Presidential Archives

Reunion 2006 State of the University Address

Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III

As delivered
June 10, 2006
Bartels Hall

Thank you very much indeed, and thank you, Pete, for such a kind and thoughtful introduction. It has been a pure pleasure to work with you and with Nancy. It has been a great road and I could not have enjoyed it any more. I very much appreciate the integrity that you brought to the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees and I appreciate the help that you give every day to this great university. Pete and Nancy please stand and be recognized for a great job. And I just want to say one more time in front all of all of you how much I love and appreciate Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings. You are a great partner!

I also want to say how much I look forward to having David Skorton and Robin Davisson in this position for many reasons. I think very highly of them. They are Iowa friends from way back. We have very close ties to them. Elizabeth and I feel very strongly that they’re going to bring great leadership to Cornell. They’ve done it for Iowa and they’re doing going to do it for Cornell. David is a fantastic university leader. He’s demonstrated that already. Folks in Iowa are extremely sorry to lose him. Pete Meinig said that he’ll no longer fly over the state of Iowa on his way back to Ithaca because we keep taking presidents from Iowa. But David has done a wonderful job there and he’s going to do a great job here. Robin is a very distinguished researcher and professor and she brings also with her something really quite special. That is the ability to draw together the Ithaca campus with its great biosciences and the Weill Medical College because she has appointments at both campuses and is thereby personifying exactly what we would like to do in terms of creating more synergy between our two great campuses.

In 20 days David Skorton will become the president of a university with tremendous momentum and a great position indeed. The applications to Cornell are up 35% over the past two years. We had 28,000 applicants for this year’s class of 3000 at Cornell. That’s a new record and makes this the most selective class in the history of Cornell University. I could not be more pleased.

In fact Cornell is so popular right now that it just appeared in Doonesbury, as I’m sure many of you noted. Alex Doonesbury was so impressed by the Cornell professor she called on the phone that she said, “I am SO going to Cornell!” That’s great publicity even if she winds up going somewhere else.

Why is Cornell so popular right now and why is it so highly visible?  There are many reasons. But let me just recount a few that seem to me to be especially significant. First of all, we have changed, and as Peter Meinig noted, the residential living learning environment at Cornell forever. We have created the North Campus where the entire freshman class can gain a sense of identity living together in great new facilities as well as older ones. Where Appel Commons forms a centerpiece for all the freshman class to come together with faculty mentors for dinner and to participate in seminars, to do workouts, to do all the sorts of things that freshmen want to do, in order to collect together and form a sense of confidence about their life at a large research university. North Campus is a great place to start your career at Cornell and I’m extremely pleased, extremely pleased to announce this morning that we have just received word of a new gift to enhance North Campus even further. Bill Kay from the class of 1951 just made a commitment for a naming gift to name one of the wings of Court Hall. It’s going to be Kay Hall with a $10 million gift. Bill, we are so grateful to you.

And what I like so much about that gift, in fact love about that gift, is that Bill Kay loves this university. He told me that yesterday in no uncertain terms. He loves this place. That’s why he keeps coming back. That’s why he’s so generous. I could not be more appreciative, Bill, of your generosity.

In addition, we have built on West Campus the first three of our new residential colleges. Alice Cook Hall, and Carl Becker House and now Hans Bethe house which will come online next year. I am really proud of what were doing on the West Campus because it gives us the opportunity to enhance the faculty-student relationship even further, to enable our students to have a choice, they can still join a fraternity or sorority, or if they like, they can rent one of those beautiful apartments in Collegetown, or they can choose to live in great residential colleges on West Campus where they will have close interactions with faculty mentors. We have been so fortunate in the first two of those faculty mentors in Cook House and in Becker House. That is because Ross Brann and Cindy Hazan, two great members of our faculty, have agreed to become house deans and they bring real leadership, they bring intellectual quality, and they bring very close caring for students to that task. They live in those residence halls with their families. There is no greater sacrifice. I know about that sacrifice, let me tell you.

It is a fantastic thing that they bring and that gives the students an experience that is second to none now. Because they have the opportunity to take seminars in those residence halls, they have an opportunity to dine regularly with faculty mentors. These are far more than dormitories. They are residential colleges. And they are changing the face of undergraduate education at Cornell.

