Presidential Archives

Reunion 2013 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thank you, Olivia (Moore) and John (Rhee), and welcome everyone to Reunion 2013. Whether you’ve celebrating your 5th reunion or your 75th; or you’re in the Class of 2012, celebrating Reunion One like Olivia and John; or in the Class of 2013, celebrating “Reunion Zero”; whether you arrived by foot, bicycle, skateboard, kayak, car, plane or the special Reunion Bus from New York City; whether you are connecting again with your undergraduate class or a professional school or a graduate program—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. The Cornell Alumni website says, “Then. Now. Always. Cornell,” to which I’d add, “Here. There. Everywhere. Cornell.”

What is it that makes Cornell so unforgettable to those who have spent time on the Hill? As I’ve listened to so many of you this weekend—and at events on and off campus during the past seven years—it is clear that Cornell’s magic is some combination of outstanding faculty, extraordinary students, talented staff, wonderful facilities, the culture and ambience of Ithaca, and opportunities to grow as human beings through so many varied activities inside and outside the classroom and lab—from the more than a thousand registered student organizations (1017 of them this past year!), to athletics, to volunteerism for public service. It is wonderful to have you back here again to experience that magic.

What is the state of our university? By virtually all measures, our university today is very strong. Our students achieve impressive things in and out of the classroom—including this year two Rhodes Scholarships and a record 28 Fulbright U.S. Student Program awards to conduct research or teach abroad in 2013-14. The men’s Big Red lacrosse team earned a place last month in the NCAA final four championship, and Big Red wrestler Kyle Dake ’13 was named the inaugural Sports Illustrated male College Athlete of the Year. We received a record 40,000 applications for slightly less than 3,200 places in the Class of 2017—an increase of 96% since 2003—and our admit rate was just over 15 percent, even more selective than last year.

We have enhanced our Ithaca campus with many new, sustainably designed buildings—from Physical Sciences to Human Ecology—as you’ve noticed around campus this weekend, and just a few weeks ago we broke ground for Klarman Hall, our new humanities building, scheduled for completion in 2015. This is the first capital project solely for the humanities in over a century! At Weill Cornell Medical College the Belfer Research Building, which will more than double the college’s research space and will enable us to vastly expand bench-to-bedside translational research initiatives, is scheduled to be completed at the end of this year. Before the next Reunion Weekend, bulldozers will be active at the future site of Cornell Tech, the graduate-level applied sciences campus we are developing on Roosevelt Island in New York City; until the first buildings are completed, we are off and running in space in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, generously donated for our use by Google. In that donated space, our first class of master’s students is currently enrolled.

Our budget is on a sustainable, balanced trajectory thanks, in part, to administrative streamlining and other changes we put in place in response to the great recession a few years ago. Any one of these indicators of the state of the university could be the focus of these remarks. But in today’s talk, I will focus on the faculty because faculty renewal is the first priority of our strategic plan and our first priority as we approach Cornell’s sesquicentennial.

So many of you have warm memories of the professors you knew at Cornell: people like Walt Lafeber and Mary Beth Norton; Al George and Christine Shoemaker; George Hudler and Geri Gay; Ken McClane and Jon Kleinberg; Lois Pollack and Peter Katzenstein; Ross Brann and Roald Hoffmann; David Feldshuh and Glenn Altschuler and many others, across all our schools and colleges, who awakened an interest, ignited a spark, provided a foundation of knowledge, opened doors, guided you. You remember the faculty members who taught you…and mentored you…and helped set you on your life’s path—and who, in many cases, have cheered you on and offered continuing counsel over the years.

Since Cornell’s founding in 1865, the faculty have been the heart of the university, and they continue to make Cornell the acclaimed institution it is today. Many of you saw them in action yesterday on faculty panels around campus and at the Olin Lecture, delivered so eloquently by Fred Logevall, the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and Cornell’s most recent recipient of a Pulitzer Prize. Fred was recently named to be Cornell’s next vice provost for international relations.

By virtually every measure—from students inspired, to awards received, to works published, art and music created, and global challenges addressed—Cornell faculty today are at the top of their game—contributing to discovery, innovating, advancing knowledge, expanding creativity, serving society, changing lives.

