni are one of its greatest natural resources. There are now nearly a quarter-million of you spread around the world, and this morning—as we celebrate the reunions of the Cornell classes whose class years end in “7” or “2”—I want you to know how truly exceptional you are. You all can be proud of the roles you have played in making Cornell the extraordinary university it is today. I am grateful to all of you.

During this first year, in addition to the remarkable engagement of our alumni in the life of the university, I have come to appreciate the extraordinary quality that Cornell represents across all aspects of its mission.

Students remain Cornell’s first priority—something that is reflected in our day-to-day activities and in our priorities for the current $4-billion university-wide campaign, which put substantial emphasis on student financial aid and access. Our attention to the student experience gave Cornell a record number of applications for undergraduate admissions again this year. We received 30,191 applications for undergraduate admission, an increase of 7.5% over last year, and a 45% increase since 2004. Applications are up across all racial/ethnic groups, and we look forward to welcoming an exceptionally strong and diverse class of about 3,050 next fall.

Students choose Cornell because of the university’s breadth and depth of academic programs, the quality and pedagogical commitment of the faculty, and also because of the opportunities they will have to grow as individuals and to contribute to the campus and the larger society while they are here. In keeping with the tradition of service embodied in our status as the land grant university for the State of New York, Cornell offers more than 50 service-learning courses where students can learn and make a difference at the same time.

At Cornell academic quality and commitment are matched by attention to student life. Cornell’s Residential Initiative further enhances the undergraduate experience by linking living and learning in the lives of our students, strengthening their connections to each other and to the faculty. My wife, Robin Davisson, who is professor of biomedical sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca and of cell and developmental biology at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and I lived on North Campus for a week at the beginning of the fall semester; we will be living with freshmen this fall as well. And we are house fellows at the Carl Becker House on West Campus. We look forward to continuing to participate in residential life, and we are excited to think of what undergraduate life at Cornell will be like when the Residential Initiative is completed and the remaining two West Campus residential houses are built. Innovative living and learning experiences, together with Cornell’s continuing commitment to need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid, are helping Cornell realize its aspirations to become the model for undergraduate education at a major research university.

This year, our intercollegiate athletic teams earned several Ivy titles. Men’s lacrosse made it all the way to the NCAA semi-finals; eleven athletes from our men’s and women’s track teams are competing in the NCAA championship in Sacramento, CA this weekend, and the lightweight crew will be going to the Henley Royal Regatta next month.

The faculty are the key to Cornell’s current excellence and a top priority for the future. I have been impressed for decades with the intellectual strength of Cornell professors, their commitment to teaching and mentoring students, and the extent to which they collaborate with colleagues across disciplines and across institutions. This year, ten Cornell professors, from a broad range of disciplines, became members of the distinguished national academies—the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. I’m told that this is one of the largest contingents of new academy members we have ever had in a single year.

As our distinguished current faculty approach retirement age, Cornell has an unprecedented opportunity to renew and diversify the faculty and to build strength in key areas in the sciences, the social sciences and the arts and humanities. We face the prospect of recruiting as many as 600 new faculty members over the next decade—which is both a wonderful opportunity and a substantial challenge. “Rebuilding the institution,” as Provost Biddy Martin refers to it, includes succeeding at diversity. Cornell has received a $3.3 million ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation to increase the number of women faculty members in engineering and the sciences. Gender equity in academic science and engineering remains a substantial problem, nationwide and at Cornell. We expect that the approaches we develop with the ADVANCE grant will ultimately enhance the lives and careers of all faculty members at Cornell—men as well as women and in fields beyond science and engineering. We will apply similar energy to issues of racial diversity.

We are also investing in our facilities so that students and faculty can do their best work. New facilities planned or under way include the Life Sciences Technology Building going up on Tower Road; a new Physical Sciences Building; a computing and information campus anchored by Gates Hall; Paul Milstein Hall for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning; a new wing for the Johnson Museum; and a much needed renovation of Goldwin Smith Hall.

Reunions are a time for all of us to reflect on Cornell’s distinguished history and its current achievements, but they are also an opportunity to come together to consider the road ahead. And as much as Cornell has already achieved—across all aspects of our mission—I believe that we have barely tapped our long-term potential to engage the world. In addition to our own challenges, we view the world’s major issues as Cornell challenges as well.

As you know, Cornell is both an Ivy League university and the land grant university for the State of New York. Cornell’s faculty provide an extraordinary education to remarkably talented students, generation after generation, and their research discoveries have transformed fields as varied as English literature and animal science. We have also always viewed our responsibilities as extending far beyond the boundaries of our campus—and, as I reminded our newest graduates at Commencement two weeks ago, we are one of the world’s great land grant universities—dedicated to applying the fruits of our research and teaching to help solve the world’s problems, and we are uniquely positioned through our research, teaching and outreach, to lead initiatives that will help ameliorate the inequalities that currently divide our world and threaten our individual and collective futures.

