Presidential Archives

Reunion 2012 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Saturday, June 9, 2012

Welcome to Cornell Reunion Weekend 2012. Whether you’re celebrating your 5th reunion or your 75th—or Reunion Zero as a member of the Class of 2012; whether you are connecting again with a professional school, or a special interest alumni association, or the continuous reunion group; whether you’re in Ithaca or watching the live-stream of reunion events in another part of the world—we are delighted that you are with us on this glorious weekend of Cornell past, present and future.

A special welcome to Milt Kogan—physician, writer, and actor (most recently in the Descendants with George Clooney)—who is celebrating both his 55th reunion with his original Class of 1957 and his 5th reunion with the Class of 2007, with whom he actually finished his degree! Welcome back, Milt!

This is Cornell Reunion #7 for Robin and me, and I hope we now qualify as continuous reunioners. Our first reunion was in June 2006, a few weeks before Hunter and Elizabeth Rawlings gave us the keys to their house, and it’s wonderful to have them back for Reunion 2012. As Doug mentioned, Frank and Rosa Rhodes are also with us this morning—and, like Hunter and Elizabeth, they are spending time with many of the reunion classes.

I want to take a moment to remember another Cornell president, Dale R. Corson, who passed away earlier this spring at the age of 97. Dale spent nearly all of his academic life at Cornell—as a professor of physics, dean of engineering, provost, and president during some of the most difficult years in Cornell history, and he remained devoted to Cornell as chancellor and president emeritus. Let’s pause for a moment of silence to remember Dale.

Dale was one of Cornell’s great leaders in part, I think, because he never lost touch with his faculty roots. And the current faculty, just like those you may remember from your days on the Hill, are at the heart of Cornell. As many of you know, a third or more of Cornell’s professors will likely retire over the next decade. Together with the other priorities we have identified—student access, public engagement, and internationalization—faculty renewal is one of Cornell’s key areas of focus as we look forward to our sesquicentennial in 2015.

In my first two years at Cornell I participated in nearly 100 departmental visits and other events involving faculty in order to learn about their scholarly interests and activities and was hugely impressed. More recently, I have been visiting departments across the Ithaca campus, with Vice President, Dean and Professor Glenn Altschuler, to listen to the faculty talk more specifically about undergraduate education. So far, we’ve met with departments in five colleges—Human Ecology, Engineering, CALS, Arts & Sciences and ILR—and it is clear that Cornell is in good hands.

The young faculty we have recruited and retained are impressive not only in research, scholarship and creative work, but in the creativity, concern, and commitment they have for undergraduate teaching. Senior faculty, department chairs, the academic deans and Provost Kent Fuchs deserve enormous credit for building an academic culture on campus where undergraduate education is considered on a par with research, scholarship and creative excellence.

It is no coincidence that the most prized accolade awarded by Cornell to a faculty member is appointment as a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowa recognition of superlative undergraduate teaching, created with support from the late Stephen Weiss ’57, former chair of the board of trustees. Our faculty’s continuing focus on undergraduate learning is redefining the undergraduate experience for our current students and those who will come after them. A few examples from our departmental visits:

Geoff Coates is one of the world’s leading polymer chemists and the Tisch University Professor in Chemistry and Chemical Biology. He also teaches many hundreds of students organic chemistry and advises them to ask their questions in person, greeting them in his office where a chalkboard is readily at hand.
In the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, students in introductory courses and electives are exposed through illuminating and interesting hands-on experiments to the critical role of materials in technological innovation. These courses range from “Nanotechnology,” focused on emergent behaviors at the nanoscale, to a course on energy which explores challenges in photovoltaics, batteries and fuel cells.

On a visit to the Communications Department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences—ranked among the top 10 in the nation in a recent National Research Council assessment—we learned about the digital-age changes in the curriculum implemented by the faculty. In his courses, Tarleton Gillespie, associate professor of communications and a member of the graduate fields of Information Science and Science and Technology Studies, “aims to spur students to be critical thinkers about the technologies they interact with every day…” The department is led by Geri (pronounced Jerry) Gay, who is also a professor in Information Science, director of the Interaction Design Lab, and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. Geri gave the Liberty Hyde Bailey Lecture on “Social Media Matters” yesterday.

Our younger faculty—along with veteran faculty—have a willingness to design multi-disciplinary courses, and team-teach them. Poet Lyrae Van Clief Stephanon is associate professor of English and was a finalist for a National Book Award for her book Open Interval. Next semester she will join forces with Steve Pond, chair of the Music Department, and Travis Gosa, assistant professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center, to team-teach “Hip Hop: Rhythm, Words and Life.” Their course is one of 13 multi-disciplinary so-called “University Courses” that Cornell will offer next year. Conceived by Vice Provost and Professor Laura Brown and piloted this past academic year on a smaller scale, the University Courses are designed to foster intellectual discovery, promote debate, and address complex issues while giving students a common experience of Cornell as “one university.”

On a visit to the ILR School, we took the pulse of the faculty about the merger of Economics and Labor Economics to create a university-wide Economics Department. The merger brings together all economics faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences and all labor economists from the ILR School plus a small number of senior faculty from other schools and colleges who hold joint appointments in the new department. During my visit to ILR, the ILR faculty were enthusiastic about the merger, which they expect to improve the educational experience of our undergraduates and graduate students, expand research, and attract outstanding scholars in the coming years. Also at the ILR School, I learned about the school’s innovative courses related to globalization. They range from “Work, Labor and Capital in the Global Economy” to “South African Industrial Relations in Transitions,” taught in partnership with the Africana Studies and Research Center.