But—like all of us—they are getting older. [Well, not those of us in this room—but everybody else!] About a decade ago—in Fall 2002-roughly 30% of the faculty were 55 or older. Last fall over 43% were 55 or older and more than 13% were in the 65- to 74-year-old range.

Some faculty members put off retirement because of the Great Recession, but demography really counts. Over the next decade we expect to have to recruit up to a third of our faculty and our superb staff. That presents us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to maintain strength across all major areas of knowledge while building leadership in selected areas of strategic importance—and we are seizing the moment. In the last two years alone, we have hired roughly 150 new faculty members here in Ithaca and approximately 170 at Weill Cornell Medical College. But these are dry statistics: numbers that don’t tell us just who these fascinating, energetic people are. So let me introduce you to just a small sampling of the many remarkable individuals who have recently joined the faculty ranks. Some are rising stars, who have come to Cornell fresh from doctoral programs and postdoctoral experiences at some of the best institutions in the world. Others are distinguished scholars, with proven track records, who left senior positions elsewhere for the exciting opportunities available to them at Cornell. But all are setting Cornell on a course toward an even more excellent future. And they are representative of a much larger pool of new faculty who have joined us this year and are already making a difference throughout the university.

Among our senior faculty recruits this academic year are three Cornell deans—Gretchen Ritter, Soumitra Dutta, and Haym Hirsh.

Gretchen, who is celebrating her 30th Cornell Reunion this weekend as part of the great Class of ’83, will become the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, succeeding Peter Lepage, on August 1. And let’s take a moment to recognize and thank Dean Lepage for a decade of extraordinary leadership. Gretchen Ritter currently is professor of government and vice provost for undergraduate education and faculty governance at the University of Texas at Austin. A third-generation Cornellian, she will be the college’s first female dean and its first externally hired dean, and we are looking forward to welcoming her back to campus in her new role.

In the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Soumitra Dutta succeeded Joe Thomas last July as the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean. Soumitra came to Cornell after 23 years at INSEAD, a top-ranked graduate business school in Fontainebleau, France. He is an authority on the impact of new technology on the business world, especially social media and social networking, and on strategies for driving growth and innovation by embracing the digital economy. He is already leading Johnson in new directions, including internationally.

Joining Cornell on July 1 will be Haym Hirsh, professor and chair of computer science at Rutgers University, who will be our new dean of Computing and Information Science. Haym, who is an expert in artificial intelligence and data mining, succeeds Dan Huttenlocher, now vice provost and founding dean of Cornell Tech in New York City. Haym will lead our Faculty of Computing and Information Science, a college-level unit that comprises computer science, information science and statistical science and that engages with all our schools and colleges.

These new senior-level colleagues are important additions to our university, with the vision and leadership to guide Cornell toward an even more promising future. They are joined by talented younger faculty (I should say “even younger!”), many of them hired as part of the $50-million Faculty Renewal Sesquicentennial Challenge, who are already making their mark in their fields and inspiring students. I’m pleased to note that we have raised over $40 million, from nearly 100 donors, toward that $50-million goal. I thank all of you and our other generous alumni and friends for making this possible.

In the College of Engineering, Eilyan Bitar is the David Croll ’70 Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow and an assistant professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Eilyan’s research interests include stochastic control, optimization, and game theory and their applications to electricity markets, power systems, and renewable energy integration. One of his projects explores how to facilitate the deep integration of renewable energy resources like wind and solar into the power grid efficiently and safely—not an easy task since both the energy sources and the demand for power vary in unpredictable ways. He is bringing undergraduates into his research through the department’s early career research scholars program, which offers research opportunities to prospective ECE majors between their freshman and sophomore years.

In the ILR School, Elena Belogolovsky is the Ken DiPietro ’81 Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of human resource studies. She was attracted to the ILR School after earning her doctorate from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (yes, the same distinguished university that is our partner at Cornell Tech) because, she says, the ILR School is “the best school of its kind in the world.” Her interest and expertise are in “pay secrecy” and its implications in organizations, especially those that limit employees’ access to pay-related information. Her work is helping to guide the development of appropriate pay communication policies.

