Presidential Archives

2009 State of University Address

David J. Skorton
President, Cornell University

As prepared for presentation
October 23, 2009

Come with me on a journey. A trip to the future of Cornell. To our sesquicentennial in 2015. To a celebration of our first 150 years and to the beginning of the next 150 years of freedom with responsibility; of talented, committed students, inspired and inspirational faculty, devoted and innovative staff; of state-of-the-art classrooms, studios, laboratories, libraries, athletic fields, grassy quads. Of blue skies and gray, of easy times and difficult, of individual fulfillment and community commitment.

How do we get to that future? How do we summon the resolve to move forward against so much uncertainty and so many challenges?

We get to our future, I believe, by way of the past. We plan our new fair Cornell by remembering Cornell’s ideas and ideals. I believe that more than for any other university our founding traditions and our foundational principles-of learning, discovery, service and creativity-prepare us for the challenges of the 21st century.

Let us begin by recognizing the four pillars on which Cornell was built and has been sustained: first, our passion for what I like to refer to as “classical and contemporary inquiry”; second, our faculty’s penchant for “thinking otherwise”; third, our commitment to student access; and, fourth, our embrace of public engagement.

To help take us on this journey, we are fortunate to have with us Elaine Engst, university archivist and director of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at the fabulous Cornell University Library; Katherine Reagan, Ernest Stern ’56 Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts; Eleanor Brown, digital and media collections curator for the Rare and Manuscript Collections, and Francis Moon, the Joseph C. Ford Professor of Mechanical Engineering and curator of Cornell’s Reuleaux model collection. Elaine, Katherine, Eleanor, and Francis have brought with them some of the “treasures” from Cornell’s collections. I invite you to take a few moments after my talk to view them for yourselves and thus to reconnect with our collective roots. It is so critical that we recognize, see, and even touch our past as we plan our future. Elaine, Katherine, Eleanor, and Francis, please uncover our treasures!

As our first president, Andrew D. White, said, “I found that passages actually read from important originals during my lectures gave a reality and vividness to my instruction which were otherwise unattainable.”

Now to the four pillars, and through them to our future.

First, classical and contemporary inquiry. In 2015, teaching and learning at Cornell will be energized and enriched by classical and contemporary inquiry. Shaped by our founders’ commitment to liberal and practical education, this distinctive approach to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge includes a moral and ethical dimension that is critical to our 21st century world.

As Ezra Cornell said in his address at Cornell’s inauguration on October 7, 1868, “I hope we have laid the foundation of an institution which shall combine practical with liberal education, which shall fit the youth of our country for the professions, the farms, the mines, the manufactories, for the investigations of science, and for mastering all the practical questions of life with success and honor.”

Cornell is fortunate to have the world’s largest collection of Reuleaux models, given to the university by A. D. White and still used today to teach principles of machines and robotics. This cylinder clock escapement, for example, converts continuous motion into discrete counting events that are used in watches and clocks. Professor Moon, could you set the model in motion so that we can see-and hear-how it works?

Thank you Professor Moon. The clock marks the time, the continuous flow of the river from 1865-2015, broken into discrete pieces of time that we can also mark.

As Cornell’s third president, Jacob Gould Schurman, told an alumni audience in 1904, “When Lord Kelvin was last in this country he told me that the best physicists he had sent out from his laboratory were men who had first of all been trained in language and the humanities. And my belief is that the broader and deeper a man’s general education, the more likely will his investigations as a specialist prove fruitful and valuable.”

I believe that an education that encompasses classical and contemporary inquiry is central to the education and professional preparation of every Cornell student.

A Cornell education balances scientific and technical literacy with history, politics, and language study. Expansive and pragmatic, it requires students to acquire knowledge and think critically about it. Its grounding in classical and contemporary inquiry makes it the most useful and versatile education of all.

