Presidential Archives

2006 State of the University Address

President David J. Skorton

As prepared
October 27, 2006

It’s a crisp autumn morning and, as I walk into Day Hall, the first people I meet are the students preparing to greet and lead tours of our campus for prospective students and their families. These students are also the last Cornellians I meet on my way out of Day Hall every evening. Often I take the opportunity to chat briefly with a tour group as it is leaving or returning to Day Hall.

In a sense this is Cornell’s front door, one of the first places encountered by bright young minds, many of whom will join us as members of the Cornell family. From this same family will come tomorrow’s faculty members at Cornell and throughout the world, and tomorrow’s Cornell alumni, loyal and proud of their alma mater. From these groups will come tomorrow’s American and international leaders in all walks of life. Thus, the tours are a wonderful window on Cornell.

Let’s attend two such tours: one as it could have looked this morning and one as it might occur on an autumn morning in 2015 as we celebrate our university’s sesquicentennial. Our goal for 2015: a university where we dare to pursue our highest aspirations: a university that is the best of its kind, a beacon among the world’s leading institutions of higher learning; a university that changes the world in ways large and small. We aspire to be the best research university for undergraduate education; to set the standard for research in key disciplines and for interdisciplinary collaborations; and to make Cornell’s approach to its public mission a model for higher education.

The tour this morning winds its way around the campus, home to one of the finest, most highly-ranked comprehensive research universities in the world, and a unique combination of Ivy League distinction and a formal commitment to public service.

The tour is about a place, a topography, beautiful land, and historic as well as eclectic new buildings. But the tour is mostly about people and their accomplishments and creations. After all, the space they occupy cannot be fully grasped on a walking tour of what is visible on the campus. Think for a moment about Professors Steve Squyres and Jim Bell, who with their colleagues made the Mars Rover the fabulous and surprisingly robust achievement it is and who also are exemplars of involving undergraduate students in their work. Our tour is about the Institute for Social Sciences and its development of cross-disciplinary research on societal problems whose causes defy simple categorization and require the expertise of scholars from 80 units and departments on campus. It is about Professor Chris Barrett whose economic development research and collaborations with biophysical and social scientists give him the courage to try to improve the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet, such as those in rural Africa. Our tour features Professor Jon Kleinberg who received the 2006 Rolf Nevanlina Prize at the International Congress of Mathematics for his “deep, creative and insightful contributions to the mathematical theory of the global information environment.” And it highlights the China and Asia Pacific Studies Major, revolutionary in its emphasis on intensive study of Mandarin and Chinese history, culture and foreign policy, enabling study in Washington, D.C. and Beijing. Our guide emphasizes relationships that the Law School has built with China. Our group hears about Professor Molly Hite’s course, “The Great American Cornell Novel,” which delves into the work of some of the university’s most acclaimed writers. And the Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory, serving the entire State of New York and recent recipient of a $50 million grant from the state; we hear that the Cornell Wind Ensemble has given instruments and music lessons to children in a rural Costa Rican school; and we see our facilities and faculty in nanoscience and technology, which are the envy of the world.

Our tour continues in New York City at the Weill Cornell Medical College, where we learn of the first gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease and the first embryo biopsy in the U.S. to detect and eradicate disease. The tour group hears a discussion of the work of JoAnn Difede on virtual reality exposure therapy used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder among World Trade Center survivors. Advancements like these have been made possible through the focused strategic planning efforts at Weill Cornell, which have been exemplary both in terms of process and in terms of results. Phase One stimulated research advancements in structural biology, genetic medicine and neuroscience by increasing research faculty and building endowment to support the research effort. Phase Two, to advance the clinical mission, brought investments in clinical and translational faculty recruitment, new programs to strengthen our position at the leading edge of biomedical science and patient care, support for students and young clinical scholars, and strengthened operations of the clinical enterprise. At the center of the effort is the new Ambulatory Care and Medical Education Building, a spectacular building on York Avenue, which will open in late 2006.

Our guide in New York also describes the first U.S. medical school to offer its M.D. degree in another country, the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, which enables young men and women in the Persian Gulf region to realize their dreams and to add to the medical capacity of their countries.