In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Julio Giordano is assistant professor of animal science and the St. John Family Sesquicentennial Fellow in Dairy Cattle Management, thanks to the generosity of Ronald P. St. John Jr. ’68. Julio’s basic and applied research on reproductive physiology in dairy cows aims to generate simple, practical management plans that can improve the efficiency of dairy herds. He translates this knowledge, and his overall understanding of dairy reproductive physiology and management, into courses where students use knowledge learned in class to analyze and solve problems observed on commercial dairy farms.

Ishion Hutchinson, the Meringoff Sesquicentennial Fellow and a native of Jamaica, is a new assistant professor of English. His poetry and essays have appeared in such publications as PoetryPoetry ReviewPloughsharesGrantaGuernica and Gulf Coast. His first collection, Far District, won the prestigious PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. Ishion teaches courses in creative writing, including the MFA Graduate Seminar in Poetry this past spring.

In the College of Human Ecology, Nathan Spreng, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Fellow, is assistant professor of human development. He directs the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition and is investigating the link between autobiography and imagination—how we conceive of the future, and successfully navigate the social world—by examining the dynamics of large-scale brain networks and how they change over the lifespan. This past spring he taught a course on functional MRI analysis for human neuroimaging, and next fall he will be teaching a course on the human brain and mind.

At Weill Cornell Medical College, Lewis Cantley, one of the world’s top cancer researchers and a Cornell Ph.D., has joined us as the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor and director of the newly established Cancer Center at Weill Cornell and NewYork Presbyterian Hospital. Lew, who came to us from Harvard, is leading efforts to employ precision medicine for cancer diagnosis and treatment at Weill Cornell. In February, he was named a winner of the inaugural $3-million Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences, designed to recognize excellence in research focused on curing intractable diseases and extending human life.

In August, Dr. Augustine Choi will join Weill Cornell as chair of the Department of Medicine and physician-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Currently the Francis Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Augustine will lead one of the most comprehensive academic and clinical departments in the country when he arrives at Weill Cornell—with 16 divisions and more than 1,700 faculty members, physicians and research scientists focused on clinical care, research and medical education.

Our first professor at Cornell Tech is Deborah Estrin, who also is a professor of public health at Weill Cornell Medical College. Previously a senior faculty member at UCLA, Deborah is a pioneer in networked sensing, which uses mobile and wireless systems to collect and analyze real time data about the physical world and the people who occupy it. Her current focus is on leveraging the availability of mobile devices and “the cloud” for health management. Among many other honors, she is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, one of Wired Magazine’s 2012 “50 People Who Will Change the World” and one of CNN’s “10 Most Powerful Women in Tech.” As Deborah said at the time of her Cornell appointment last June, “My entire career has been about applying technology to improve people’s lives, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to help [Cornell Tech] create a new university model that removes the barriers between research and application.” And for those who would like to learn more about Cornell Tech, Provost Kent Fuchs and Founding Dean and Vice Provost Dan Huttenlocher will be giving an update on the project at 3 p.m. this afternoon in Alice Statler Auditorium—an event that is open to all.

So far, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve raised over $40 million for faculty renewal at all levels and across a wide range of disciplines. And each faculty renewal dollar we receive from a donor is matched by a dollar from the colleges and schools. In this final push to Cornell’s sesquicentennial, faculty renewal remains our first priority, along with accessibility of a Cornell education.

The late Harry Levin, whom some of you remember as the William R. Kenan Professor of Psychology and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1974-78, once explained Cornell’s approach to faculty hiring this way: “Our aim is to get the best faculty and turn them loose. They must be totally independent, responsible only to the quality of their teaching and their scholarship. All we ask of them is that they be geniuses.”

There is no better proof of the power of faculty geniuses to leave their mark than those of you who have returned to campus for Reunion Weekend 2013. You’ve honored us through achievements in your professions and your communities, through your civic engagement and through your capacity for service-and most of all by your presence here this weekend.

As you savor your time on campus during Reunion 2013, reconnecting with some of the people, places, and programs that made your student years memorable and exploring all that the university offers today, you can be proud that Cornell-your Cornell, our Cornell-has reached a new high point. Never in our history have we been stronger or better positioned to meet the needs of our students and the challenges of the world. With our focus on faculty, and your continuing engagement, we look forward to even greater achievements at our sesquicentennial and beyond.

Classes of the 3’s and 8’s-and all who have come back for this glorious weekend: Welcome home!