Presidential Archives

2013 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
October 25, 2013

Thank you, Bob, and welcome, everyone, to the 2013 joint meeting of the Cornell University Council and the Cornell Board of Trustees. I join with Bob and Katrina in welcoming everyone, including new members, and with Steve Ashley in thanking all of you for all you do—for our university and through your personal, professional and civic contributions.

Our theme this week is “thought leadership,” which is tantamount to innovation, and is important not only for Cornell, but also for the vibrancy of our communities, our country and our world. And more than ever, we need to keep the pipeline of innovation filled with the people and ideas on which progress for the common good depends.

Last July, Cornell was deeply involved in the US release of the Global Innovation Index (GII) at the Cornell Club in New York City. The index, now in its sixth year, was founded and co–edited by our own Soumitra Dutta, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of our Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and it measures the pace of innovation in 142 countries. While the US is still near the top of the list—in 5th place after Switzerland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands— “dynamic innovation hubs” are multiplying around the world. Low– and middle–income countries such as Senegal, Costa Rica, China, and India are outpacing their peers, the index notes, demonstrating the global nature of innovation and competition in the 21st century.

While we in the US should welcome economic progress globally, we also must make the investments in people and ideas that will support and extend our own ability to innovate far into the future. As Dean Dutta said at the July event, a core ingredient in an ecosystem of innovation is talent—the so–called human capital that brings the best ideas, creativity and invention to bear on problems and opportunities. A second critical piece in an innovation ecosystem is investment in research and creative pursuits, which is how talented people increase understanding of ourselves and the world around us, inspire us, educate the next generation of thought leaders, and develop their ideas into the creations, processes and products that drive progress—social and economic.

Today I want to explore what research universities like Cornell contribute toward the larger goal of sustainable competitiveness, some of the challenges that stand in the way, and to urge us all to press forward in creating new partnerships, knowing that a great deal is riding on our ability to carry out our mission for the public good.

As a research university, Cornell’s first, and perhaps most critical role is to nurture the talent needed to imagine, discover, and create. Our faculty, staff and students take advantage of all we offer in the sciences, arts and humanities—often putting the pieces together in new and extraordinarily creative ways.

This year, almost 40,000 students competed for the opportunity to matriculate at Cornell as members of the Class of 2017—and be part of our academic community. In addition to the 3,282 members of the Class of 2017, we welcomed 1,889 new graduate students, 561 new transfer students, and a substantial number of new professional school students to the Ithaca campus and our campuses in New York City and Doha.

Thanks to our commitment to need–blind admissions and need–based financial aid, which so many of you have supported, we are the 8th most economically diverse national university according to the 2014 US News & World Report rankings, based on the percentage of undergraduate students eligible for Pell Grants.

Our entering class is more representative of America—and indeed the world—than ever before, and we are delighted to welcome them to the Cornell community. But as Cornell and other major research universities cast a wider net to enroll top students from all backgrounds, we need not only to find ways to recruit our terrific student body from increasingly varied backgrounds and make the net cost of attendance for higher education more affordable, but also to ask seriously if we are meeting the needs of students whose personal and family experiences and expectations may be quite different from those of students who in years past were considered a “good fit” for our institutions. I believe that Cornell has an opportunity to lead the way, not only in supporting talented students from all backgrounds so that they can succeed here, but also in encouraging and challenging them to engage the world in ways that will make a difference over the long term.

Cornell, like other top American universities, is a magnet for aspiring college students from other nations who see American higher education as a ticket to personal success and societal impact, whether in their own countries or in the US. International students make up almost a fifth of Cornell’s student body—and their rising numbers on our campus mirror national trends.

As Thomas Friedman noted in a New York Times column last month, “In a world where the big divide is no longer between developed and developing countries but rather between high–imagination–enabling countries and low–imagination–enabling countries, we remain the highest–imagination–enabling country in the world…”

We hope that many international students will choose to return to their own countries after earning their degrees to drive progress there, but we also would improve our own competitiveness as a nation if more of the highly trained international students who would like to remain in this country to work were permitted to do so. I encourage you to join me in communicating to our elected leaders the need for meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform; I am cautiously optimistic that we can make progress toward that goal in the near future.

Human capital—talented, well–prepared and creative people—is critical to innovation, but there is a second critical ingredient: willingness to invest in research. Traditionally in the US, research expenditures have derived from four sources: the corporate world, the US government, the non–profit sector, and philanthropy.

Most of the big, storied corporate labs no longer exist, and as The Economist noted a few years ago, “Companies tinker with today’s products rather than pay researchers to think big thoughts.”