As our beloved Frank H. T. Rhodes said, “[A] broad foundation in the liberal arts is the best career education available in a decade of increased technology. It is the best education. Period… .I am not arguing against professional education; I am arguing against narrow vocational training. The first is large, expansive, having the spirit of the liberal arts, setting skills as a means within larger ends; concerned not with ‘the job’ but with life and with the social goals the profession promotes and the ethical standards it demands. The second is narrow, restrictive, developing specific skills in preparation for routine tasks sometimes very technical, scientific; it involves knowledge for specific ends, raising no questions of larger significance, impervious to social context, oblivious to moral choice.”

Through such studies, students gain four skills or habits of mind.

  1. The ability to think critically about a variety of subjects, including those outside one’s immediate sphere of expertise.
  2. The ability to express oneself clearly, precisely, and effectively, both orally and in writing.
  3. Breadth of mind, founded on the cross-fertilization of ideas from different fields of study and different cultures.
  4. A grounding in ethics, including the ability to understand values-even one’s own-as cultural constructs

As my friend and mentor Hunter Rawlings said, “…humanists, more than other scholars, have historically looked for insights in other areas of endeavor and used them to inform judgments of human value, relevance, and historical significance…Humanists give us not only a greater depth of knowledge and understanding for its own sake: they are also catalysts for change… .”

Sometimes so-called old-fashioned concepts don’t-or shouldn’t-go out of style. By fostering a global outlook, respect for other cultures, openness to new ideas, adaptability, and the ability to reason and to think critically in any context, classical and contemporary inquiry couldn’t be more relevant to our age or any age. In 2015 we must-and we will-support, secure, and sustain the disciplines that are the custodians of classical and contemporary inquiry.

The next pillar is “thinking otherwise.” In his famous essay, “The Cornell Tradition: Freedom and Responsibility,” Carl Becker noted, “In the process of acquiring a reputation Cornell acquired something better than a reputation. It acquired a character… For the essential quality of a great university derives from the corporate activities of such a community of otherwise-thinking men… .[B]y the sharp impress of their minds and temperaments and eccentricities upon each other and upon their pupils, there is created a continuing tradition of ideas and attitudes and habitual responses that has a life of its own.”

In 2015, in Rockefeller, Roberts, and Rhodes, in Morrill, Milstein, and Malott, bold and brilliant faculty, hundreds of them hired in the previous five years, will bring breadth to research and scholarship to match the pedagogy I have just outlined. We need to return to a healthy pace of faculty hiring, which we have recently curtailed in order to address our pressing financial difficulties. More broadly, for the near-term future, we need to shift our focus from bricks and mortar to people.

The faculty is the soul of our great university. We owe it to our students and to society to see to it, through appropriate support and autonomy, that they are the most creative and productive members of their disciplines and that they are committed to enlarging the scope of knowledge, advancing creative endeavors, and sharing their knowledge and passion for discovery.

And, in the Cornell tradition of promoting and protecting academic freedom and independent thought, we must ensure that our efforts to build the faculty of the future follow a faculty-driven trajectory, and are not imposed from the top down.

A couple of examples of faculty “thinking otherwise”: Jon Kleinberg, Class of 1993, the Tisch University Professor of Computer Science and MacArthur Fellow, is widely known for his contributions to improving Web search techniques that allow billions of Web users worldwide to find relevant, credible information on the Internet. His current research is on meme-tracking -how ideas propagate around the net-and the news cycle. He uses words and phrases appearing in news articles and blogs to see how stories compete for news coverage each day and how certain stories persist while others fade quickly.

Another example: Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, assistant professor of English and member of our acclaimed Creative Writing Program, is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in poetry for her book “Open Interval”. In her work, she draws on “the intersections of astronomy and mathematics, history, literature, and lived experience” with what one reviewer described as “lyrical daring and fierce imagination.”

Our third pillar is student access. Cornell is the original opportunity university.

In a letter dated May 15, 1873 and sealed inside the original Sage Hall cornerstone, Ezra Cornell wrote, “all persons of any creeds and all creeds – and women as well as men – must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome to the educational facilities possessed by the Cornell University.”

