Presidential Archives

Reunion 2011 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Saturday, June 11, 2011

Thank you, Pete, for that generous introduction and for your outstanding leadership of our Board of Trustees. Not only is this Pete Meinig’s 50th Cornell Reunion with the Class of 1961, as he mentioned; it is also his final reunion as chair of our Board of Trustees. A Cornell trustee for two decades and board chair since 2002, Pete has guided Cornell with great vision and wisdom through some incredibly challenging times. He and Nancy Meinig, who is a 1962 graduate of our College of Human Ecology, have been devoted alumni leaders, Cornell parents, and wonderful mentors, guides and dear friends to Robin and me. There is no doubt that we are a better, stronger university because of Pete and Nancy Meinig.

We are so very fortunate that succeeding Pete on January 1, 2012, will be another outstanding Cornellian and member of this year’s 35th reunion class: Robert S. Harrison, Class of 1976. Bob is a lawyer, former Rhodes Scholar, and a retired managing director of the Goldman Sachs Group. He currently is chief executive officer of the Clinton Global Initiative, established by former President Bill Clinton in 2005 to devise innovative solutions to some of the world’s most intractable challenges. While he was a Cornell undergraduate, Bob served as a student trustee. He rejoined the board in 2002, and has since served on numerous committees, most recently as chair of the Executive Committee. He is an enormously capable leader—with deep knowledge of business, the law, the public sector, and Cornell. Under Bob’s leadership our university will continue to be in very good hands. Bob, please stand so that we can thank you for taking up the reins.

Robin and I have fond memories of our first Cornell reunion in June 2006 with these same classes. We had heard rumors, of course, about the loyalty and devotion of Cornell alumni. But Reunion 2006 was our first opportunity to see you in action—and from then on we understood what all the excitement was about. Each succeeding year has brought additional evidence of the close-knit, outspoken, and engaged alumni of our Cornell.

This year’s reunion is turning out to be even more spectacular—with both attendees here in Ithaca and those in our virtual audience who are watching the livestream. I thank all the class officers, reunion chairs, reunion campaign chairs, and the host of other volunteers who have worked so hard, and with such impressive results, to make Reunion 2011 the best ever. For the first time ever, two Cornellians are attending their 80th Cornell reunion, carrying forward the optimistic spirit of their classmate and long-time Class of 1931 President Bill Vanneman, whom we lost recently. And, in another first, several members of the Class of 2011—our most recent graduates—are attending their “zero” reunion.

When next we are together for your reunions—the classes of the 1s and 6s—we will be at the triumphant finale of Cornell’s Sesquicentennial year. Between now and then, there will be a major celebration of the Sesquicentennial in New York City in the fall of 2014, and another on the Ithaca campus in April 2015 to mark the granting of the university charter by the State of New York and the official birthday of Cornell. Sesquicentennial planning is moving into high gear with committees that include faculty, students, staff, and alumni and with the leadership of Professor Glenn Altschuler, vice president for university relations and dean of continuing education and summer sessions. It promises to be a memorable celebration as well as a very, very important milestone in the life of our university. I invite you to participate in the festivities and the recognition of this milestone, not only during Reunion 2016, but throughout the Sesquicentennial year.

Each time we look back at our heritage – whether as an individual, a family, or a university – we learn much about the coalescence of circumstances, people and ideas that led to the present. Too little attention to the past, and we can lose our way for lack of the context for each trial and triumph we experience. Too much attention to the past, and we forget to live now, with its immediacy and intensity and the promise of a tomorrow that we have yet to imagine. As Abraham Lincoln said, “The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” Over the past 146 years, Cornell has managed to thread the needle—remaining true to our founding principles captured in “any person, any study” while keeping our focus on creating a better future.

As you explore the campus this weekend, you’ll find changes aplenty. But I think you’ll also discover that our underlying mission and values are as clear and forward-looking as they were when Ezra Cornell and Andrew D. White decided to build a new kind of American university on Ithaca’s East Hill. As the reunion program banner proclaims, “Then. Now. Always. Cornell.”

First, let’s talk about what has not changed since you were here: the quality, energy, vision and accomplishments of Cornell’s chief asset: its people—its faculty, staff and students.

This year, thanks to our distinguished faculty, Cornell increased its representation in the distinguished national academies by 10—the most in any year since I’ve been at Cornell. Our faculty were elected by their national peers to membership in the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, recognizing contributions that range from medical ethics, to mathematics, to the design of trustworthy and secure computer systems.

