Presidential Archives

Reunion 2010 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Thank you, Liz and Bob, and welcome, everyone, to Reunion Weekend 2010! We are all here to reflect upon our past, present and future as Cornellians. We are here to renew again our strength as an international, intergenerational community, a family. We are here to celebrate what we have accomplished and to cast a beam on the path forward to even greater service to our students, to even more profound discovery and creativity, to even more meaningful public engagement. Welcome home!

Robin and I have already met many of you at receptions, lunches, dinners and other Reunion events this weekend, and we welcome you back to campus once again. You span at least 75 years of Cornell history—from the Class of 1935, who came to Cornell when FDR was president, Amelia Earhart was making aviation news, and Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington were making music—to the Class of 2005, who were here in the era of George W. Bush, Martha Stewart, and Snoop Dogg, who performed memorably at your final Slope Day. Bing Crosby to Snoop Dogg: that defines the range of a Cornell reunion weekend!

And whether you’ve come back to campus from overseas or from right here in Central New York; whether you traveled here by car or by plane or the campus-to-campus bus from New York City (which, by the way, has just been newly “wrapped” to showcase the Cornell logo and campus scenes); no matter what your major or from what college or school you earned your degree, we come together this weekend—across the generations and over the miles—in a beautiful sea of red and white—celebrating our shared past on this beautiful hill, in our own special time and place, and affirming our collective identity as Cornellians; sharing our pride in the past of this special university, celebrating its present excellence, and looking forward with resolve and optimism toward its future and toward our sesquicentennial. We are “One Cornell.” Then. Now. Always. Cornell.

What is it that pulls us all together in Ithaca this weekend? And what gives us our identity as Cornellians, no matter where in the world we go? When I meet Cornell alumni—on and off the campus and through the on-line video conversations that I have been having with alumni during the year—they talk of the beauty of the campus, the special venues that served as places of refuge or inspiration. But mainly they talk about the people—faculty, staff and other students who shaped, enriched and even transformed their lives. And Cornell’s people—faculty, staff and students—continue to be the heart and soul of our university.

This year, as you know, we’ve lost several students and other members of our campus community to accidents, disease, suicide and other causes. The H1N1 flu, despite our best efforts, claimed one of our students early in the fall and sent hundreds more for medical care at Gannett and Cayuga Medical Center. The temporary barriers you’ve noticed on campus bridges were erected as deterrents to impulsive behavior after a cluster of student suicides. I’m grateful to so many faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and others who offered assistance and ideas, and I thank our wonderfully strong, bright, forward-looking, and optimistic Cornell students who showed me the way forward. From the “Lift Your Spirits” event on the Arts Quad following our cluster of suicides, to the chalk inscription on a walkway, “Life is Full of Wonder,” to many individual and group conversations, they reminded me why we are here and how learning and teaching is a two-way street. Like them, I have no doubt Cornell will be even stronger and more cohesive as a result of our experiences this year.

We have many good things to celebrate. The present is impressive; the promise, if we come together as “One Cornell” with focus and discipline, is even greater. And, of course, this stature, this success, this promise, is based on the drive, talent and dedication of Cornell’s people. Let’s take stock of our people, the critical defining attribute of Cornell. The state of our people is truly the State of the University.

Let’s begin with the faculty, the core of our university. This year, our faculty continued to be recognized among the world’s best scholars. We had a Guggenheim Fellow, a national book award finalist, a nominee for a Grammy Award. Eight members of our faculty were elected to distinguished national academies and societies. And two international members of our Board of Trustees—Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, and N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman of the board and chief mentor of Infosys Technologies Ltd.—were elected as international members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, respectively.

Cornell’s scope and influence truly span the globe. And so does Cornell’s heart as exemplified by our three decades of work in Haiti, where the Weill Cornell-affiliated GHESKIO clinic provides clinical service, research and training to treat and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and related diseases. In recognition of its work and to support future efforts, GHESKIO recently earned the 2010 Gates Award for Global Health, which includes $1 million to support the work of the clinic.

Right here at home, the Cornell faculty are helping put America back to work while contributing to the knowledge economy that will create a better, greener, more equitable and sustainable future for our nation and the world. At last count we had received 226 awards under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, totaling some $148 million, for research on the Ithaca campus and at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. These awards created or preserved nearly 335 FTE jobs, while funding important research—from better computer search engines that “learn” from their users, to exploiting weak links in the armor of cancer cells to create better cancer treatments. And they also are supporting some of our most promising younger faculty members through National Science Foundation early career awards. For the last two fiscal years (FY08 and FY09), by the way, Cornell has been the number one or number two academic institution in terms of research support from the National Science Foundation.

