Presidential Archives

2014 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
October 17, 2014

Thank you, Bob, and welcome, everyone, to the Joint Annual Meeting and to the beginning of our Sesquicentennial Celebration on the Ithaca campus! I join with Bob and Katrina in congratulating new members of the Board of Trustees and University Council and in expressing our condolences to Jay and Julie Carter on the loss of Jay’s father. I also recognize Katrina James’s very effective leadership of Council during the past three years, and thank all of you—whether you are here in Statler Auditorium or viewing the live-cast from elsewhere—for all you do for our university.

I also congratulate Cornell Provost Kent Fuchs on his appointment, announced just two days ago, as the next president of the University of Florida. Cornell was one of the founding members of the Association of American Universities, a highly selective association of leading research universities in the U.S. and Canada. We can all be proud that Kent has been tapped to lead another fine AAU university—indeed one that, with an enrollment of 50,000 students, 16 colleges and more than 150 research centers and institutes, is one of the most comprehensive and academically diverse universities in the nation. Kent, please stand so that we can congratulate you on this exceptional opportunity and recognition.

As you know, this is my final State of the University Address as Cornell’s president and Robin’s and my final opportunity to spend time with you in our current roles at a joint Trustee-Council Annual Meeting. Without a doubt, my years at this unique university have been the high point of a long career in higher education, and I am grateful to be able to complete my service during Cornell’s sesquicentennial year.

There is, to my knowledge, no other university in the broad sweep of American higher education that combines Cornell’s distinctive features in such a productive way. One hundred fifty years ago, we took what was best in the established, distinguished colleges and augmented it with an approach that would address the needs of post-Civil War America at the start of what has been called the American (or Second) Industrial Revolution. We combined classical education with new areas of inquiry that would serve agriculture and promote the “mechanic arts” required by our growing industrial base. We aspired to welcome students—women as well as men—from all races and religious beliefs, from the US and other countries, and from all economic circumstances so that a Cornell education would be open to qualified students based on talent and determination rather than the circumstances of birth. And we reached out to serve the wider society in New York State and far beyond, as we do today—and will do tomorrow—on an even more expansive scale. To a remarkable degree, we’ve remained true to our founding ideals over the past 150 years, while evolving to meet the ever-more complex needs of our students and the larger society.

Today we excel across so many areas—in scientific disciplines as evidenced by the National Medal of Science awarded this fall to Professor Emeritus Jerrold Meinwald, co-founder with the late Tom Eisner, of the field of chemical ecology and in the humanities, as evidenced by Mike Abrams, the Class of 1916 Professor of English Literature Emeritus, who received the National Humanities Medal in July, just a few days after his 102nd birthday. And, of course, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded this month to two Cornell alumni—Eric Betzig, M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’88, and William Moerner, M.S. ’78, Ph.D. ’82—as well as to German scientist Stefan Hell. Quite a year!

Of many examples I could give across our colleges, schools, and programs, let me highlight just three broad areas in which we already lead—and where we have an opportunity to do even more on our own campus and for the general good.

First: sustainability. Thanks to the generosity and vision of David Atkinson, Class of 1960, and Pat Atkinson, whose transformational gift I was able to announce at this meeting a few years ago, Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future now brings together faculty—414 of them at last count—with expertise in the broad areas of energy, the environment and economic development, including poverty alleviation. The center’s goal is to create “a world in which people can meet their needs and pursue their dreams without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.”

Of course, among the first places we should seek to create a more sustainable future are our own campuses. Last February, in response to a resolution from the Faculty Senate, I committed the university to creating a plan to accelerate our efforts to achieve carbon neutrality on the Ithaca campus by 2035—a full 15 years sooner than originally planned. A faculty and administrative working group has devised an ambitious proposal to achieve that goal, which we are currently reviewing.

A second area where Cornell has strong programs and the potential for even greater contribution is in the arts. We view the arts not as a supplement to traditional scholarship and research but, to quote an ad hoc trustee committee that has been studying the issue since last spring, as “anchored on a fundamental conception of art practice as a mode of knowledge production.” Let me give you two examples of how this concept translates into practice at Cornell.

First, as part of the Cornell Council for the Arts’ 2014 Biennial, faculty, students and visiting artists are exploring the intersection of art and nanoscale technology—an area of great academic strength at Cornell—through collaborative research-based projects. One such collaboration produced “A Needle Woman,” a 46-foot tower on the Arts Quad created by artist-in-residence Kimsooja that transforms light using an iridescent polymer film created by materials scientists in the lab of Uli Wiesner, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Engineering.