In 2015, thousands of undergraduates, living in Kay Hall and Cook House, in the Greek houses and program houses and in Collegetown, will demonstrate that Cornell University remains a meritocracy, open to people of talent from every part of worldwide society. Access is important not only to them but for all of us. In the age of information, making equal opportunity a reality is the best way-the only way-to ensure that society will be freer and more prosperous.

For many from underprivileged backgrounds, a college degree is the surest route out of poverty because it is a prerequisite for entry into a broad range of careers. Some Cornellians, I suspect, may believe that we have abandoned our credo, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” I say no. We have never offered instruction in every subject, of course, and it is true that we have recently been forced to focus even more sharply to protect core strengths. But take a look at our course of study offerings this very year. Compare them to any other institution-and you’ll see that our commitment to “any study” endures. And, permit me to say, our commitment to making it possible for any qualified student to come to Cornell has never been stronger. With your help, it will get stronger still.

Look at the example of Nicholas Diaz, Class of 2010. He is an outstanding student as well as a campus and community leader. He is dedicated to teaching and mentoring others as a way of “paying forward” the encouragement he received from his own teachers in the New York City public schools. He is currently campus coordinator for Teach For America and hopes to work for that organization after graduation.

Think about Diana Djatsa Sokeng, Class of 2010, who grew up in Cameroon, where the average annual salary is equivalent to about $4,000-about one-twelfth of what it costs to attend Cornell for one year. When Diana was awarded a scholarship to the ILR School, she says, she screamed for joy. Her goal is “to go back and do something to contribute to the development of my country, because that is something I have in my heart.”

As a first generation American and the first in my immediate family to complete the journey through higher education-with the help of scholarships and loans-I know firsthand how life-changing a university education can be. I am determined to strengthen Cornell’s justly deserved reputation as the original opportunity university.

Need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid, as well as enhanced scholarship support for international students, are critical in enabling outstanding students from all backgrounds to attend Cornell without incurring the level of debt that would restrict their options for professional contribution after graduation.

Recent improvements to our financial aid policy, even in a challenging economy, have already yielded results, enabling us to enroll the most racially diverse first-year class in Cornell history: some 3,200 students, selected from more than 34,000 applicants. We have made financial aid an even more significant component of the university-wide campaign, and it remains one of our top fundraising priorities.

Our last pillar is public engagement. In the Cornell Alumni News of September 1978, Dale Corson, Cornell’s eighth president, wrote: “We must prove that we are interested in society’s problems and that we have solutions to help deal with these problems. Our land-grant status at Cornell and our experience in taking new knowledge to the people who need it stand us in good stead.”

And in his inaugural address, on October 15, 2003, Jeffrey Lehman reminded us: “Cornell is not an Upstate university. Cornell is not a New York City university. Cornell is everywhere in New York State… . Cornell has become a transnational university whose presence is felt everywhere in the United States and around the world.”

In 2015 the commitment to public engagement that grows out of the land grant mission will extend even more broadly to our own communities, in Ithaca and New York City, and to the state and nation and internationally. Building on our traditions of outreach and service, using new technologies and old-fashioned face-to-face contacts, we will continue to make the world a better place. A much better place.

In 2015, Cornell Cooperative Extension will still offer programming for those involved in agriculture and food systems, but it will continue to focus as well on communities and economic vitality, energy and sustainability, environment and natural resources, gardening, healthy families, 4-H youth development, financial management, nutrition and health. Its programs, which reach more than a million people a year right now, will reach millions more.

Today, Cornell’s commitment to public engagement extends beyond the formal Cornell Cooperative Extension system, and is carried out by faculty, students and staff throughout the university. Some 6,000 Cornell students participated in local service activities through the Cornell Public Service Center just last year. Teach For America, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other service and outreach organizations offer ways for students to continue their service after graduation. We are among the nation’s top universities in the number of graduates who participate in programs of this type. In 2015, so to speak, we’ll go over the top.

