Presidential Archives

2003 State of the University Address

October 17, 2003, Ithaca, NY

In a way, it might seem a bit excessive for me to be addressing you this morning about the State of our University. After all, I have already given three addresses about Cornell this week, and that is three times the allotment that each of my ten predecessors claimed.

But at the risk of wearing out my welcome, I want to take a few minutes this morning to speak once more.

Let me begin by putting my inaugural addresses into context.

On each occasion — in Doha, in New York City, and in Ithaca — I was being what I might call an academic advocate. I was asking Cornellians to consider one or more ways of looking at our university, and asking them to accept a view about our future that they might not already hold. In summary form, here are the perspectives I was advocating for in each city:

In Doha, I asked Cornellians to recognize that Cornell has already become a very different university from what it was even fifty years ago. I asked Cornellians to recognize that Cornell has become what I called, “The Transnational University of the Future,” with activities that span the globe in ways that few if any other top quality universities can match. And I asked Cornellians to understand that this is a good thing, because, in my view, Cornell has a special duty to nurture in its students what I call a “transnational perspective on the human condition” — a perspective that transcends nationalism without insisting on a unitary global substitute. Such a perspective combines a commitment to certain universal ideals with a respect for pluralism in how those ideals are pursued. It is open to the wonderful variation that characterizes our world, but it is not passive — it is engaged, eager to participate in the efforts of people everywhere to better understand the world and to improve the conditions of their lives

In New York City, I asked Cornellians to recognize how intellectual imperatives have driven the evolution of our university in two domains — one substantive and one geographic — and how in each case that revolution required us, as an institution and as individuals, to engage in effective forms of intellectual collaboration. The substantive domain was the life sciences, and I talked about how Cornell’s unique breadth of commitment in the life sciences — from plant genomics in the College of Agriculture and the Life Sciences to nanotechnology in Engineering to clinical medicine in the Weill Cornell Medical College — holds the promise of exceptional contributions to human understanding and human wellbeing, provided that we can sustain interdisciplinary intellectual collaborations. The geographic domain was New York City itself, and I talked about how Cornell’s presence in New York City has continuously expanded, and how the need for intellectual collaborations has driven that expansion.

In Ithaca, I asked Cornellians to consider two distinctive features of our university — its historic boldness in transforming higher education (what I called “Revolutionary Cornell”) and the very special affection that Cornellians have always felt for our university (what I called “Beloved Cornell”). I observed that our world underwent a revolution at the end of the 20th century that was of scale and scope comparable to what it underwent in the middle of the 19th century. I suggested that, in part because we love Cornell so much, it is time for us to ask ourselves collectively, a set of fundamental questions about our goals. I expressed my belief that great universities must continue to promote the spiritually satisfying coexistence of people with one another and with our planet. And I called on Cornellians everywhere to engage these questions with me, as we consider how and if Cornell ought to continue to evolve.

This morning, rather than being an academic advocate, I am going to adopt the voice of an academic reporter. I will briefly describe what I have seen at Cornell and what I have learned about Cornell these past three and one half months. And I will identify a category of questions that follows from these observations, and that over the next year I will be adding to the mix of substantive questions that I am calling Cornellians to engage.

During my first few months as president, Kathy and I have been doing our best to engage the university and the community as fully as we possibly can. We have had hundreds of meetings with students, faculty, staff, community members, alumni and external constituencies, in individual meetings and in groups large and small.

In these varied settings, we have been trying to do two things. We have been trying to learn. And we have been trying to get past what I have been calling the “curiosity phase” — where people don’t yet feel that they quite know us.

From these many meetings, I would draw the following conclusions.

First, Cornell is wonderful.

I had known before I came here that the faculty is outstanding. Now that I have had the chance to sit down with individual faculty members to talk about their work and to attend faculty meetings in each school and college, I can report that the faculty here is breathtaking. What characterizes the very best faculty members is a burning, even overwhelming, desire to contribute something profoundly important to her or his chosen field, a spark of genius that enables them to make such a contribution, and a correlative commitment to students that drives them to transmit that desire to another generation. Obviously not every faculty member meets this description. But a surprising number of professors do. And that is tremendously important.

I had known that the students are outstanding. Now that I have had the chance to spend time with students in many different contexts, I can report that the students here are truly wonderful. Wonderfully smart. Wonderfully mature. Wonderfully committed to our university. Wonderfully talented. (Wasn’t last night astonishing?) O.K. Maybe not every student meets that description. But so many that I can say that the chances Kathy and I have to be with students are among the most satisfying parts of our work here.

I had not really known how good the staff is. From a distance, it is almost impossible to tell. Now that I have had the chance to work with staff at all levels of the university, I can report that the staff is just amazing. Exceptionally talented. And sharing an esprit that is tremendously important. They recognize and appreciate that working for Cornell is not the same as working for a company. They are part of an enterprise that has a transcendent mission to understand and contribute to our world. And so they do not treat their work as just another job.