Let’s take a moment to recognize and thank three deans for superb leadership as they complete their terms: Chris Ober, who as interim dean of the College of Engineering for the past year and half, has ably led the college through a very challenging period; Alison (Sunny) Power, who has earned the esteem of the Graduate School and the larger Cornell community during her eight years as dean of the Graduate School; Susan Henry, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who has been an extraordinarily effective dean during her decade of service to Cornell.

Succeeding them are three new deans—drawn from the ranks of our own outstanding faculty—who are coming on board on July 1. Lance Collins, professor and the S.C. Thomas Sze Director of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will become the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering. Barbara Knuth, professor of natural resources and former senior associate dean of CALS, will serve as dean of the Graduate School. Barb is also a vice provost with responsibility for undergraduate admissions. Kathryn Boor ’80, professor and chair of the Department of Food Science, will be the new Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Our students this year earned prestigious scholarships and fellowships including Marshall, Churchill, Truman, Udall, Fulbright-Hays, and National Science Foundation awards. And they have used their time at Cornell to stretch themselves in countless ways.
A team from the Johnson School, participating in their first IdeaCorps Challenge in New Orleans, took first place among leading business school teams charged to use their professional skills in short-term, high-impact service roles in the revitalization of New Orleans. The Johnson School team developed a business plan for Schedulist, a New Orleans-based start-up that is seeking to market a workforce scheduling program.

At the end of this month, our 100+ MPG team will be competing for a share of the $10-million Progressive Automotive X Prize. Its 100-miles-per-gallon car, Redshift, has already passed several important mileposts along the way.

Kinetics and One Love (Jeremy Dussolliet ’09 and Tim Sommers ’10 in real life, or the “Cornell kids” as they have become known in the recording industry) rocketed to the number #2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for the music and lyrics they wrote for “Airplanes” performed by B.o.B and Eminem.

And, how about Big Red Athletics?! From the Olympics in Vancouver, where Rebecca Johnston ’12 helped the Canadian women’s ice hockey team earn a gold medal, to another first-place finish at the outdoor Heptagonal championships for both the men’s and women’s track teams, to a first-ever Sweet16 appearance for Cornell men’s basketball, and second in the nation achievements by women’s ice hockey and men’s wrestling, and most recently men’s lacrosse’s berth in the NCAA “final four” for the third time in four years—we’ve had many good reasons to cheer: Go Big Red!!

The larger lesson that I have taken away from student achievements of this sort is the scope of Cornell’s excellence across the university—in athletics, but also in science and engineering, the arts and humanities, the social sciences, the professional schools—coupled with the determination that so many Cornellians have to make a difference in the world. We are “One Cornell”—then, now, always—and I am humbled by what our students and alumni have carried forward in so many inspiring ways.

Going forward, we will continue our commitment to need-blind admissions and need-based student aid, which helped us once again select an extraordinarily accomplished and diverse entering class for next fall, from the more than 36,000 applications we received. Although we won’t have the final statistics on the Class of 2014 until mid-July, our preliminary data suggest that the entering class will be evenly divided between men and women. A third are students of color. They come from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 51 other countries, with Korea, Canada, China, India and Singapore having the greatest representation of international students in the entering class.

And we will make teaching excellence, which so many alumni remember from their own years on the Hill, an even higher university-wide priority. To give just one example: Professor Ron Harris Warrick, professor of neurobiology and behavior, is one of our most creative and innovative teachers. He is already a Weiss Presidential Fellow, the highest honor Cornell bestows on members of the faculty in recognition of excellence in and commitment to undergraduate education. Next year, as Cornell’s first Menschel Distinguished Teaching Fellow, he will promote strong teaching across campus, in part by his own example, and also by developing resources and involving colleagues in promoting excellent, innovative teaching university-wide.

And let’s recognize our staff colleagues who work so effectively to support the faculty and students and add their own wisdom to the mix. Just recently posted on the Cornell web site is a feature about some of our remarkable staff members: People like custodians Jim Evener and Gary Napieracz, who were featured in the moving documentary Philosopher Kings; the staff in our Office of Community Relations, who received an award for their race relations efforts from the State University of New York Council for University Advancement; and the professionals at the Johnson Management Library who received a Centers of Excellence Award for Service from the Special Libraries Association. I hope you’ll take time to visit the website while you’re here—or when you get home—to meet some of these remarkable men and women. The web address is:  and you can find it in the text of this morning’s speech, which will be posted on my website in the “speeches and essays” section.