Our students continue to excel academically and in a host of other ways. Among our graduates two weeks ago we had Marshall, Luce, Udall, Goldwater, Truman, and Gates Cambridge scholars, a Carnegie Junior Fellow, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows, as well as winners of several other graduate and professional student awards. Our athletic teams earned Ivy titles this year in women’s ice hockey, wrestling, men’s tennis and men’s lacrosse; our women’s gymnastics team won the ECAC; the women’s polo team earned the national championship for the 13th time, and the men’s team was national runner-up. And this year the Cornell Student United Way earned the inaugural United Way Worldwide Campus Organization of the Year award for service to the community and innovative fundraising.

Our staff continues to make possible the achievements of our faculty and students, while themselves innovating, adapting, and contributing significantly to the quality of campus life and the life of the wider community. Indeed, Peter Smallidge, director of the Arnot Forest, was recognized as a “local hero” at the Red Cross 2011 Real Heroes Award breakfast this spring for coordinating the successful search for a local elementary school student who had become lost in the 4,000-acre forest last October. People like Peter are the backbone of Cornell.

Of course, the most obvious changes on campus are to the physical plant. As many of you may know, one response we made to the constraints of the Great Recession was to greatly curtail our capital development program so that we would not further leverage the university by adding more long-term debt. But, thanks to earlier borrowing, to hugely generous philanthropy and to the State of New York, renovations and new construction continue in some areas of campus. The new Nevins Visitors Center at Cornell Plantations has won several design awards and is seeking “platinum” Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Weill Hall on Tower Road, a critical facility for the life sciences that opened in 2008, was designed by Richard Meier, Cornell Class of 1956—the 55th reunion class—and has earned LEED gold certification, and the new Physical Sciences Building and Milstein Hall are also pursuing LEED certification. Since 2008, in fact, all building projects at Cornell over $5 million must achieve a least silver LEED certification as part of our commitment to sustainability.

The most important aspect of any new building, though, is what it makes possible for our faculty, students and staff. To give just one example, the new Physical Sciences Building on East Avenue is home to—among other programs—the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, devoted to “the development and utilization of next-generation tools for exploring the nanoscale world.” Last fall, researchers in the Kavli Institute, led by Héctor D. Abruña, the E.M. Chamot Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, developed a simple method for making nanoparticles that drive the electrocatalytic reactions inside room-temperature fuel cells, a discovery that brings us closer to creating affordable fuel cells to power our cars. Michal Lipson, another member of the Kavli Institute and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, works at the intersection of fundamental photonics and silicon fabrication engineering to develop devices that harness the information-processing capabilities of light—work that earned her a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award last fall. Paul McEuen, Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, whose research expertise concerns the electrical properties of carbon nanomaterials, is director of the Kavli Institute and a newly elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is also the author, by the way, of the new science thriller Spiral about a fungal organism that is the key to a biological weapon, and he will be one of the Cornell writers—faculty members and alumni—signing books today at the Cornell Store.

The Great Recession had significant impacts around the globe, throughout higher education and here at Cornell. Since the recession began we have decided to balance our budget and recover our fiscal strength in great part by judicious expenditure reductions, particularly regarding administrative functions. We are projecting to end this year again in a positive cash position, thanks to very focused planning and budgeting by the deans, vice presidents, and provost and to the generosity of our alumni, parents and friends.

So there you have it:  the constancy of Cornell’s excellent people, the ever-evolving built environment, all setting the stage for the next 150 years. What can you expect from Cornell at your next reunion when our university will celebrate its 150th birthday? Let me share my vision for the Cornell of 2015 and beyond.

First: we will keep our focus on access. We were a prototypical “opportunity university,” making good on Ezra Cornell’s promise of “any person, any study.” Even in the darkest days of the Great Recession, we kept our promise of need-blind admissions and need-based undergraduate financial aid. In fact, we enhanced the financial aid packages for students from low- and middle-income families so that they could attend Cornell without incurring a debilitating debt. In 2010-2011, 51% of our undergraduate students received need-based financial aid from Cornell. U.S. News & World Report placed us 7th in economic diversity among top national universities in its 2011 rankings. And the percent of students receiving Pell Grants—a proxy for those in the lowest income groups—is currently 18%.

Many of you joined other alumni and friends in this effort so that talented students from all backgrounds could continue to afford Cornell and to dream of and achieve this education based only on ability, not means.

Next fall, when we welcome our Sesquicentennial class—the Class of 2015—we will have extraordinarily talented students from all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and 48 countries worldwide. One fifth of enrolling students self-identify as under-represented minorities, up slightly from last year. Overall, the approximately 3,200 first-year students were selected from among 36,390 applications for freshman admission—an all-time high and the largest application pool in the Ivy League. And we have no doubt that they will continue to excel and to blossom during their time at Cornell.

