Presidential Archives

2015 State of the University Address

As prepared for presentation

October 23, 2015

Thank you, Bob. I, too, am pleased to welcome trustees and council members and to thank all of you for your extraordinary work and unparalleled philanthropic participation during the past year. I am so impressed by the dedication and commitment of our trustees and council volunteers, who span generations of support from 1937 to 2009!

The late Cornellian Morris Bishop once observed, “There can be no great creation without a dream…giant towers rest on a foundation of visionary purpose.”i My inaugural address a few weeks ago was intended to place the visionary purpose of Ezra Cornell and A. D. White in the context of the present and future Cornell.

Let’s begin with the faculty, because the faculty has been and continues to be the foundation of Cornell’s excellence. We have raised in this campaign $638 million for faculty position support, including $575 million in endowment gifts for faculty and $59 million for faculty renewal. We must maintain our momentum and stay on track to hire 80 to 100 new faculty members this current academic year, and perhaps more in coming years.

Therefore, one of our priorities for the remainder of the campaign and afterwards is to secure additional philanthropic support for the work our professors do — funds to enable them to produce the best research and creative work, especially in areas where other funding is unavailable; funds for graduate students and postdocs; funds for research, start-up packages and institutes; funds for additional endowed chairs. This will be crucial to attracting top faculty and retaining the terrific faculty we have, who are being targeted by universities all over the world.

Assistant professors are the future of our research, scholarship and creative work, and our public mission, and we have had impressive success in bringing top-tier junior faculty to Cornell. This year ten of those junior faculty members received CAREER Awards from the National Science Foundation, with another approved but awaiting funding. This is an unusually high number by national standards, and it augurs well for Cornell’s future.

Consider for example, Associate Professor William Dichtel, an organic chemist who joined the Cornell faculty in 2008 and was himself an NSF CAREER Award recipient in 2011. Will has pioneered the development of porous polymers that are useful for a wide range applications — from storing electric charge, to purifying water, to sensing trace amounts of explosives. Just last month Will was selected for a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

Two other mid-career faculty members — Hening Lin, professor of chemistry and chemical biology, and Olga Boudker, professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine — are new Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. With only 26 awards made in the last cycle, it is impressive that Cornell faculty members received two of them. Lin and Boudker join Michelle Wang, professor of physics and of cell and developmental biology, who is in her second 5-year term as an HHMI Investigator. All our HHMI investigators began their Cornell careers as assistant professors.

Although we have a long track record of success with respect to junior hires, it is also important for Cornell to hire more faculty at more senior levels who can inject additional energy and new perspectives into our academic community. Here on the Ithaca campus, we are fortunate to have attracted a number of “rising stars” recently, including Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, who joined us from the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Lisa’s research and teaching focus on potentially habitable planets beyond the solar system — and may help answer the age-old question, long explored by Cornellians: “Are we alone in the universe?”

She joins a strong department, whose astronomers are helping us better understand the universe we live in. Just about a year ago Jonathan Lunine, David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences, became the first American to win the Cassini Medal for his research in planetary science. Steve Squyres, the James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences, whom many of you know from his leadership of the Mars Rover program, is currently developing a major proposal to send a spacecraft to a comet and return a sample to Earth. Cornell provided early development funding for Steve’s proposal. Steve just received a $1-million award from NASA for maturing some specific technologies needed to acquire the sample and bring it back to Earth. With this support and other funding, Steve’s research group will be able to submit a major proposal for the comet mission in 2017.

Our commitment to great faculty spans the disciplines. In the humanities, Klarman Hall, set to open in January of next year, will provide state-of-the-art facilities for the humanities — a strong selling point for recruiting new faculty and working to retain the excellent humanists already here. We are grateful to Seth and Beth Klarman, and others who have helped make this building a reality, for their commitment to the humanities as a central and essential part of a Cornell education.

Among the outstanding humanities faculty we’ve recently attracted to Cornell is Penny Von Eschen, the L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities, who joined us from the University of Michigan. Penny’s scholarship explores the history of the United States in global and transnational dimensions and includes the role of literature, popular culture, and mass media representations in the making of foreign policy. Her next book is called Cold War Nostalgia and investigates the claims and stories about the Cold War that circulated in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Eastern bloc.