Secondly we have had several hugely successful and visible in news stories in the last couple of years. These are the stories that I call the stories that won’t die. And for once you’re happy that these new stories won’t die. The first is the Mars Rovers which went up to Mars. The scientific packages on those rovers were built, designed, planned, operated by Cornell scientist Steven Squyres and Jim Bell and their colleagues. That is a fantastic program because the rovers were designed to go to Mars and last for 90 days. Over two years later they are still functioning beautifully on the Martian surface and they are, in my opinion, perfect examples of Cornellians. They are smart. They love to operate a long way from home. They are not under the jurisdiction of the administration at Cornell. They are robots who know how to do their thing. They have sensors that tell them what to do. They operate on their own. I encourage you all to see the IMAX theater production that describes those little robots still climbing around the surface of Mars, doing their scientific studies on their own. Independently. Autonomously. That’s a Cornell story. And it won’t die, I’m happy to say.

The second story that won’t die is the ivory-billed woodpecker. And I love this story because this is all about scientific discovery. Taking on the challenge, doing one’s best. That’s our Laboratory of Ornithology which has done a phenomenal amount of work. Which has set aside and helped others to pay for setting aside precious land in Arkansas that used to be the habitat for thousands of the ivory-billed woodpeckers. And may now be still the habitat for very small number of them. But what I like most about this story and the reason that it won’t die is that nobody is actually certain that the identification is correct. There are those who are detractors of this discovery. But John Fitzpatrick the head of our Lab of ornithology keeps saying, “Bring them on!  It’s great for other scientists to bring their points of view to bear and we’re not going to stop this search for any fear of failure.”  That’s the message that he delivered to the Ph.D.’s this year at the speaker as the speaker at the Ph.D. graduation ceremony. It’s a great message. That is, “Don’t fear failure. Make your scientific discoveries and findings as best you can. Then bring on the challengers and let the scientific debate proceed in the way it should.”  No fear of failure at Cornell. That’s exactly the right temperament to bring to that kind of work. So these stories keep going on and on at Cornell. What do you imagine is in the minds of 18 year olds reading the stories about Cornell University?  Rovers tripping around the surface of Mars. Scientists tripping around the bayous of Arkansas. Cornell is a pretty cool place!  If you are 18 years old you’d like to be there.

And thirdly, fantastic new facilities at Cornell that give us the opportunity to take the frontiers of science even further. Duffield Hall has changed the entire atmosphere in the College of Engineering at Cornell. It’s not simply the country’s finest research facility for nanoscale science, it is also the place where undergraduates in engineering want to hang out and do their thing. You’ll see them in the niches of Duffield Hall day and night into the wee hours, working in little groups in those niches. Sitting down and solving problems with their laptop computers and a cup of coffee to keep them going. That is a fabulous thing because it has changed the atmosphere. It has changed the environment in the engineering college. It has made that quadrangle come alive. It looks fabulous at night with the lights on against the red backdrop at the end of East Avenue. It’s a really wonderful place to study. It’s a wonderful place to come together. It has changed the face of engineering and I think that’s a great thing for undergraduate students as well as graduate students and faculty members. It gives us state-of-the-art facilities in which to  do nanoscale research and that’s a great thing to keep us at the forefront of that most important area of science, we’re Cornell has the number one leadership position, among US universities with three national centers funded by the national science foundation. Harold Craighead and his colleagues Paul Berman and others are doing phenomenal work there in nanoscale science. That’s going to continue because we have a great facility.

Coming out of the ground today is the New Life Sciences Building. That building is going to keep us at the forefront of the life sciences and research and the biosciences, which is so critical in today’s world because this century is clearly a century of biology and in particular the new biology, functional genomics such as what Robin Davisson does, and the many other fields in the life science that have come together, meshing in a hitherto unprecedented way. In a way that says if you bring to bear the many many resources of a great university like Cornell, which has superb computer science, plant science, chemical biology, biophysics, biomedical engineering, all the different kinds of biological fields that today have managed to create the new biology are represented here at Cornell. The vet school. The leading vet school in the country is now a closely aligned it a lot of its research with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as well as with other fields represented in the College of Arts and Sciences and Human Ecology. This is a fantastic time of great energy in the life sciences and Cornell aims to be at the forefront.