The enormous challenges we face, including poverty and global health disparities, are related to an even broader concern about sustainability, certainly one of our age’s greatest quandaries. Cornell has long been a leader in education, research and stewardship in sustainability, drawing on the depth and breadth of expertise found across the campus. Yet I believe there is much more that we can and must do.

Sustainability is a concept first defined by what is now known as the Brundtland Commission (formally the World Commission on the Environment and Development) convened by the U.N. General Assembly in 1983. The commission, under the leadership of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, was asked to look at the world’s environmental problems and propose a global agenda for addressing them, but it soon discovered that environmental problems were entwined with social, economic and political ones. As Dr. Brundtland wrote in her foreword to the commission’s report, “Our Common Future,” issued in 1987:

Many critical survival issues are related to uneven development, poverty, and population growth. They all place unprecedented pressures on the planet’s lands, waters, forests, and other natural resources, not least in the countries of the global South. The downward spiral of poverty and environmental degradation is a waste of opportunities and of resources. In particular, it is a waste of human resources. …What is needed now is a new era of economic growth – growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable.”1 In a now widely used formulation, the commission defined sustainability as  “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.2

Two decades after the Brundtland Commission issued its report, there is no doubt that sustainability is one of the major issues of our time. Our students, as was often the case during your own years as students here, have been in the vanguard in bringing wider attention to important social and political issues, and they have been especially effective in their advocacy of sustainability, both as an approach to our campus operations and as a component of our academic mission of teaching, research and outreach.

Sustainability and environmental protection have been concerns at Cornell for many years, going back to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 and even before, and they have involved students and faculty in engineering, natural resources, city and regional planning, and other fields as well as interdisciplinary efforts coordinated through the Cornell Center for the Environment. Along the continuum of Cornell’s good work, former Cornell President Jeffrey Lehman identified “sustainability in the age of development” as a challenge toward which Cornell could make significant contributions. Since then, our academic leaders and faculty have been developing plans for a sustainability initiative. The task force that Provost Martin convened over two years ago has examined the contributions that Cornell could make, and their recommendations are in the process of being refined and turned into a concrete proposal that we will use to decide on the contours of a university-wide initiative later this summer.

Cornell has a long history of innovative work in this area—through its teaching, research and stewardship. Our positive track record, combined with the recommendations that will come from our forward-thinking faculty, students and staff, will put Cornell in a position to organize a world-class sustainability effort that combines teaching, research, outreach and stewardship here on our own campus.

Cornell’s breadth across disciplines permits an integrated or systems approach to problems of sustainability that cannot be solved by any one discipline—and our culture of interdisciplinary collaboration gives us a tradition of working across boundaries that will be important in our future success. Within the Colleges of Engineering, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Arts and Sciences, we have expertise in fuel cell development, biomass/biofuels, and alternate energy sources more generally. The College of Engineering has identified “Energy, Environment, and Sustainable Development” as one of its six strategic areas of research focus and is searching for a distinguished academic or research leader to fill its David Croll Professorship of Sustainable Energy Systems. Environmental Science is also one of four priority areas for CALS.

Fifteen Cornell professors, with expertise in crop and soil science, business, the social sciences, marketing, food science, veterinary medicine and wildlife biology, are participating in a long-term partnership in Zambia to teach rural villagers sustainable agricultural practices that will enable them to receive more income from their crops and safeguard wildlife at the same time.3Faculty in the Johnson School, led by Professor Stuart Hart, the Samuel C. Johnson Professor of Sustainable Global Enterprise, are working on sustainable business practices that will enable businesses to achieve financial success through the solution of the world’s social and environmental problems—and, at the same time, better meet the needs of the 4 billion people who have largely missed out on the benefits of globalization.

In Architecture, Art and Planning, we have faculty and program strength in sustainable design and building, and the college’s Paul Milstein Hall, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture, will include, among other features, an environmentally sustainable green roof. In Human Ecology, we have some of the nation’s experts in indoor air quality. Within the life sciences, faculty in the field of ecology and evolutionary biology and at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology are doing cutting-edge research on biodiversity. This academic year, the Weill Cornell Medical College and the Ithaca campus launched a new NIH-funded Program in Global Health, which will enable us to contribute even more effectively to global health through teaching, research and outreach.