With social sciences faculty leadership, we successfully competed to be the new home of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, a leading archive of data from public opinion surveys. Peter Enns, associate professor of government and the first executive director of Roper Center@Cornell, notes that faculty and students here will be able to work directly with Roper Center staff to incorporate public opinion survey data into their work.

As Roper Center@Cornell demonstrates, professors in all the disciplines are increasingly using big data. Accordingly, it is not surprising that faculty, staff and students from over 80 Cornell departments and research centers rely on the Cornell University Center for Advanced Computing for services that range from high-performance computing systems and storage to programming, database development, and web portal design.

The Center for Advanced Computing, in partnership with two other universities, has just been awarded a five-year, nearly $5 million grant from NSF to establish a “federated” cloud computing system for researchers working in seven different areas:  from earth and atmospheric sciences to finance to food science. This new award will let us develop and demonstrate better tools for seamlessly and efficiently sharing cloud computing resources in the research space.

I have mentioned several important new government grants, and we continue to excel in the competition for these peer-reviewed programs. For awards from the National Institutes of Health, Weill Cornell’s success rate is 28%; the Ithaca campus’s success rate is 24%. The national success rate is 18%. We also do especially well in obtaining NSF awards, with 135 proposals funded in FY2014 — a 35% success rate.

Going forward, we must be even more aggressive in capturing a larger share of the limited pool of government funding, and we must be creative in seeking support from industry, foundations, and philanthropy. We need to broaden our strengths in obtaining large center grants and submit more proposals to advance further with NSF and NIH funding across the full spectrum of disciplines that these agencies cover. We need to continue to focus on other agencies that support discovery-driven and more applied research. We must also seek philanthropic support for seeding highly innovative research, in both fundamental and applied areas, that then will lead to increased success with traditional funding agencies. Philanthropic support from individuals and foundations is also vital to the support of the humanities, which have far fewer sources of external funding.

With regard to government funding, both in Ithaca and at Weill Cornell we are working to provide enhanced and more consistent help with proposal preparation and internal review prior to submission. The Office of Research has just created a staff position to provide support for proposal advancement and to focus primarily on competitions for large, extramural, multi-investigator grants and contracts, including multidisciplinary center and facility proposals, training grants, and other major awards in areas of strategic importance to Cornell. A proposal advancement team is also in place at Weill Cornell, and the two campuses will partner in this effort as opportunities arise.

Even in today’s challenging funding climate we expect that when the FY15 books are closed, the final numbers will indicate an approximately 8% increase in research expenditures, led by Weill Cornell’s strategic alliances with corporate partners. Weill Cornell is demonstrating that, with appropriate safeguards, such funding can spur biomedical discoveries without compromising academic freedom or integrity, and we plan to take that approach across all our campuses.

As many of you know, we are moving forward to support faculty in all disciplines through a strategic planning process, which Provost Kotlikoff is leading over the next 18 to 24 months, working with Weill Cornell Medicine on some aspects. The strategic planning will inform our decisions about where to invest at the university level and shape our strategic vision for the next ten years. Even before that process begins, however, we already know of some areas of excellence.

Sustainability and energy are areas of long-standing strength and may offer new opportunities for creative development, including by exploring ways to more fully use our campuses as “living laboratories” for faculty and students to pioneer new technology and operations that are more sustainable in Ithaca, New York City and elsewhere. Our work here is already interdisciplinary, typified by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and includes deep connections among teaching, research and application on our campuses throughout the world.

A second area to consider for increased focus is the visual and performing arts at Cornell. Like the humanities, the arts are fundamental to the education of every Cornell student. They help us understand what it is to be truly human. Our resources for the visual arts are notable — a range of courses, programs, and, of course, the spectacular collection in our Johnson Museum of Art. We will be focusing on a more comprehensive and coordinated approach called Arts@Cornell, led by Dean Kent Kleinman. And we’ll include all the disciplines. Some of the most interesting arts collaborations have been across the arts and the sciences, as those two disciplines learn new things about themselves by seeing themselves through the eyes of the other.