It falls largely to America’s research universities––with support from government, from foundations, from philanthropy, from corporations and from our own resources––to carry out research with longer time horizons and of broader scope that can lead to a better understanding of the human condition, the environment, and to sustainable economic contributions over time.

What has made universities so successful in this realm? First, university faculty, research staff and students are given the freedom to explore and to express their ideas without being burdened unduly by that world’s assumptions or politics. We too often take “academic freedom” for granted, yet it is essential to the character and quality of great universities.

But, second, universities also want to connect with the world beyond the campus, which is where the vast majority of our alumni will spend their working lives and where our ideas eventually are validated. Just ask Cornell’s newest MacArthur Fellows, Craig Fennie and Sheila Nirenberg, recipients of the so–called “genius” grants. Craig is an assistant professor in our top–ranked School of Applied and Engineering Physics in the College of Engineering. He works at the intersection of physics and materials, using theory to design new materials optimized for specific applications—for example, through our Energy Materials Institute, he is designing compounds with optical properties that might make them more efficient in capturing solar energy. Sheila, associate professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medical College, is a neuroscientist who studies fundamental questions about how the brain encodes visual information. She is developing a new approach to restoring sight after photoreceptor cells degenerate, as is the case in diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, which affect millions of people around the world. Sheila was not able to be with us today, but Craig is here. Craig, please stand so we can congratulate you.

There is a growing expectation inside and outside the academy that universities can and should participate in innovation in more direct ways, through entrepreneurship, technology transfer, and partnership with the private sector. Earlier this month, Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center and The Rockefeller University formed a pioneering “Tri–Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute, Inc.” and have joined with Takeda Pharmaceutical Company to expedite early–stage drug discovery. Founded with support from Lewis and Ali Sanders and Howard and Abby Milstein, the institute represents a new approach to turning discoveries in basic science labs into innovative treatments.

Cornell Tech in New York City, with its emphasis on technological innovation and entrepreneurship, is another wonderful example of the interplay of discovery and practical application. Its new master’s program in connective media, offered through the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion–Cornell Innovation Institute beginning next fall, is designed to train the entrepreneurial engineers and technologists needed to drive the digital transformation of publishing, advertising, news, information and entertainment. The new degree program joins Cornell Tech’s existing master of engineering in computer science degree and a new MBA program, offered in partnership with Johnson, that will begin in May 2014.

All three degree programs feature close interactions with successful practitioners and entrepreneurs—both faculty members and industry professionals.

At TCAM and on other occasions, you often hear me talk about research funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, primarily through the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation—the number one and number two sources for federal research funding at Cornell. In this context we rightly celebrate our research efforts in physical sciences, engineering, and life sciences relevant to animal and human health and medicine. But, within these broad areas, we often do not pay enough attention to the role of agriculture, which has an enormous impact on countries and cultures and is, in the 21st century, an increasingly critical area of concern. An estimated 842 million people—or about 1 in 8 people in the world—are “suffering from chronic hunger, regularly not getting enough food to conduct an active life,” according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

As New York’s land grant university, Cornell has been supporting agriculture and the food industry for many years through our Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Human Ecology, and Veterinary Medicine and through Cornell Cooperative Extension.

In 2012, the university–wide Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future launched a new partnership with CARE, the international development organization, which combines Cornell’s cutting–edge research with CARE’s “on–the–ground” experience fighting poverty to create solutions for global concerns, including world hunger and climate change.

Chris Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor and new director of our Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was a leader in creating that partnership, in his previous role as Atkinson Center associate director for economic development. In a new book Food Security and Sociopolitical Stability (Christopher B. Barrett, ed., Oxford University Press, 2013) Chris notes that the way “governments, firms, and private philanthropy tackle the food security challenge in the coming decade will fundamentally shape the relationship between food security and sociopolitical stability.” And if you don’t have time to read Chris’s book, you can catch him on Jon Stewart—he appeared on “The Daily Show” on September 24.

We all need to be concerned, though, that in the present budget climate, federal funding for agricultural research, as well as for research in virtually all other disciplines, is under severe strain. The sequester implemented last year has already indiscriminately depressed funding levels. This will continue, under current law, unless reversed by Congress in the new budget agreement.

Writing in the journal Science in August, Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted that US Department of Agriculture spending on R&D has declined by 26% (in constant dollars) over the past decade, while investments by China, India and Brazil have increased dramatically. Coincidentally, Leshner noted, agricultural productivity has increased in those countries, while it has remained static in the US.