Programs such as these have a significant impact on the student experience at Cornell. This spring, Professor Tom Eisner’s new “State of the Planet” course, developed in response to student requests, had an enrollment of 300. Some 100 students—from almost every college on the Ithaca campus—are members of the Solar Decathlon team, which is researching, designing, funding and building a completely solar-powered home which will compete in a national competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy next fall. We’re grateful that the project has earned the support of corporate sponsors like General Electric and personal sponsors like Cornell Trustee John Alexander and the Triad Foundation. Engineers for a Sustainable World, a student group founded at Cornell in 2001 and now represented on some 60 campuses nationwide, aims to mobilize engineers to address the unique challenges of developing communities and to promote global sustainability. Its projects here at Cornell include designing and building water treatment plants in rural Honduras and building solar ovens for food preparation in deforested areas of Nicaragua.4 In addition, Cornell is one of only two universities in the nation—the other is Oregon State—to be designated by the federal government as a land grant, sea grant, space grant and sun grant institution—giving us a strong mandate to use our expertise and our commitment to discovery for the public good.5

We also have already done a great deal to reduce our environmental footprint and improve our environmental stewardship here on campus—going back at least to the 1970s—and we now have a full-time sustainability coordinator, Dean Koyanagi, who reports directly to Executive Vice President Stephen Golding. Nearly all campus cooling is provided by the Lake Source Cooling Project, which became operational in 2000 and reduced campus cooling energy needs by 86 percent. The project uses cold water from deep within Cayuga Lake to replace mechanical refrigeration except on the hottest days of the year.6 We extract hydropower from Fall Creek, which supplies about 2 percent of campus energy needs. Our co-generation plant for both heat and power requires half the fuel of a conventional plant, and we expect to add 30,000 kilowatts of high-efficiency electricity and heat generation to the central heating plant by 2009. Combined with energy conservation and other “green” measures, we will soon exceed our Kyoto Protocol commitment to reduce our emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

As you’ve surely noticed this weekend, Cornell has added many new facilities since your own years as students on the hill, and the recent additions have included principles of sustainable design. North Campus, where some of you are staying this weekend, is a good example of our new, “greener” approach, and the Alice Cook House on West Campus was the first Cornell building to earn a “certified” rating under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. New facilities, including the Life Sciences Technology Building that is going up along Tower Road and MVR-North, will qualify for higher levels of LEED certification because of their energy efficiency and commitment to “green building” technologies.

Nationally, gas prices have increased 36 percent since December 2006, and it can cost $130 to fill the tank of an SUV. Yet, according to an article in Time Magazine last week, 2 out of 3 drivers say they will never switch to taking the bus, and sales of SUV’s rose by 25 percent over the last year.7 In the face of those statistics, it is especially noteworthy that Cornell’s Transportation Demand Management program has reduced single-occupancy vehicle use by nearly 10 million miles a year. Groups like the Green Purchasing Task Force, which includes students, faculty and staff, are working to increase the use of “green” products on campus; our Trillium Dining Hall is experimenting with compostable tableware; nearly 23 percent of the produce served in campus dining halls comes from New York State farmers, and campus-wide there are efforts to “reduce, reuse and recycle.”

Building on these efforts and others around the campus, and encouraged by students of KyotoNOW!, last February, I signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC), which commits Cornell to strive for climate neutrality in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and includes some very specific actions and plans over the next months and years. Signing the PCC built on the hard work of many other individuals and groups on our campus—including faculty, student activists, and staff members who served on an ad hoc committee co-chaired by Vice President Carolyn Ainslie and Executive Vice President Steve Golding. Cornell will continue to make stewardship in our own activities one of the pillars of our sustainability efforts.

Going forward, the challenge will be to draw together this expertise in ways that can have a real impact and make Cornell a world leader in this important field. Once the faculty committee completes its work, Provost Martin, the other members of the senior staff team, and I will look carefully at its recommendations, with an eye to making sustainability a major thrust for Cornell in the 2007-08 academic year and beyond. This effort will likely involve advances in curriculum, intensification of research activities, and even more innovative stewardship of our campus. As our plans unfold, we will keep our alumni informed, and in my State of the University Address during Trustee-Council Weekend in October, I will present our plans for this critically important effort. We will count on your counsel and support for this effort, which will require a very substantial investment if we are to realize our potential to mount a truly world-class sustainability initiative.

The importance and timeliness of our efforts are demonstrated by the attention that global climate change (and the issues of sustainability that surround it) are receiving at the G-8 summit meetings in Germany that opened on June 6, and also in the national and international press. The cover story of this week’s issue of The Economist, titled, “Cleaning Up,” notes, “Businesses in every sector boast about their greenness,” and in a special 15-page supplement, it provides a wealth of examples of how concern about global climate change has entered the front ranks of the world of commerce.8

Cornell’s role since its founding has included the extension of our research and education to build human capacity. We are the land grant university to the world. Now, perhaps more than ever before in our history, we must step forward to lead—putting the full force of our teaching, research and outreach to solve one of the greatest challenge of our century—making possible, in Dr. Brundtland’s words, “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

As you enjoy the campus this weekend—renewing ties to your classmates and experiencing all that Cornell is today—I hope you’ll savor the sheer beauty of this place, and join us in putting sustainability—and the global inequalities it can address—at the heart of our national and international agenda. You can be sure that your alma mater—our Cornell—will be where it has always been—in the forefront of those efforts, and leading the charge, to create a saner, safer, more sustainable, prosperous, and equal world.






6. Cornell University Green Report, 2006.

7. “Pain in the Gas. How much would it actually take for drivers to change their ways?” Time Magazine, June 4, 2007.