I want to say a special word of admiration for the senior administrative staff of this university — the people you know best, and the people I work with every day. Provost Biddy Martin is our Chief Academic Officer, and she and I have forged a very close working partnership. She has an exceptional understanding of the university, she shares my worldview, and I believe we are lucky for her leadership. I ask Biddy to rise so that we may recognize her. The rest of the senior team consists of Carolyn Ainslie, Hal Craft, Barbara Krause, Jim Mingle, Susan Murphy, Mary Opperman, and Inge Reichenbach, along with interim vice presidents Linda Grace-Kobas and Steve Johnson. I feel exceptionally fortunate to be working with this group of people. They are smart. They are wise. They work very hard. They are respectful of one another. They work well together. They are fun to be with. I now ask them to please rise so that we may acknowledge them. And Ann Huntzinger, my assistant, has been a godsend. She is knowledgeable, hard working and supremely well organized, and she has enabled Kathy and me to sustain a pace of activity this year that we could not have dared to attempt without her.

This inaugural week is perhaps the best evidence of how very good this overall team is. This has been an inauguration of unprecedented complexity, unprecedented difficulty. Two continents, three cities, speakers, performances, thousands of people. Brochures, invitations, programs, media, buses, parking, ice cream. And, could you believe it, working with NASA?!!! And everywhere I have looked, I have seen absolutely the highest quality — Cornell quality. The product of thousands of people going far above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that every detail of this week’s experience would be superb. And I want to single out for special mention Vice President Inge Reichenbach. I asked Inge to lead the organization of this inauguration, to make sure that the right person or team of people was working on the right problem at the right time. And Inge delivered, with results that I could barely have dreamed of. Inge, please stand once again so that we may express our gratitude for what you have done for us this week.

And then we have our alumni. Our beloved alumni. Who are so devoted to our beloved alma mater. I have long known how devoted I feel to Cornell as a graduate, but only since we arrived this summer have I seen how broad and deeply shared that sentiment is. And that is especially true with respect to our Council members and this remarkable Board of Trustees. The incredible response that Kathy and I have felt from you is truly awe inspiring. We feel supported. We feel buoyed. We feel uplifted. You inspire us to give our all in service to our university.

And I want to mention especially Pete and Nancy Meinig. They are two of the finest people it has ever been my privilege to know. Pete and Nancy, Kathy and I feel that you are the ideal partners for us in this adventure. I treasure our friendship and our working relationship. Cornell is so very fortunate to be the beneficiary of your leadership.

So that is the good news: Cornell truly is even more wonderful than I had ever dared to expect.

My other observation is that we are in the midst of a structural evolution that I had not fully appreciated until this summer.

I would summarize that evolution as follows. At the time of its founding, Cornell University was a single-celled organism. It was a single faculty. To be sure, it had departments and colleges, but these often consisted of a single person, and it was possible to think about the university as a relatively undifferentiated whole.

Then the university subdivided into a cluster of cells with specialized functions. The schools and colleges became the centers of identity for faculty and students. And administratively many key decisions of the university became decentralized. Not totally decentralized — there was always a healthy check at the university level to ensure that community-wide norms were respected and that individual units did not externalize their costs to others. But nonetheless, quite decentralized into specialized cells with reasonably well-defined boundaries.

More recently, we have seen two simultaneous developments. First, the boundaries among the cells have become ever-so-slightly attenuated. We have seen an interest in assuring the free movement of goods and people across boundaries, for intellectual reasons. And this has led to greater administrative awareness of the need to work well with one’s neighboring cells.

And second, again for intellectual reasons, we have seen new layers of organization overlaid on top of the base layer of cells. Perhaps the best example is the graduate field system. Graduate fields of study are no longer coextensive with undergraduate disciplines. And it is easy for fields to form and re-form, and for faculty members to identify and disidentify from them. But there are so many others. The faculty of computing and information science. Dozens and dozens of centers, institutes, both within a single discipline and operating across multiple disciplines.

So what follows from these observations? It is this. The addition of multiple new layers of organization on top of a base layer of cell specialization poses important questions about structure and governance. How do we make sure that all of the different layers work well together? How do we make sure that information flows efficiently through and across layers? How do we make sure that outsiders can know how best to engage the entire organism? How do we make sure that the base layer cells aren’t crushed by the weight of the layers superimposed on top of them?

For this, reason, in my Call to Engagement, I will be asking Cornellians to share with me their thoughts and advice about the organization of the university. I recognize that this kind of question is more of a second-order question, somewhat different from the set of first-order questions I posed yesterday. But these second-order questions are important. For they can have an impact on how well faculty, students, and staff are able to achieve their individual and institutional ambitions. And so I will welcome observations of the sort, “You know, I never quite understood why X is part of Y.”

So how do I see the State of the University? Wonderful. Exceptionally talented people, assembled here and working together. It is a perfect time for us to think carefully and deliberately about how the university should evolve in the years to come.