Presidential Archives

Reunion 2008 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
June 7, 2008

Welcome back to Cornell. It’s wonderful and so gratifying to see all of you and to share another reunion weekend. I have come to appreciate the extraordinary and many-faceted bonds that connect Cornell alumni to the alma mater, and Reunion Weekend is a particularly good example. I hope that you have had the chance not only to reconnect with classmates, professors and staff but also to reconnect with our incredibly beautiful campus—those familiar scenes that are part of your memories of Cornell and the new buildings and spaces that are making new memories for all of us. Old and new friendships, old and new memories of our Cornell—what a weekend!

With this reunion, Robin and I are celebrating the end of our second year at Cornell. We both want to thank all of you and so many of your colleagues and friends for making Reunion Weekend one of our favorite times of the year. On Reunion Weekend we think of the tremendous impact our alumni have had and continue to have on Cornell. There can be no better example of that impact than our dear friend, Presidential Councillor and former chair of our Board of Trustees, the late Stephen H. Weiss, Class of ’57. From support of the Weill Cornell Medical College and leadership of its Board of Overseers, to athletics, to the College of Arts and Sciences, to the Weiss Presidential Fellows and so much more, Steve and Suzanne Weiss have transformed Cornell, and we miss Steve deeply today. Please join me in a moment of silence in memory of Steve Weiss.

Let me, first, this morning share some brief updates on things happening at Cornell:

This year Cornell received an all-time high of 33,011 applications for the roughly 3,000 places in the Class of 2012, a 9 percent increase over last year and a 17 percent increase over two years ago. The incredible growth in applications brings with it the enormous challenge of maintaining Ezra Cornell’s vision of “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” In particular, the competitiveness of the admissions process, coupled with the price of a Cornell education, can discourage applications from families and students with lesser means. There is evidence that we are losing students from lower socioeconomic circumstances. That is not acceptable— not for Cornell and not for the country.

In response to this problem, Provost Biddy Martin along with Vice President for Planning and Budget Carolyn Ainslie, Deputy Provost David Harris, and their colleagues have developed a new financial aid policy that will improve greatly the accessibility of a Cornell education by a more strategic use of grants instead of need-based loans as part of our financial aid packages. Beginning this year, students and families who fall below the median family annual income, about $60,000, will acquire no need-based debt to attend Cornell. For the following year, the income level below which no need-based loans will be used will rise to $75,000, and we will index it as needed to be sure that debt is not a consideration for those who aspire to a Cornell education and who fall in the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum. For incomes up to $120,000 we will cap need based loans at $3,000 per year, about half of the current average indebtedness of Cornell graduates.

We will fund this substantially augmented financial aid policy by strategic reallocation of resources, by seeking continued and even enhanced philanthropic support of need-based student financial aid, and by carefully increasing the payout from our endowment. Of course, we need to walk a very fine line on the use of our precious endowment dollars. We need to maintain the growth and stability of the endowment for generations to come in order to realize our very broad and high aspirations in education, research and service to the people of New York, the U.S., and the world. At the same time, we need to use the strength of the endowment to help keep our doors open wide for new generations of Cornellians, no matter their economic circumstances. I urge your attendance at a special session that will immediately follow this talk, a session conducted by Cornell Chief Investment Officer James Walsh, “Investing in Our Future: Managing Cornell’s Endowment.” I believe you will find it enlightening and informative, and you will enjoy getting to know our talented CIO.

This year, a planning effort by the provost, deans, and vice presidents resulted in a newly articulated strategic plan, comprising five overarching goals I introduced last fall in my State of the University Address, along with a set of enabling strategies for each goal. The plan also contains a common-format summary of previously developed strategic goals by the provost and each college and vice-presidential division. The result is a planning document that reflects the marvelous richness of the university—its decentralized nature and the overall vision that gives coherence and shared purpose to our individual initiatives. It builds on the work we have been doing over the years to integrate academic and administrative priorities at the university level, and which we see in university-wide priorities and initiatives like those in the life sciences and the social sciences, in our bridge and research funding goals for the humanities, in our diversity initiatives, in undergraduate projects and in many other areas. The new strategic plan is now on the university web site and accessible from the Office of the President web page. We will revisit all of the major planning documents each year to ensure that they reflect the aspirations of the campus and its leaders.

This spring we were privileged to celebrate three Cornell commencements—on the Ithaca campus, where about 6,000 students earned undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees; at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, where we awarded 111 M.D. degrees, 39 Ph.D.s and 13 master of science degrees; and at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, where we awarded M.D. degrees to our first graduating class 15 students. These are the first M.D. degrees ever given abroad by an American medical school.

This was also an outstanding year for our men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletes, who won 8 Ivy titles, including most recently in men’s lightweight crew—the team’s second Ivy title in three years.