The building coming out of the ground was designed by our own Richard Meier. It’s going to be a fantastic center for the study of life sciences and is going to bring great scientists here. We’re going to build a new building in computing and information science. We’ve received a $25 million grant from the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation in order to build that building. That’s going to keep Cornell at the forefront of information science. What is hotter than that today?  Nothing. That’s a field were Cornell has invented a new approach, namely, a college which is a virtual college, stretching across all the boundaries of Cornell to enable us to bring to bear what computer science can do upon numerous disciplines. We’re going to build a new building Gates Hall, to enable us to do that in ways that other universities have not yet figured out how to do. That took a lot of work to create a new college at Cornell. It caused consternation but there was no fear of failure. We completed that job and we have a great package now to which all faculty members at Cornell are encouraged to come and Gates Hall will be a center of activity in the information sciences which are enormously important to the future.

Milstein Hall, our new building for the School of Architecture Art and Planning is going to be a fabulous new gateway to the campus from North Campus. It’s going to give us the opportunity to create tremendous space for our architecture faculty, studio space, and to give us up-to-date facilities that enable us to tie in with other colleges at Cornell, as well.

The Friedman Strength and Conditioning Center which you see as you come into this building, Bartels Hall, and the new Friedman wrestling facility, the only one in of its kind in the United States. Fabulous opportunities for Cornellians in athletics. A big draw when you are recruiting student athletes to Cornell. Superb place in which to work out and a superb place in which to conduct college wrestling. Why do I mention these facilities as well?  Because we’ve also had a fantastic year in Cornell athletics. For the first time ever, nine Ivy League titles this year for our athletes at Cornell.

That’s a fabulous achievement. Nine titles this year, eight the year before, seven the two years before that. 31 Ivy League titles in four years. That’s unprecedented for Cornell. A fabulous record of achievement. And it spreads across many many sports. Women’s volleyball, for example, has just won the Ivy League title and had a superb season. Women’s track team has been a dominant team for many years now, winning the outdoor and indoor heptagonals every year for the last five. The men’s track team almost as successful, winning two more Ivy titles this year. The wrestling team competing not only in the Ivy League successfully, but also nationally. And just in the last two weeks our lightweight crew won the Ivy title and then the national title by 8/10 of the second over Harvard.

Now those are some of the visible reasons why Cornell is so popular today with undergraduate students as well as with graduate students who want to study in these very very fine facilities. Let me mention some of the less visible reasons but reasons that are probably even more important. We have a fabulous provost and set of deans at Cornell. I’m really proud of this leadership group. Biddy Martin has been a superb provost of Cornell now for about six years. She is a tremendous academic leader. She is someone who has the greater interests of Cornell always at heart and she has created in the deans a collaborative cooperative group, the likes of which I have never seen before. It is a remarkable collection of leaders. They all are now putting the university’s interests before their own college interests. That’s a rare thing in academic administration. Biddy is a consultative provost who listens to everyone, but she’s also a leader who makes decisions. She has met with the deans constantly in order to create a cohesive group who can make decisions together and who can have the greater good of Cornell foremost in their minds.

Cornell is no longer, and this is a really important point, Cornell is no longer a collection of independent colleges, each going its own way. It is a cohesive group of colleges which now blend together for important University wide initiatives such as the New Life Sciences initiative. That’s a hard thing to pull off in academia because traditionally, as I think many of you know, colleges tend to be separate silos. It’s very common to have a silo mentality at a large research university where you owe all of your allegiance to your particular college or school. You really don’t tend to think much beyond the boundaries of that college or school. We’ve changed that paradigm at Cornell today. So that instead, of just looking inward, the deans look outward at what they can gain from collaboration with their colleagues in other colleges. An initiative like New Life Sciences at Cornell would be unthinkable without that level of cohesiveness and joint planning. I do congratulate Biddy Martin our provost and all of the deans on having created a seamless decision-making process, which enables us to take the big picture and not just the narrow picture.

Let me give you an example of the results that accrue to a university when that kind of planning goes on. For about 3 1/2 years and now at Cornell we have sought to appoint an absolutely distinguished professor in the field of cell and molecular biology to lead our new institute in cell and molecular biology that will be housed in Richard Meier’s New Life Sciences Building. This is the most difficult kind of search academically to succeed in because we are trying essentially to move a highly distinguished professor from another institution to come with a large laboratory and many many scientists and take over a new institute at a different place. It’s been a long search and a difficult search. But I am absolutely delighted with the results. We’ve succeeded in landing one of the top biomedical researchers in the world.