Similarly, each academic year some 300 Cornell courses from more than 30 departments and programs visit our Johnson Museum of Art for first-hand encounters with art, and museum curators are teaming up with faculty members to develop trans-disciplinary courses, including one that will combine new research in signal processing with the examination of 17th century Dutch paintings to teach advanced approaches to understanding art history.

But there is much more that can and should be done to make the arts even more central to Cornell’s identity. The Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Architecture, Art and Planning, Human Ecology, and Engineering and the Johnson Museum are working with the trustee ad hoc committee on a number of proposals to enhance the role of art in a wide range of disciplines. From my future vantage point at the Smithsonian, I will be cheering them on and looking forward to learning from their success.

A third area where Cornell has been a leader since its founding—and which is about to become even more central to our identity—is public engagement. Public engagement already enriches the intellectual, social and professional lives of our students, faculty and staff through programs that include Engaged Learning + Research, the Cornell Public Service Center, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, among many others. Just last week we announced a new initiative—Engaged Cornell—that promises to dramatically scale up our current efforts over the next ten years. Engaged Cornell will establish a new model and direction for a research university in which public engagement is even more deeply ingrained and widely shared.
Engaged Cornell proposes to achieve this educational model by working in three strategic areas: expanding student and faculty engagement; developing and supporting high-impact university-community partnerships around the world; creating a structure for success that includes competitive grants at the departmental level to promote faculty-led course development, a leadership program open to all students, and a commitment to promoting Cornell’s innovations in the national higher education sector.

Building on its previous support for public engagement at Cornell, the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust has committed $50 million over 10 years to the initiative and has challenged us to raise an additional $100 million to fully fund the program. The trust is headed by David Einhorn and Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, both from the Class of ’91. We are grateful for their extraordinary commitment to public engagement at Cornell.

As I survey the resources on our campus and the needs facing the broader society, I see Cornell playing a continuing and significant role in several other critical areas: ameliorating the societal inequalities that hold back human progress worldwide and in our own country—in both cities and in rural America; realizing the potential for personalized medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College as we better understand the human genome and the molecular basis of life processes in health and disease; creating new partnerships with industry and government to better leverage our resources across the university and, specifically, in programs like those at Cornell Tech and its Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute; coordinating and integrating internationalization activities across the university to create a truly international university. All these, and other opportunities not yet on the horizon, will provide ways for Cornell to lead going into our second 150 years.

Our dreams are fueled and our endeavors bolstered by the tremendous generosity of Cornell’s alumni, parents and friends. Thanks to you and other Cornellians, our total giving continues to rise above the $4.75 billion goal we surpassed last summer, and separately the $600 million raised so far for Cornell Tech. Inspired by the momentum we have already achieved, and pending formal board approval later today, I am pleased to announce that we plan to set a new campaign goal of $5.75 billion to be achieved by the Cornell Now campaign’s official end in December 2015. Funds raised toward the new goal will support Cornell Tech in addition to the Ithaca campus and Weill Cornell Medical College. I will do all I can to advance us toward this ambitious new goal during my remaining time at Cornell, and I have no doubt that Elizabeth Garrett, who will become Cornell’s 13th president on July 1, is superbly equipped to move us forward in this and in so many other ways.

Beth Garrett is currently provost and senior vice president at the University of Southern California (USC) and a professor of law, political science and public policy there. In addition to her presidential appointment at Cornell, she will have faculty appointments in the Law School and in the Government Department in the College of Arts and Sciences. She will be joining us later today for many of the weekend activities. Her husband, Andrei Marmor, a distinguished professor of philosophy and law at USC, will also move to Cornell and will hold faculty appointments in philosophy and law here. Robin and I look forward to welcoming them to the Cornell family and working with them over the next several months to ensure a smooth transition.

In reporting to you on the state of our university, I would be remiss if I did not also outline very briefly what I see as some continuing challenges for Cornell and for all of American higher education. Six areas, in particular, stand out. I described them briefly in a US News & World Report op-ed last month, and we need to look at these challenges as a community and confront them through reasoned and balanced change.

First: cost and affordability. In addition to continuing our robust program of need-based financial aid, we need to attenuate the rate of rise of tuition by controlling the costs of operating our university. Like virtually all of higher education, we will need to create financial flexibility for fulfilling the future aspirations of our faculty, students and staff. This will mean identifying promising approaches to enhancing revenue in areas other than tuition and being even more determined and creative in continuing to control cost without reducing quality or overwhelming our already fully occupied faculty and staff.