Just last month I visited the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management—one of only two accredited undergraduate business degree programs in the Ivy League—which is in the process of having its home, Warren Hall, fully renovated. The undergraduate business program is currently ranked #3 by BusinessWeek and #9 by U.S. News and World Report. Many of you had a first-hand opportunity to see one of the Dyson School’s faculty—Brian Wansink—in action during the Class of ’62 50th Reunion Symposium yesterday. Brian joined Professor Karl Pillemer and New York Times columnist Jane Brody ’62 in a lively discussion of the secrets of a long life.

And over and above their commitment to undergraduate students in the classroom, laboratory and studio, a significant number of faculty members serve as faculty-in-residence or faculty fellows in our residence halls and residential houses. These faculty members provide an important bridge between living and learning through many extracurricular activities that faculty and students share. We are especially grateful for the time and energy that the house professors and deans devote to the Residential Houses on West Campus.

Of course, challenges remain. Space is a constant challenge for faculty in many areas of the university. Staff reductions we’ve implemented in response to the Great Recession have affected the support available to our faculty. And we need more graduate assistants. As they prepare themselves to be tomorrow’s leaders in a broad range of disciplines, talented graduate students serve as well as effective teaching assistants, working closely with the faculty in large lecture courses and small discussion groups.

Faculty renewal figures prominently in Cornell’s strategic plan that is guiding us toward our sesquicentennial in 2015. As one of those aging boomers on the Hill who believes that he is not yet over the hill, I think we need to be creative about holding on to our best minds as we create opportunities for their successors. That will require more bridge appointments—to hire new Ph.D. graduates, rising stars, and senior scholars while keeping productive, experienced faculty in the classroom, studio and lab until they are ready to make the transition to retirement.

I am heartened by the progress we have made in faculty hiring as we recover from the Great Recession that for a time caused many faculty searches at Cornell to be canceled or put on hold. During the 2011-12 academic year we made 71 new tenure-track appointments on the Ithaca campus, up from just 27 in 2010-11 and 42 in 2009-10.

As we approach the sesquicentennial, I see Cornell continuing to lead the way across the broad sweep of academic areas—in the sciences, technology, professional fields, the social sciences, the arts and humanities—and hiring the faculty members who will propel us to be among the top ten universities in the world.

I see CornellNYC Tech, our new applied sciences campus in New York City, partnering with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, combining graduate and professional education in science and technology with entrepreneurship, enriching the educational experience of our students and fueling New York City’s tech sector. In fact, Google, Inc. has already donated space for CornellNYC Tech in their building in Chelsea for the next five years while we build our own campus on Roosevelt Island.

I see our humanities faculty—including the 34 humanists we hired over the last two years (nearly two-thirds of the 56 total Arts and Sciences faculty hired during that time)—continuing to provide students from throughout the university with opportunities to develop as scholars and critical thinkers. And soon they will be able to carry out their work in a new humanities building, now in the final design phase, to be built adjacent to Goldwin Smith Hall. I am delighted and grateful that Dick GroosClass of ’52, who drove all the way from Michigan to be here today for his 60th reunion, and his family have made a generous gift to name the atrium in the new humanities building. I am also pleased to announce that the building will be called Klarman Hall, in recognition of the efforts of Seth ’79 and Beth Klarman to enhance the humanities at Cornell.

Without question, I see our faculty continuing—and deepening—their commitment to education. I see more and more and more distinguished faculty members advancing the teaching mission of the university—building on the Menschel Distinguished Teaching Fellow program, established in 2010, which provides extraordinary faculty members with a one-year fellowship for that purpose.

I see our students augmenting the 400,000 hours of community service they provide each year through an expanded range of service learning courses and other opportunities that we are developing through our new Center for Community Engaged Learning and Research and the Cornell Public Service Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Each year Cornell recognizes some of our most exceptional graduating seniors—the Merrill Presidential Scholars—and asks them to select a teacher at the secondary school level and one at Cornell who contributed most to their success. Here is what some of this year’s Merrill Scholars had to say about our faculty:

From Phoenix Paz, honoring Maria Cristina Garcia of the Department of History: “As she advised me on my honors thesis, Professor Garcia pushed me to find the details, the elements that didn’t fit comfortably within the narrative I wanted to tell, and to use those details to re-conceptualize the very meaning of history.”

From Chandler Kemp, honoring Mukund Vengalattore of the Department of Physics: “He has a contagious passion for science that inspired me to view my lab work as a joy rather than a job. …”

From Charles Weill, honoring Debbie Cherney of the Department of Animal Science: “Her kindness proved invaluable. Whether it be answering a question about animal nutrition (still my favorite class at Cornell) or helping me take steps towards reaching my dream career, she was always available. She helped ignite a spark of curiosity and supported me.”

Like our 2012 Merrill Scholars, you have been the beneficiaries of great teachers, and you have a stake in building the faculty that will define Cornell’s future. Thank you for the support you have provided, especially through reunion campaigns. I hope you will be inspired by all you see, hear and do during Reunion 2012. With your continued involvement, Cornell at its sesquicentennial—and at your next reunion in 2017—will still lead the way in graduate and undergraduate education as well as in research, scholarship, creative work and in public engagement locally and around the world.

Returning classes of the “2”s and “7”s, continuous reunioners, alumni of special interest alumni organizations and the professional schools: You are all Cornellians—then, now and always. Welcome home.