A man named Scott Emr from the University of California at San Diego who will begin here at Cornell not only as the Frank HT Rhodes class of ’56 professor which is a great position, indeed, with a wonderful title, but also to head up a new institute that is going to be at the center of our efforts in the New Life Sciences. Scott Emr is a top top biomolecular researcher and I’m happy to say that his son will be a member of the new freshman class next year, as well. And nice combination when you’re moving from San Diego to Ithaca, New York. Not something that everyone plans to do in his or her lifetime. Scott Emr’s job is not simply to be a successful researcher, it will be his job to build that institute into a world-class center for research in cell and molecular biology as part of her life sciences initiative. It’s a great thing to be able to recruit someone of Scots caliber and to be able to turn over to him the opportunity to create further excellence in the life sciences in that great new building.

Let me give you another example of a noteworthy faculty appointment. One that is very near and dear to my own heart. This year we were able to appoint Sturt Manning from the University of Toronto who is coming to Cornell as professor of classics and professor of climatology. Think about that for a second. Someone who is a distinguished classicist who knows his Latin and his Greek, and is also a distinguished climatologist. Now that is a phenomenal combination. How could that possibly be?  Well a few years ago I said to my colleagues in the Classics Department, “You’re doing fine, but you’re never really going to get anywhere at Cornell until you can change the name of the department to Bioclassics.”

If you can change your name to Bioclassics you are going to get money and attention at Cornell. Well my colleagues looked at me as if I was daft, but they did me one better. They went out and found someone who combines excellence in the classics with excellence in the study of climatology. What does that mean?  It means that Sturt Manning, the man we have hired from the University of Toronto, is the world expert on how you date ancient events, such as the eruption of the volcano on the island of Santorini that changed Mediterranean history in antiquity. And in fact just a few weeks ago Sturt Manning had the cover article in Science Magazine on his discoveries of when that explosion on Santorini occurred. He has changed the dating of that event by close to 100 years. That might not sound important to every one of you, but it sounds really important to me because I find Aegean and Mediterranean history of great interest indeed and here is the one person who can do that level of work and he’s coming to Cornell University. So my department could now be called the department of Bioclassics. That’ll work just fine now. We have a great bioclassicist in our midst.

Now, why was Cornell successful in making that extraordinary appointment? It was successful because Peter Lepage, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, made it his mission to hire that individual at Cornell. Peter Lepage is the Dean of the Arts College and professor of physics. He said, “You know what?  It would just be incredibly neat if we could start to combine humanities and sciences in a few rare instances where it makes sense.” Now that’s quite an ambition. To find ways in which the humanities and the sciences can come together collaboratively to create something original. And exciting in terms of the discoveries that can be made. Peter Lepage worked hard on that appointment because he’s a believer and not simply in his own physics department and what science can do, but what the humanities can do to improve the human condition as well as our understanding of the planet. By making this appointment, Peter Lepage, with the help of colleagues, pulled off a major coup for Cornell. That’s an example of the kind of leadership that we have in our deans. I’m really proud and pleased of that one of course because in a few short days I’m going to join Sturt Manning in the Bioclassics Department and it’s going to be all the more exciting to be there to have someone with that distinction in climatology and classics.

In the same way, our other deans are also doing a phenomenal things Kent Fuchs, Dean of the College of Engineering, is a phenomenally successful leader who has built great cohesion in his faculty and engineering and has made new appointments. Who as started up the new program at Cornell in biomedical engineering which he’s completely committed to, which is putting Cornell on the map in yet another field of engineering to go with all the ones in which we already excel. A great leader. Kent Fuchs and Peter Lepage, two deans, worked very closely together to achieve their objectives because that kind of collaboration often is what it takes to make important appointments and to construct new plans for new sciences at Cornell. Susan Henry, the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a great leader especially in the life sciences where she herself is a professor and she too is doing a great deal in order to build the life sciences at Cornell in collaboration with her fellow deans.

Lisa Staiano-Coico from Ithaca recruited from the Weill Medical College to become Dean of the College of Human Ecology also is a scientist with the kind of understanding of these disciplines to enable her to interact with her fellow deans in ways that are productive and collaborative. Don Smith, Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, who has announced his departure from that deanship has done a great job of bringing top biomedical researchers to Ithaca in the vet school who can collaborate with their peers across the other colleges at Cornell. I don’t want to go on and on about this collaborative enterprise but I can’t overemphasize its significance for Cornell’s future. These deans are each superb in their own right and they are also now working together consistently in order to create University wide objectives.