While excellent facilities are essential to campus quality, at this juncture taking care of deferred maintenance on existing buildings should, in general, have a higher priority than new construction. Where new construction is necessary, it should be undertaken without incurring debt, through philanthropy and/or reallocation of existing funds, as we have done with Gates Hall for Computing and Information Science and Klarman Hall, our new humanities building.

Second, we in higher education need to demonstrate more clearly to a skeptical public that what we offer is worth the time and expense we ask students and families to invest. Increasingly, the public and especially employers expect a college degree to certify that graduates can succeed in a rapidly changing workplace in the setting of stubborn unemployment. Beyond proficiency in specific skills, even those that are extremely technical or complex, today’s and tomorrow’s workplace—and society as a whole—sorely needs graduates with broader, transferrable skills in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, cultural understanding, literacy, numeracy, and ethical judgment, among others. These broader outcomes of a college education are difficult to measure, but we nevertheless must develop more robust methods to assess what students have gained from their college experiences.

Third, and related: We need to be more effective advocates for the importance of a broad liberal arts education, both as a means to develop the critical skills I just mentioned, and because the liberal arts enrich our lives with insights into the human condition that can be gained in no other way. This is one of the reasons I am hopeful that the nascent, reinvigorated Cornell arts initiative, as one example, will gain momentum going forward.

Fourth, we need to continue to strive for a more diverse university community and a campus climate in which all may succeed, which is what Toward New Destinations, our university-wide diversity and inclusion initiative, is intended to advance. All members of our university benefit when we welcome people of many backgrounds and points of view.

All of us can be proud of Cornell’s record in creating an increasingly diverse student body. The Class of 2018, which joined us in August, is the most diverse and the most selective class in the university’s history. We are also committed to making the principles of diversity and inclusion part of the basic fabric of advanced study at Cornell, whether graduate or professional.

As of last fall, however, underrepresented minorities accounted for only 7.2% of faculty, 5.4% of other academic employees, and 6.3% of non-academic staff. In attracting and selecting students, faculty and staff, we must seek out excellence from as broad a pool as possible, in keeping with the founding vision of Cornell and the needs of a globalized world.

Fifth, we need to continue the institution of tenure in a time of skepticism about this important tradition and to couple it with more robust, faculty-driven post-tenure review. Colleges traditionally grant tenure to outstanding faculty members so that they can teach, discover, create and pursue knowledge, even in controversial areas, without fear of political pressure or limitation of free speech. Events on other college campuses over the past year or so continue to make clear that we need to preserve tenure as a safeguard of academic freedom. Moreover, tenure remains important to recruiting and retaining the best faculty, and by extension to institutional excellence, but it should be accompanied by serious post-tenure review to ensure continuing faculty productivity.

Sixth, we should welcome advances in technology as a way to improve our educational offerings, but be rigorous in our assessment of what technology can—and cannot—do. The rise of online education and MOOCs—those massive, open online courses available free to anyone with an internet connection—have led some to predict that the traditional college, with a physical campus and resident professors, soon will be obsolete. Cornell currently offers several MOOCS through the edX online initiative as well as other online and distance learning options. These courses—which this year include the ethics of eating, civic ecology, global hospitality, and the computing technology used in smartphones and other devices—have served to raise the visibility of Cornell as a major research university whose distinguished professors are also world-class teachers.

But online education will not soon replace a physical campus with resident professors for institutions like Cornell. Technology can make teaching more engaging and sometimes improve student learning. But it would be a mistake to apply technology for technology’s sake. We must seek proof of efficacy.

Admittedly, I’ve outlined an ambitious agenda. But we’ve adapted the bold ideas of Cornell’s founders to the needs of our students and the larger society for 150 years now—adding new functions, expanding student access and evolving as the times require. We are buoyed by the success of the Cornell Now campaign, to which so many of you have contributed, and the momentum we have going into this sesquicentennial year.

By taking a hard look at the issues I’ve mentioned and others that surely will arise—and finding the right balance—I know we can continue to contribute to societal progress and individual success.

I thank you for the privilege of serving as your president. Although Robin and I are looking forward to our move to Washington next July, a big part of our hearts will always be on Cornell’s campuses and with all of you. Thank you for a wonderful run. And Happy 150th Birthday to our Cornell.