Throughout the past year—in the background or the foreground—has been the challenge of managing the dramatic economic downturn, streamlining the administration, reallocating resources, and setting the strategic directions for the university in the years ahead. This produced emotional highs and lows, because the status quo is not an option, and change is difficult in any institution, and especially one as complex as Cornell. But through it all we have been determined to retain a diverse and talented workforce to support our faculty and students.

We will always need to grow and maintain our wonderful built environment—and you’ll see evidence of that in our progress on Milstein Hall, the physical sciences building, the Human Ecology building, the Johnson Museum addition and other current construction and in the many other building projects completed since you were students on the Hill.

I can assure you that the beauty of our campus is a high priority and future building will proceed in accordance with our recently completed Campus Master Plan, to ensure that the beauty of the campus is retained.

Right now, though, it is absolutely critical to focus on our people. Faculty renewal and student access are the two critical paths to continuing and greater excellence and to fulfilling Ezra’s vision.

Our new strategic plan, adopted by the Board of Trustees last month after a year-long, faculty-led and widely consultative university-wide effort, sets the course for Cornell in the years ahead and gives us an aspiration for the future:

to be widely recognized as a top-ten research university in the world, and a model university for the interweaving of liberal education and fundamental knowledge with practical education and impact on societal and world problems.”

Many of our programs, departments, schools and colleges are already ranked in the top 10—and almost all are in the top 20 worldwide. So this aspiration, although ambitious, is within our reach. We will achieve this aspiration through the vision of our faculty, the interests of our students, the partnership of our staff, and the support and wisdom of our extraordinarily engaged alumni.

I am so deeply grateful  that, even in a severe recession, so many alumni, parents and friends have stepped up to help us realize the promise of Cornell. And we see your commitment in gifts of all sizes: in your reunion gifts and in the Cornell Annual Fund, which increased 18% in dollars and 9% in donors over last year, which was the best year in history up until that time.

Within the next several weeks we will be announcing some $125 million in gifts that will allow us to shift our focus beyond the challenges of the economic downturn and toward building the Cornell of the future. These gifts will address faculty renewal, increase our stature in cross-cutting fields such as applied economics and management, sustainability and cancer genetics, and support our international programs.

I’m pleased to tell you this morning about a major new gift of $25 million from John Dyson and the Dyson family and foundation to name the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. We announced this gift to the campus a few days ago, and I highlight it here again because John Dyson is Cornell Class of 1965, celebrating its 45th reunion this year. The gift will enable AEM, which has already earned a national and international reputation for its breadth and quality, to further enhance its programs in food and agricultural economics, management science, environmental and resource economics, and international and development economics, while also building important new relationships to other business and economics-oriented schools and departments at Cornell. The evolution of AEM from a department to a school within CALS has been a long-standing aspiration of the AEM faculty, and we are so grateful to John Dyson and his family for helping to make this aspiration a reality, not only through their financial support but also through their wisdom and sage advice.

The general strategy for achieving our aspirations for the entire university—and AEM is a wonderful example of this—involves focus and connectivity. We will focus on strong or potentially strong academic programs that are strategically important to the university and maintain areas of excellence within each of the basic academic groupings. And we will develop new integrations, boundary-crossing structures, and productive synergies across colleges, schools, and programs.

As part of our commitment to going forward as “One Cornell”—as outlined so forcefully in the strategic plan—I am pleased to announce this morning a new Cornell Faculty Renewal Fund. Its goal is to get Cornell back on track in its faculty hiring. The #1 initiative in our new strategic plan is to “Renew the faculty in the context of academic priorities and forthcoming retirements.” We are at a moment of profound opportunity—with extraordinary talent available at all ranks and the best market for faculty hiring in decades, with our peer institutions hiring at a quarter to a half the normal rate. Acting now to replenish our faculty will give us a comparative strategic advantage if we seize the opportunity.

The Faculty Renewal Fund aims to make available $100 million to hire additional faculty. Over the next five years, we intend to raise half of that amount ($10 million per year or $50 million) through philanthropy, and to match that amount with another $50 million from internal university sources.

Cornell has been called the “first American university,” because it pioneered broad liberal and practical education, access for worthy students from all backgrounds, and public engagement through service to the state, nation and the world.

We now aim to capitalize on our university-wide strengths as we continue to focus on the future; to aim high, to strive to be better than we are; to be “One Cornell”—a university even better than its individually excellent parts—and to employ our talents and our resources to make a difference in the lives of our students and in the future of the world.

As you reconnect with classmates and friends, I hope you will savor all that Cornell is today. It is the Cornell that so many of you, through your energy, commitment and generosity, have helped to create. And as we approach the university’s sesquicentennial in 2015, please know that you have an even more critical role to play in our university’s future—our shared future as “One Cornell.”

Then. Now. Always. Cornell.

Welcome home.