Going forward, we will keep our focus on access, not only for undergraduates, but also for graduate and professional students, and for international students, who—especially as undergraduates—have only limited access to financial aid. We are grateful for the $25-million endowment created by the Tata Education and Development Trust in 2008, through the good offices of Cornell Trustee Ratan Tata ’59, B. Arch. ’62, chairman of Tata Sons, to help attract more outstanding students to Cornell from India. And the need for more such programs is far greater than what we can now provide. When we end our Sesquicentennial with the grand finale of your next reunion, let’s make sure that Cornell is the new opportunity university for students of talent no matter their resources or their region of the world.

Second, we will set the standard for globalization of higher education, sharing our knowledge and tapping the insights of the best minds the world over. Beginning with its founding and the matriculation of its first students, Cornell has been international in scope and aspiration. Students from Canada, England, Russia and Brazil were enrolled in our first classes, and by the early 1900s, students from China were a significant presence on our campus. Over the decades, Cornell became a globally respected institution of learning, discovery and creativity that excelled at both international studies (understanding the world and its peoples) and international relations (the use of education, research and academic partnerships to effect positive change in the world). The faculty, staff and students of Cornell have acted as if Cornell were the land-grant institution to the world, and the positive effects of this international orientation may be appreciated clearly whether viewed from East Hill or from the other side of the globe.

Cornell is still widely respected as an international powerhouse and is a magnet for students and scholars from scores of countries each year. Recent initiatives include the Tata-Cornell Initiative in Agriculture and Nutrition, also funded through the Tata Trust, to improve the productivity, sustainability and profitability of India’s food system, with the aim of reducing poverty and malnutrition. We also are leading a global project to combat a deadly and evolving wheat pathogen that poses a dangerous threat to global food security, particularly in the poorest nations of the developing world. The project, funded by the Gates Foundation and others, involves partnerships with national and international research centers and laboratories, universities, and scientists and farmers from more than 40 countries. The need for programs such as these is likely to increase as global agriculture is threatened by climate change, and food shortages become even more frequent and devastating, particularly in already impoverished regions of the world.

Our Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Asia Programs, within the Einaudi Center for International Studies, continue to serve as Title VI/National Resource Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Our China and Asia Pacific Studies major in the College of Arts and Sciences provides an exceptional education in U.S.-China relations, including four years of intensive Chinese language study and a semester each working and doing research in Washington, D.C. and Beijing—but it can only accommodate 20 students a year. We offer dual and joint degree programs with excellent international universities in Singapore (through the School of Hotel Administration), India (through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) and Europe (through the Cornell Law School). The Cornell Law School, in fact, has several initiatives—from the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice to the Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa—as well as learning experiences in 13 countries that give it an international culture and global reach. And graduates of our Weill Cornell Medical College campus in Qatar, who receive Cornell MD degrees, have demonstrated their ability to compete successfully for residencies and research fellowships at some of the best medical institutions in the U.S. as well as in Qatar.
But the world of international studies and relations is changing, and Cornell must change with it. About a quarter of our undergraduates earn credit for some sort of international academic experience before they graduate. At least 40 doctoral institutions, and many smaller colleges, have higher participation rates—substantially higher rates—in study abroad than Cornell. This is something we need to change.

Without a clear and strategic vision of our international role, Cornell faculty, students and staff risk becoming less relevant globally at just the time when “problems without passports,” such as global climate change, infectious diseases, nuclear proliferation, trade regulation, and many others, require international collaboration and when all of us need the skills to live and work effectively across cultures and national borders. Over the next several months I will be preparing a white paper outlining what I see as next steps to ensure that Cornell remains not only the world’s land grant university, but also a university where globalization pervades our education, research and scholarship, our outreach, and our view of our place in the world. As we go forward, I have no doubt that Cornell alumni, especially our international alumni, will be critical to our success.

Third, we will step up to the challenge of public engagement, bringing the talents of our faculty, students and staff and of our research and outreach to the greater society as never before. We have a long and productive history of outreach, particularly in our contract colleges, through Cornell Cooperative Extension, and through the public service and service learning in which so many of our students engage. And our new strategic plan includes among its goals to make public engagement a distinctive feature of a Cornell education and to strongly connect public engagement to our on-campus research and educational strengths. This spring the Corporation for National and Community Service named Cornell to the 2010 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll “for exemplary, innovative and effective community service programs” based on the scope and innovation of our service projects, the percentage of students involved, incentives for service and the availability of academic service learning courses. This recognition follows the designation of Cornell by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as “an engaged university.”

Yet another example is the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, which pursues multidisciplinary research focused on energy, the environment and sustainable economic development. Thanks to an $80-million gift from David ’60 and Pat Atkinson, the Atkinson Center has brought together more than 230 faculty members from all 10 colleges on the Ithaca campus, who have leveraged $8 million in pilot funding from the center into more than $75 million in external funding for their research. And the center is building strategic partnerships with business, industry, government, foundations and NGOs in order to increase its impact.