All of these accomplishments and developments are the result of the people of Cornell: the faculty, staff, students, alumni, Trustees, Overseers and administrators who endeavor to help us all reach our dreams. One of those who has contributed so much and who has transformed Cornell by her vision and leadership is our friend, colleague, and provost, Biddy Martin. As Pete Meinig mentioned, after nearly 25 years of distinction as a faculty member, teacher, scholar, inspired administrator and, for the last eight years, provost, Biddy will be leaving us to become the next Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wisconsin is one of our nation’s top universities and where Biddy earned her Ph.D. We will miss Biddy, but we will all benefit for decades to come from her leadership. Please join me again in recognizing Biddy Martin.

Leaders like Biddy Martin effect positive change at Cornell in partnership with the faculty, staff and students and with alumni and other friends of Cornell. Your good counsel is critical to Cornell’s success, as is your generous philanthropic support. As you know, we are in the midst of an enormously ambitious fundraising campaign with a goal of over $4 billion. Thanks to you and many others, we have already passed the half-way mark, having raised approximately $2.2 billion dollars, one of the best fundraising records of any university in the history of American higher education. I am enormously grateful to you and hope to do my part in communicating to you and other Cornellians continuing opportunities to partner with us in achieving the dreams we all share for Cornell—dreams that we will realize together. I thank you in advance for your help in completing this campaign and making Cornell the model research university.

Cornell is known far and wide as a powerhouse in science and technology. We currently operate four national research facilities in fields from high energy physics, to astronomy, to nanoscale science. Last year, research expenditures at Cornell were almost $660 million—virtually all focused on the life, physical, mathematical, engineering and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences. We have made major commitments to the life sciences through our ambitious New Life Sciences Initiative, including the development of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the establishment of the Weill Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, and the imminent completion of our magnificent new life sciences facility, Weill Hall. Construction of our new Physical Sciences Building is under way and is an absolutely critical step in the further development of the sciences that make Cornell such a leader. Our recent increased emphasis on collaboration between the Ithaca campus and Weill Cornell Medical College is largely science-based.

We have 188 current and emeritus faculty members in the distinguished national academies. This year Jon Kleinberg, professor of computer science and a member of the Cornell Class of 1993, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and four faculty members—Carol Krumhansl of Psychology, Barbara Baird of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, John Guckenheimer of Mathematics, and Peter Lepage, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of physics—were elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Since 1998, 28 outstanding Cornell students interested in environmental public policy, Native American health care or tribal public policy have won Morris Udall Scholarships, including three in the most recent round of competition. In the past 12 years, 35 students have won Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships for excellence in science, math and engineering, including two this year. A former Goldwater Scholar, Michael Barany ’08, was awarded a Marshall Scholarship for 2008 and will pursue a master of philosophy degree in the history, philosophy and sociology of science at the University of Cambridge; and a master of science degree in science and technology studies at the University of Edinburgh this fall.

The social sciences continue to thrive on our campus. For example, our Institute for the Social Sciences is about to undertake a major theme project focused on persistent poverty and upward mobility—with an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students led by Christopher Barrett, the Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management. One of the strategies through which we intend to sustain and renew the exceptional intellectual quality of the university is by maintaining our existing strengths in applied social science departments and in specific subfields in the basic social sciences, while enhancing the quality and reputation of the social sciences overall through coordinated, strategic faculty recruitments over the next five years. The focus of our near-term efforts will be on the fields of economics and government.

Cornell also excels and is a model of the centrality of the humanities and arts in a research university. Liberal education is the heart of Cornell, and the humanities and arts comprise its soul. These disciplines nurture our creative instincts. They keep and convey our cultural heritage and open to us other cultures around the globe. They help us explore what it means to be human, including both ethical and aesthetics dimensions. If science and technology help us to answer questions of “what” and “how,” the arts and humanities give us ways to confront the intangible, to contemplate the “why,” to imagine, to create. Cornell is and must continue to be a model for the critical role of the humanities and arts in education, research and outreach.

It is fashionable in some quarters to talk about the “crisis in the humanities.” Yet the accomplishments of our faculty, students and alumni in these fields are truly remarkable. The arts and humanities are among our strongest departments—most are top 10 in national rankings—thanks to the quality of our faculty. For example, Eric Rebillard, professor of classics and history, and Anna Marie Smith, professor of government, were recently awarded Mellon New Directions Fellowships from the Andrew D. Mellon Foundation, a program administered by the Cornell Society for the Humanities. Rebillard will use his fellowship to expand his studies of Roman burial practices by mastering statistical tools and techniques for spatial analysis. Smith will study advanced constitutional law, family law and human rights law to gain the specialized knowledge needed for her work on social justice and legal issues. Their fellowships bring to five the number of Mellon New Directions Fellowships won by Cornell faculty since 2002.

Two other members of our faculty—Masha Raskolnikov and Laurent Dubreuil—were recently honored with Robert and Helen Appel Fellowships in recognition of demonstrated excellence in teaching and scholarly promise. Masha, associate professor of English, investigates a wide variety of topics in medieval literary culture and contemporary theory. Laurent, associate professor in the Department of Romance Studies, studies literature as an expression of thought that defies the boundaries of rationality.