A third area of extraordinary strength is materials science and engineering. The Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility, an advanced support facility that enables work across a broad range of fields, recently received an $8-million grant from NSF to be part of the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure. New York State’s economic development arm agreed to provide $3 million in matching funds.

Also building on our leadership in materials science and nanotechnology, Cornell, in partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is opening a new $10-million Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence that brings together physicians, engineers and scientists to develop and translate new cancer care applications based on nanotechnology. The new center is funded with an $8.2-million grant from the National Cancer Institute. The center, which will have one facility in Duffield Hall and another in New York City, will focus initially on using Cornell dots — or “C dots” — to diagnose, surgically treat and target drug delivery for melanoma and malignant brain cancers.

Entrepreneurship, of course, is a fourth area of multifaceted strength at Cornell. Forbes named Cornell the 4th most entrepreneurial university in America. Just today, Cornell formally began a partnership with Blackstone LaunchPad, which is designed to lower barriers for students who want to develop their entrepreneurial ideas and to increase the likelihood that entrepreneurial students will receive mentorship and other encouragement to stay within the region to further develop their ideas or join the workforce with a flexible, entrepreneurial mindset.

Our faculty also are entrepreneurial, as demonstrated by the record number of startups that grew out of Cornell-developed technology in FY 2015: 9 from Weill Cornell and 7 from the Ithaca campus. We also had 34 invention licenses with royalty terms — a record number — and we hope to do even better in these areas in the coming years.

Entrepreneurship is at the heart of Cornell Tech, both in the graduate degree programs and in the Runway Postdoctoral program, an experiential program for post-PhD researchers looking to create viable businesses. After all, Cornell was founded by an entrepreneur, and an entrepreneurial spirit has always characterized our university. Cornell Tech is just helping make that more salient to the world.

The second major theme of my inaugural address related to our students — undergraduate, graduate and professional. Our students are amazing, and we are dedicated to making sure the rest of the world knows of their talents, ambitions, courage and grace.  Many of us have been watching Nat Geo WILD, whose videographers spent last school year filming behind the scenes at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the best college of veterinary medicine not just in the U.S. but the world. The show captures the reality of vet student life, and is a terrific way for more people to know about this jewel of Cornell.

Graduate and professional students have a deep and enduring academic relationship to faculty, and it is important to provide ample support so that they can both contribute to and gain from the academic excellence of Cornell. In my first address to Cornell’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at the end of August, I announced several major initiatives to improve the graduate and professional student experience. We continue to work with graduate and professional student leaders to enhance their time here and ensure their professional success after graduation.

We are also implementing new graduate and professional degrees in Ithaca and at Weill Cornell and Cornell Tech. Weill Cornell Medicine recently added two master’s programs taught through its Department of Healthcare Policy and Research: one in health informatics and one in health policy and economics. In addition Weill Cornell is embarking on a new venture in collaboration with colleagues at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management to establish a novel MBA/MS program for health professionals. And a new master of public health degree is being created on the Ithaca campus pulling together experts in infectious disease, epidemiology, and policy.

As you know, at Cornell Tech, we now offer several innovative master’s degrees including a Master of Science in Information Science, one with a specialty in connective media and another that focuses on health tech, through the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute. Graduates earn two degrees, one from Cornell and one from the Technion. There is also a one-year Johnson Cornell Tech MBA, and the Law School is planning a unique LLM program in Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship at Cornell Tech, which aims to train lawyers to serve clients in the tech sector more effectively by immersing them in the startup culture there.

A few weeks ago, I welcomed to Cornell the first students in a new MBA program offered by Johnson and Tsinghua University. Students in the 21-month program are taught in English and Mandarin and earn degrees from both Cornell and Tsinghua University in Shanghai. The School of Hotel Administration launched its first dual degree collaboration with the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai last year and has two similar programs — in Korea and Spain — in the works.

As we plan for the future, we will explore how to encourage additional collaborations of this sort, leading to more than one degree from two great global institutions. These sorts of programs will keep Cornell in the forefront of higher education and, at the master’s level, often generate revenue as well, although our objective is always excellence and consequence. I also anticipate significantly more credit-bearing courses and programs that are online or hybrid, like ILR’s new executive master’s in human resource management, where students work largely online with periodic visits to campus.