Mohsen Mostafavi, The Dean of the College of Architecture Art and Planning, has tremendous energy and is working today on two new ventures at his college. A new place, a new home for the College of Architecture Art and Planning in New York City to go with the one here in Ithaca. That’s essential for success in a professional discipline such as architecture, an outlet in the City to go along with the great resources we have here in Ithaca. He’s made that a reality with a new facility in the City. Now he’s embarked on the construction of Milstein hall, the great new signature building which is going to form not only an important space for that college but also a new entrance into central campus from North Campus. Just keep in mind that every single morning freshman get up on North Campus, walk across that bridge, right past what will be Milstein hall, and down the hill (fortunately down the hill at that hour in the morning because it’s the only direction they can go early in the morning and even then it’s usually a little late). But that’s going to be a signature building to open up the entrance to the campus is going to give us the kind of quality we need for that side of the campus. So Mohsen is doing a tremendous job as the Dean of Architecture Art and Planning to make that a reality.

The ILR school, the Hotel school, the Johnson school. All three of those units are closely connected to other colleges at Cornell, finding the synergies that work, particularly in social science disciplines. I’m happy to say that David Harris, the fantastic new associate provost, is doing a great job of building connections across the campus in the social sciences, particularly in the domain of policy studies. Why is that so important?  Because for years and years I kept hearing about “the sociology problem” at Cornell, which meant essentially that we had six sociology departments at Cornell, scattered throughout different colleges, and something similar in statistics and something similar in economics. Because of our great breadth we have talent spread all across the campus. What do you need to do under those circumstances?  You need to bring that talent together and create opportunities for synergy. That’s what David Harris is doing as associate provost together with the deans of those units that have social science disciplines in them.

I could go on and on with these examples because I’m really proud of the changes that have been made. But in order to describe to you more briefly and perhaps more powerfully what the new Cornell is about, let me just tell you a brief story. Two years ago when I was back in the Classics Department teaching second-year Greek, I had a class of 15 students, very able students. In fact one of the best undergraduate classic classes I’ve ever taught. We were reading Plato’s Apology in Greek, one of the most important texts in Western civilization. This is Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 B.C. The Greek is not especially easy and for a second-year class and requires an enormous amount of work. Those students were on a fast pace because we wanted to finish Plato’s Apology in the second half of that semester, so we had to go at a furious pace.

Among those many good students was one that I want to tell you about this morning named Hung du. Hung Du is a student from China. She moved from China to Long Island with her mother about six years ago. She left her native country and came to the United States speaking a little bit, but not a lot, of English. She entered public school on Long Island. Four years later, because of her talent and her drive, she won a presidential research scholarship to Cornell University. When she was in my class as a sophomore in second-year Greek, she turned out to be one of the outstanding students in the class. She speaks very softly because she’s nervous about her English, but she speaks very well. Now, a year or two later Hong Du is a classics major who has mastered Greek and Latin and has just spent this semester in Berlin improving her German. She is an outstanding student at Cornell University.

Now ask yourself the following question. Could you move to China and four years later enter a university as an exceptional student in ancient Chinese and Japanese and study Korean on the side and maintain a top grade point average? That’s a tall order. It makes me so proud to be able to have Hong Du in my classics class. That’s the new Cornell, the chance to do something entirely new in my experience. To teach ancient Greek and Latin to a young woman from China. That’s what the world is about. That’s what Cornell is about. It’s an unbelievable experience to be able to go to the classroom, to meet students like Hong Du who is here at Cornell because you made it possible for her to attend a great university where undergraduate education counts. She wouldn’t be here without your help.

So that’s what the new Cornell is about. It’s a place where you can study nanoscience. Where you can study the New Life Sciences. Or you can study Bioclassics. Whatever you’re studying, you’re going to get first-rate instruction from extraordinary faculty in great facilities with students all over the world who come here for one reason. They want a great education. That’s why Ezra Cornell founded this place in the first instance, because he wanted to found a place where any person, any person, Hong Du from China, can find instruction in any study. That’s a remarkable ambition. A unique ambition. But it’s one that’s being realized every day at Cornell University. It could not happen without your generosity, without your caring, without your making it possible, for those students to come here to study. It’s an unbelievable privilege to serve this university as president, it’s an unbelievable privilege to serve this university as professor. I look forward to going back to teaching Hong Du next year. Thank you.