Permit me to cite one more faculty example, the amazing M. H. (Mike) Abrams, Class of 1916 Professor of English Emeritus. At 95, he is still a revered figure in literary criticism. As general editor, he presided over the Norton Anthology of English Literature for some 40 years—an effort that grew out of a course he was teaching at Cornell—and he still works on the Norton. His book The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, published in 1953, ranked #25 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century. He played a pivotal role in debates about literary theory in the 1970s and 1980s and taught so many Cornellians the value of “close reading” of text.

Almost every Cornell student—not just those in the College of Arts and Sciences—takes courses in writing, English, history, philosophy, foreign languages or other humanistic studies. The accomplishments of these students—during their Cornell years and after—attest to the quality of their humanistic education. To give just two examples, Junot Diaz, MFA ’95, earned a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He was featured in Cornell’s Creative Writing Program Reading Series in February 2007, has just won the 2008-09 Cornell University Eissner Alumni Artist of the Year Award, and is scheduled to return to campus again next spring. And there is a wonderful photo exhibition by Gordon Sander ’72 currently in Sibley Dome and several locations in Collegetown; it captures Cornell between 1968 and 2008 in images that range from the familiar to the offbeat.

Cornell’s strength in humanistic studies is also confirmed by five Ph.D. students recently named 2008 Newcombe Dissertation Fellows. Newcombe Dissertation Fellowships are the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. students addressing ethical and religious questions in the humanities and social sciences. The 2008 Cornell winners, spanning departments from development sociology to comparative literature to philosophy to Asian religions, will explore topics ranging from the cultural politics of sectarianism in the northern areas of Pakistan to “Memory, Identity, and Invention in Contemporary Japanese Zen.”

Cornell students also benefit from real world experience in the arts and humanities. Eight Cornell architecture students in an Arch 501 studio, for example, worked this semester on a new community music center to be built in Valencia, Spain.
A principal architect of Ensamble Studio in Madrid, Antón García-Abril, taught the studio with colleague Débora Mesa Molina, and students traveled to Madrid over spring break to see the site and get a better sense for the project. In January, the Cornell Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Cynthia Johnston Turner, made its second cultural and humanitarian trip to Costa Rica, performing at locations throughout the country and delivering more than 80 donated musical instruments to students at three schools. The trip was supported in part by Ronni Lacroute ’66, who accompanied the tour. Yet another example is a new course, taught this spring by Sabine Haenni, assistant professor of film and American studies. It explored how visual and literary media have portrayed Americans traveling abroad over the last century—with a particular emphasis on how war has shaped perceptions of America and Americans.

Maintaining our strength in the humanities and arts will require, first, a continuing commitment to make them a priority for Cornell. This prioritization will take the form of appropriate allocation of resources, including those for faculty recruitment and facilities development. It will also take continued external support. Under the leadership of Provost Martin, our deans, including Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Lepage, and Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Charlie Phlegar, we are engaged in serious fundraising for the arts and humanities. And with your help, we are succeeding.

Generous support from alumni and friends has permitted robust support for the arts and humanities, and we will continue to focus on opportunities in this area. Just several months ago we received an anonymous pledge of $15 million to support programs in the humanistic and artistic disciplines. In addition, Stanford H. Taylor ’50, Chem.Eng. ’51, and his wife, Jo Ann, have given $4 million to name the chair of the Sage School of Philosophy. Trustee Ira Drukier ’66 and his wife Gale have given $5 million to endow and name the deanship for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning as well as $1 million to endow a new curator post at the Johnson Museum.

Last fall, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation pledged $2.5 million to help Cornell endow three new senior humanities professorships. To meet the Mellon challenge, we need to raise the remaining $9.6 million over the next five years. These are important posts because they will enable us to hire mid-level and senior scholars—established or rising stars whose teaching and scholarship spans several humanistic disciplines. And we will be able to hire these people before the current senior faculty stars retire.

We recently celebrated the groundbreaking of a new $20-million wing for our superb Johnson Museum of Art, a project that will add 16,000 square feet to the original building to make the museum even more meaningful to its 90,000 visitors a year. We have raised more $18.5 million so far, including generous grants from the Kresge Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other foundations. But most of the funds have come from private gifts—from alumni, families and friends of the university. I especially want to mention the critical support that has come from Presidential Councillors Bob Appel ’53 (celebrating his 55th reunion this weekend) and his wife, Helen ’55, and from Presidential Councillor Susan Eckert Lynch in memory of her late husband, Ronald P. Lynch ’58, who served as vice chair of the Cornell Board of Trustees and whose class is celebrating its 50th reunion this year.

We continue progress on Paul Milstein Hall, a new and critically important facility for our top-ranked architecture program. And we are well along in planning our new Humanities Building on the Arts Quad—the historic heart of the campus and an appropriate site and project for these disciplines that are at the heart of our university.

Throughout the United States, educational institutions—from high schools to community colleges to research universities—act as centers for public culture and for instilling in our children the values and knowledge that only come with a study of the humanities and the arts. Arts and humanities will continue to have a central place at Cornell. Central in our curriculum, central in our research, central in our connection with our alumni and our publics.

Thank you for your continuing connection to and interest in Cornell. It’s great to have you back.