Without ignoring the real constraints facing our economy, it is important to remember that research is an irreplaceable investment in our economic strength. Where appropriate, we need closer ties to industry—not only as a source of funding but also so that curiosity–driven and applied research can enrich and inform each other, to the benefit of both. And we need, and must effectively make our case for, the continued support of the federal government and philanthropy for research of great potential significance not likely to be carried out by the private sector.

Two members of my senior leadership team have been deeply involved in making the case to our elected leaders and to the public through the media for university research funding, immigration reform, and other issues of concern to Cornell and higher education more broadly. Thomas W. Bruce, vice president for university communications, has greatly increased the university’s national and international visibility since he joined us in 2004. And Stephen P. Johnson, vice president for government and community relations, has given exemplary service to the Cornell community and to the people of Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York state and our country. Tommy will be moving to Dartmouth in mid–November as senior vice president for public affairs. And Steve will be retiring—after more than 40 years of Cornell service. Please join me in thanking Tommy and Steve for their contributions to Cornell and in wishing them well in their new endeavors.

Yes, investments in science are critical to our future. Yet, even the best science, the most profound knowledge, won’t solve world problems—including those related to poverty, health and the environment—if cultural differences are not respected, understood and engaged. Many of you have heard me speak before about the value of a broad liberal education in achieving results that matter and about the value of the humanities and social sciences. Today, however, I especially want to highlight some of the things Cornell is doing in the arts, which often receive less attention than the humanities in discussions of liberal arts education but are equally important.

Caroline O’Donnell, our first Richard Meier Professor of Architecture and a shining example of our faculty renewal efforts, won a prestigious Museum of Modern Art’s Young Architects Program competition and built her winning design at MoMA PS1 this summer. Her pavilion used recycled skate–board blanks, obtained from an Ithaca–based company, and involved a team of undergraduate, graduate and alumni architects.

Under the leadership of Stephanie Wiles, the Johnson Museum hosts artistically significant and timely exhibitions. Among the current exhibitions are Roger Shimomura’s paintings and prints about his family’s experience at the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho during World War II, which ties to this year’s new student reading selection: Julie Otsuka’s book, When the Emperor Was Divine, on the same topic.

Graduates of Creative Writing’s MFA program, including Téa Obreht, MFA ’09, Alexi Zentner, M.F.A. ’09, Melissa Bank, MFA ’98, Juno Díaz, MFA ’95, among others, have enjoyed extraordinary success as writers. And Robert Morgan, Kappa Alpha Professor of English who teaches in the program, just published a new novel, The Road from Gap Creek.

Some of you may have seen the op–ed in the New York Times on October 12, linking music to academic and professional success. We can all be proud that our own Department of Music excels in all three aspects of musical study: composition, performance and musicology. Last spring Eric Nathan, DMA ’12, a four–time ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) award winner, earned the coveted Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize in the 117th annual Rome Prize Competition—one of only two composers among the 31 recipients this year.

I hope many of you will attend the lecture late this afternoon by the legendary Christopher Hogwood, conductor, keyboard artist, leader in the early music movement, and an A.D. White Professor–at–Large at Cornell. It promises to provide a new perspective on why we should value music, and by extension, other arts.

But public funding for the arts has not kept pace with the cost of doing business. When adjusted for inflation, total government funding for the arts has contracted by 31 percent since 1992. As with federal research funding, the sequester is further diminishing the federal contribution to the arts. And this at a time when our nation and the world need more people skilled in creative problem–solving, communication and collaboration that the arts and humanities promote.

Recruiting promising students, faculty and staff, setting the conditions for their success, and following an ever–more strategic vision of the needs of our society and world are our most urgent imperatives as a university and a society. Achieving them will take more than a State of the University address. It is also more than a single university, even one as distinguished as Cornell, can achieve.

And just doing more of what we have always been doing isn’t going to work anymore. If we are true to our claim of thought leadership, we at Cornell need to think more strategically and boldly and devise and be advocates for partnerships that will ensure that universities continue to serve society—through science and technology, the arts and humanities, and through the development of the next generation of thought leaders for our world.

The need for fresh thinking and new alliances has never been greater. But if ever there was a university ready and eager for the challenge, it is our Cornell. Visionary and practical, drawing strength and perspective from the arts and humanities as well as science, technology, and the professional fields; adept at forging partnerships—across campuses, sectors, continents; and open and accessible to the brightest minds across the globe: that is our Cornell.

Together, on the eve of our sesquicentennial, let’s seize the unique opportunities before us—as we have done throughout our history—to position Cornell for its second 150 years so that we can continue to engage the world, improve the human future and enrich human life.

Thank you.