At the undergraduate level, we’ll use the strategic planning process to consider what all undergraduates should experience during their time at Cornell, including the essential role of a liberal arts foundation, but there is already considerable innovation underway, with philanthropy playing a critical role.

Engaged Cornell, a 10-year, $150-million initiative seeded with a $50 million commitment from the Einhorn Family Trust, aims to “establish community engagement and real-world learning experiences as the hallmark of the Cornell undergraduate experience.” This fall, we made the first 18 curriculum grants. When you hear about them you’ll want to come back to the campus to be a student again! They range from primate conservation in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute, to a “college in prison” program in partnership with the New York Department of Corrections. In the fall of 2016, we will open the Engaged Cornell Hub in Kennedy Hall where nine units that support community engagement will co-locate, creating a dynamic and open collaboration space.

Plans are being developed for greater collaboration between Global Cornell and Engaged Cornell to ensure that our students have the best possible international service-learning opportunities and our faculty have the financial and administrative support they need to expand curricular offerings in this area. Take, for example, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, whose goal — like all of our colleges — is to increase the number of students who participate in international experiences. Andy Paul has funded a new CALS Global Fellows Program that is providing support to 25 to 30 undergraduate students each year in their pursuit of challenging, professionally focused internships that complement their career goals and enhance their academic progress through international cultural immersion.

These and many other initiatives are enhancing undergraduate education at our residential research university. They give us a strong foundation on which to build and will be a focus of our strategic planning.

Of course, we must continue to improve other parts of the student experience. As part of the strategic planning process, Vice President Ryan Lombardi will lead an analysis of housing for undergrads and grads and consider whether we should begin to discuss additional residence halls on the Ithaca campus, as well as working to solve challenges in Collegetown. Ryan is also analyzing his organizational structure to ensure that our primary goal is always the safety and well-being of our students. He has already seen a need to examine and augment the support we provide to students from traditionally underrepresented populations through our advocacy centers and elsewhere on campus. Career Services provides an opportunity to be a program of distinction for the university, and Ryan will be working with the current leadership to determine the best manner for supporting students from their first year on campus so that they can achieve their professional goals and compete effectively for careers to which they aspire.

I spoke about global opportunities for our students. As you know, we are a global institution that helps train the world’s leaders by welcoming international students, and that views our research and outreach mission as global in scope. For several years, Cornell has discussed opening offices or “bureaus” in key areas of the world to facilitate those connections, and various faculty reports, including one delivered this summer, support such an initiative. Today I am pleased to announce that we will be opening our first international office this academic year in Shanghai, China. We currently have 75 separate memoranda of agreement with Chinese institutions with many new ones being negotiated. Our East Asia area studies program is world-renowned. More than 125 Cornell undergraduates studied in China last year, and more than 1,600 Chinese students, including 500 undergraduates, studied at Cornell. More than 1,200 Cornell alumni live in China, and 300 in Shanghai alone.

Our new office in Shanghai, which we are busy planning even now, will serve the entire Cornell community — students, faculty, alumni, staff and researchers — while also promoting Cornell’s visibility in the region. The office will also assist in convening conferences and workshops in Shanghai, with the first one on sustainability planned for the 2016-17 academic year. In the office will be admissions staff to help us identify and recruit more talented undergraduate and graduate students, and we will focus on connections to our alumni. I am grateful to Presidential Councilors Jim and Becky Morgan, who have provided the seed funds to establish the new Shanghai office and who challenged me and our team to set out objectives and metrics so we can assess our success. We hope Shanghai will be the first of several such offices-and with your help we are ready to move forward aggressively in the world.

The third theme in my Inaugural Address was the need for cross-campus connections. The 20th-century writer Ralph Ellison once said that education is all a matter of building bridges, and, in our 21st-century world, his observation applies to all facets of our mission — education, research, and outreach. We already have many cross-campus initiatives that take advantage of our strengths in both Ithaca and New York City, but there is more that we can and should do. Here are some examples.