Another tremendous potential opportunity for Cornell is to partner with the City of New York to build a visionary applied sciences and technology campus in Manhattan, and we have responded to the City’s Economic Development Corporation’s invitation with a formal expression of interest. We agree with New York City’s leaders that a key to accelerating growth in New York City is an academic anchor that is a world leader in the disciplines tied most closely to fast-track innovation, as exemplified by our faculty in the College of Engineering and the Faculty of Computing and Information Science.

With Cornell’s leadership in interdisciplinary information age education and research, our culture of entrepreneurship, and our strong presence in and commitment to New York City, we are confident that we are the right choice. Generating new ideas in the areas with the highest potential for economic impact—including New York City’s core industries of finance, media, design and healthcare—we will accelerate Cornell’s economic impact on our state, our nation and our world. While competition for establishing this campus is stiff, and includes other excellent institutions, we know that Cornell is uniquely positioned to succeed at this venture. We will be putting together a formal proposal in the next few months. Keep an ear out for more information soon, including suggestions about how you can help create this opportunity, which I believe will be transformational for New York City and for Cornell.

And fourth, and most important as the underpinning for excellence, we will renew our faculty. A first-rate faculty within each of the basic academic groupings—humanities and the arts; life sciences and agricultural sciences; physical sciences and engineering; social sciences; and professional schools—is essential to Cornell’s continuing excellence, just as it was when you were students on the Hill. Distinguished faculty members define the quality of the educational experience students gain here. The faculty are why the College of Veterinary Medicine is ranked the best in the nation again this year, as it has been for at least the last 16 years; why seven graduate programs in College of Engineering are in the top 10 nationally and the college is ranked 10th in the nation overall; why our undergraduate architecture program is ranked number one—and likely to get even better with the completion of Milstein Hall; and why despite the difficult economy, our graduates continue to do well in the job market and in graduate and professional schools.

During the Great Recession, we had to cancel a significant number of faculty searches and put others on hold. But as our financial position improves, we are moving ahead assertively to recruit a new generation of superb scholars and teachers. Our new faculty members, like those you remember most fondly and those who are at Cornell today, will be world-class researchers, scholars and thought leaders who are also inspired—and inspiring—teachers. We have established a $100-million faculty renewal initiative—to be funded equally from university resources and from philanthropy—to ensure that the faculty of the future will be ready to carry Cornell forward at the Sesquicentennial and beyond.

And just as I have been advocating for support of the humanities, particularly for the National Endowment for the Humanities, this year in Washington, D.C. and through my blog in the Huffington Post and elsewhere, I believe that we must continue to recruit outstanding humanists as part of the next generation of faculty on our own campus.
We made a wonderful start this year, with three new endowed professorships in the humanities established by Cornell alumni in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Curtis Reis ’56—a member of our 55th reunion class–and his wife Pamela Reis establish the L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professorship of Humanities. Cornell Trustee Barton Winokur and Susan Winokur, both members of our 50th reunion class, established the Susan and Barton Winokur Professorship. David Ryan ’67 and his wife Kathleen, who are also Cornell parents, established the David and Kathleen Ryan Professorship. All three professorships will enable us to recruit established scholars or rising stars whose research and scholarship encompass one or more humanistic disciplines. We will keep the momentum going as we approach the Sesquicentennial, because faculty renewal is key to everything we hope for in the future of Cornell.

When Cornell first opened its doors to students nearly 150 years ago, our university was still unfinished. Ezra Cornell, roused from his sickbed for the occasion, made no apology.
“I hope we have laid the foundation,” he said, “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.” And he added, “It is a commencement we now have in hand.”

Sons and daughters of Cornell: our university is still not finished. But between now and your next reunion in 2016, I see us honoring our heritage as an “opportunity university” by ensuring that all students—undergraduate, graduate, professional, international and economically disadvantaged—can complete their degrees without a crushing burden of debt. I see us as a university with global impact and global reach whose graduates, in the fullest sense, are citizens of their own countries and citizens of the world. I see us leading the way in essential fields of knowledge and emerging interdisciplinary areas—and with revitalized and expanded public engagement, accelerating innovation and economic growth in Ithaca, New York City, New York State and the world. And I see us renewing our faculty with accomplished and innovative new researchers, scholars and thought leaders who will contribute to the advancement of knowledge globally and nurture, mentor and inspire our students at home and abroad.

Then. Now. Always. Cornell. Just as it was on that first opening day, “It is a commencement we now have in hand.” Let us begin anew.