Cornell also has institutional responsibilities to the local community, both because of our economic impact as the largest employer and procurer of goods and services and because a strong community, with excellent primary and secondary education, enlightened policies and social services, is an important recruitment tool for the best faculty, staff and students.

I believe that Cornell and other institutions of higher education in our state have unique opportunities to collaborate with industry and government to create technologies and jobs needed for the 21st century economy. The Task Force on Diversifying the New York State Economy Through Industry-Higher Education Partnerships, which I have the honor of chairing, has been analyzing how the state can diversify its economy by leveraging its existing economic and research strengths through enhanced partnerships. Such partnerships will provide more opportunities for entrepreneurial faculty members to turn their ideas into marketable products and processes while also enhancing education, adding jobs in the community, and augmenting university revenues.

I believe that universities in the developed world and in rapidly developing nations-even during the current global economic slowdown-have a responsibility to contribute to building human and institutional capacity in the developing world through long-term international partnerships. Well-educated, innovative leaders, educators, scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers and health practitioners are urgently needed to provide child nutrition, maternal health, and poverty alleviation.

We all can be proud of Cornell’s long involvement in international education, research, and outreach. Students from other nations were among the first students at Cornell, and last year we enrolled more than 3,300 international students from 117 other countries. Cornell was the first American university to offer its M.D. degree abroad through the WCMC-Q campus in Doha, Qatar. Last summer Cornell awarded its first masters of professional studies degrees in international agriculture and rural development (with a concentration in integrated watershed management) at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia. The Africa-U.S. Higher Education Initiative, whose advisory board I co-chair with the rector of the National University of Rwanda, provides one example of the kind of broad global partnership needed for capacity building in areas where the needs are great.

These are our four pillars. This is where we come from. This is the path we must follow.

The first time I addressed this distinguished assembly, on October 27, 2006, I shared my goals for Cornell University at our sesquicentennial. I said that we are, and must continue to be, “a university where we dare to pursue our highest aspirations; a university that is the best of its kind, a beacon among the world’s leading institutions of higher learning; a university that changes the world in ways large and small. We aspire to be the best research university for undergraduate education; to set the standard for research in key disciplines and for interdisciplinary collaborations; and to make Cornell’s approach to its public mission a model for higher education.”

And in that earlier time, I urged us to remember two critical things: “first, our students, staff, faculty, and alumni are not satisfied with the status quo, and they should not be; and, second, Cornell’s role since its founding has been as a solver of world problems, as a transformer of life throughout the world. We are proud to be New York’s land grant university. There are challenges here and now that must be met, problems that not only remain unsolved, but are also not receiving the attention they deserve. The time is now to recognize these problems and to apply the Cornell formula: the combination of motivated, prepared students, talented faculty and staff and the appropriate support structures and mechanisms, all driven by the desire to learn, to help, to solve, to unravel, to change for the better.”

We all have a part to play in defining the future of Cornell. Under Provost Fuchs’s leadership, we are engaged in a courageous and relentlessly forward-looking process of strategic planning across the campus. Hundreds of faculty, students and staff are taking part in the process.

I approach the next months with urgency. I approach them as well with a profound sense of confidence. I am so grateful that you have allowed me to be a Cornellian. And in the past three years I have learned more and more what that means.

Richard Klein, Class of 1962 and a faculty member in Romance Studies for more than three decades, expressed it eloquently in a letter he wrote me recently. There is, Klein believes, something “you could call a Cornell Romanesque, not a style but a mystique, a romantic place of fictions where thousands of adolescents grow into adulthood in this isolated but weirdly cosmopolitan place… ..[At Cornell] it was possible to think the most critical and passionate thoughts in an atmosphere of fierce mutual attention.”

So it has been. And so it will be.

Our university’s four pillars-classical and contemporary inquiry, faculty who “think otherwise,” student access, and public engagement-are sound and true. With your help and encouragement, they will carry us back to the future, giving strength and substance to our new and ever more fair Cornell.