Students in Human Ecology’s Urban Semester Program in New York City participate in a wide array of internship experiences and also engage with Weill Cornell Medicine and other New York City health care providers so that they can explore fundamental issues in health disparities and income inequality. Looking to the future, the college is working to establish a new master’s program in fashion studies based in New York City, but integrated with our Ithaca-based Cornell Institute of Fashion and Fiber Innovation and ultimately with Cornell Tech with respect to entrepreneurship.

Precision medicine is an area with great potential for cross-campus synergy. Precision medicine exploits our growing ability to tailor treatments to the genetic profile of individual patients. Having already performed comprehensive genomic testing on about 300 patients who have cancer over two years, the Caryl and Israel Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine is poised to lead the national charge toward making this personalized approach the standard of care for all Americans. The institute received a generous gift from the Englander family to widen its mission; emphasize dermatological malignancies as well as metabolic diseases, cardiovascular disease, genetic disorders, and respiratory diseases; and eventually offer precision medicine to as many as 6,000 patients a year. When President Obama announced a major national initiative in this area, Dr. Mark Rubin, the Englander Institute’s founding director, was among the few invited to the White House.

But to fully realize our potential to contribute to precision medicine, we also need the insights of people who are knowledgeable about health policy, people who can examine how our new capabilities relate to health care benefits and other issues in the workforce, people who can help elucidate the legal issues involved, people — such as those in the health tech hub at Cornell Tech — who can examine roles of big data and small data to ensure we live healthier lives. We need researchers and students from our new Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering to help us move discoveries to treatments. Finally, we need humanists to help us confront ethical issues and to use the range of expression to convey what we know and how it affects us as individuals and a community. This is why the best work in this field, as in many others, takes place at a comprehensive research university where the insights of all the disciplines can be brought to bear on the most important issues of our day.

Consider a few more interesting examples. The College of Engineering is interested in designing programming to maximize the synergy among campuses, and funds have been set aside to allow visits among faculty on four campuses — Ithaca, Cornell Tech, Weill Cornell Medicine, and the Technion in Haifa — as well as to seed projects between Ithaca and Cornell Tech. In addition the college envisions a 5-year Entrepreneurship Program (freshman year through MEng), which would allow a Cornell freshman admitted to the program to know she would have a seat at Cornell Tech.

The College of Arts and Sciences has several courses (planned or in the works) that take students to New York City for engaged learning experiences. Deans Ritter and Huttenlocher are discussing the creation of internships and educational programs for undergraduate Arts and Sciences students from the social sciences and humanities who are interested in pursuing graduate and career opportunities in the digital and social media realms. These are discussions in the early stages, but they indicate the kind of creative thinking that our dual footprints have sparked.

To encourage these efforts to create cross-campus academic programs, I have decided to use funds that several current and emeritus trustees recently made available to be used at my discretion to begin a new program providing feasibility and planning grants to create new academic programs that span Cornell Tech and Ithaca. Provost Kotlikoff, whose office will oversee this process, will first be setting out a vision for such programs and then providing seed funding for a few of the most promising that are unlike the programs already underway at Cornell Tech and that can be sustainable in the long run through revenue they generate. I thank Andrew Tisch, Lowell McAdam and Paul Gould for their support that has made this fund possible, and I hope it will prompt others who support these kinds of collaborations to consider how they can be involved.

If all this seems like an ambitious agenda, it is also one in keeping with Cornell’s tradition of pushing boundaries and expanding horizons through innovation. I find the words of Cornell’s 3rd president, Jacob Gould Schurman, heartening as we begin a new era at Cornell.  “[Cornell] is dedicated to truth and to utility; and between these there is no incompatibility,” Schurman assured us, “for, as Plato has well said, the divinest things are the most serviceable. We are at once realistic and idealistic. And while we cherish the old we are always in quest of something better.”ii

So as both idealists and realists, let us build on the “visionary purpose” of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White and let us embrace the “quest for something better” that is also part of our heritage. I am so pleased that you are our partners on this journey as together we all take Cornell to an even higher level of excellence and influence. Thank you!


iMorris Bishop, Charter Day Convocation Address, 1965 (quoted in Cornell Daily Sun obituary, Nov. 26, 1973)

iiJacob Gould Schurman, “Inaugural Address,” 1892