Back in Ithaca, our guide tells us we can study the changing nature of work across the globe in courses across colleges—in the School of Hotel Administration, in ILR, the Johnson School, and in Human Ecology, and then she tells the students about the Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholars Program, which permits undergraduates to have a meaningful research experience with a faculty mentor.

We come to the living-learning communities of the North and West Campuses, Cornell’s particular approach to an integrated experience for students and faculty. These residential communities permit students throughout their undergraduate years to interact not only with other students, including graduate student fellows, but also with house professors and faculty fellows, greatly enriching their Cornell experience, in and out of the classroom.

As we pass Friends Hall and Lynah Rink, the tour guide emphasizes the terrific connection that Big Red athletics forges with students, alumni and the community.

When the tour returns to Day Hall, the students and parents are impressed and enthusiastic about the prospect of a Cornell education.

Should we be satisfied by this tour? After all, Cornell is already consistently ranked among the top universities in the world and at the very top among institutions in the United States in a number of disciplines. Our alumni are already recognized as among the most generous and engaged of any in the United States. Further, the number of students seeking a Cornell education has grown dramatically in the last several years. By any measure, Cornell is and has been an enormously successful academic enterprise.

But it is critical to remember two things: first, our students, staff, faculty, and alumni are not satisfied with the status quo, and they should not be; and, second, Cornell’s role since its founding has been as a solver of world problems, as a transformer of life throughout the world. We are proud to be New York’s land grant university. There are challenges here and now that must be met, problems that not only remain unsolved, but are also not receiving the attention they deserve. The time is now to recognize these problems and to apply the Cornell formula: the combination of motivated, prepared students, talented faculty and staff and the appropriate support structures and mechanisms, all driven by the desire to learn, to help, to solve, to unravel, to change for the better.

The world of American higher education is fraught with complex difficulties and challenges. The United States continues to slip by several measures compared to international competitors. The cost of a college education in our country continues to be out of the reach of many families or it leads to heavy debt loads for recent graduates. A large portion of the current professoriate, perhaps as many as one third, those my age and older, will likely retire in the next ten to fifteen years, leaving us to motivate, develop and recruit tomorrow’s faculty. Many of the facilities on our great university campuses were built in an earlier era of technology no longer suitable for today’s pedagogy and research. Some of our science facilities were built before or at the very beginning of the huge public investment in basic university research that occurred in the latter half of the 20th century.

Academic health centers throughout the nation face enormous challenges to meet the need for health care. These challenges include the cost of advanced diagnostic and treatment procedures, reimbursement in an era when over 45 million Americans are uninsured and millions more are under-insured, and significant tightening of public research funding. And they manifest themselves in an environment where excellent patient care must be delivered in both acute and chronic care situations across the spectrum of medical disciplines. We exist in a competitive environment, and we compete with other academic medical centers on many levels, including nationally for students; nationally and internationally for faculty; nationally for grants to support research; and locally, regionally, nationally and internationally for patients.

Despite decades of attention and the best of intentions, we are far from achieving gender equity in our faculty ranks. Recently the National Academy of Sciences released a groundbreaking report indicating the difficult state of gender equity in academic science and engineering departments. Other types of diversity are also lacking in many areas of our great research campuses.

The public investment in scholarly work in the humanities and arts has fallen precipitously in the last decade, and we are threatened with the loss of a generation of distinguished humanists, an appropriate focus for our attention at Cornell where we have such decades-long distinction in these areas of scholarly endeavor.

All of these problems are manifest at Cornell. Because of our large student population relative to many of our peers, we have insufficient resources to deal adequately with our students’ financial need except, in some cases, by their acquisition of significant debt. Up to 600 of our faculty are expected to retire in the next decade. And not all our facilities are up to the standard of our faculty and students. In some of our most highly ranked disciplines, even space for faculty offices is inadequate, not to mention appropriate research space and support. Such facts will severely limit our ability to attract the students and faculty of tomorrow.

Most important by far are the problems external to higher education: poverty, hunger, and lack of access to health care that limits life span and the quality of life from some of our inner cities in the U. S., to rural areas such as Upstate New York to sub-Saharan Africa. For a very long time, American research universities have been essential drivers of scientific, technological, economic, social and cultural change, in short, of progress. Increasingly, in this so-called knowledge economy, the world is turning to higher education to tackle some of its most difficult challenges, challenges which are global and shared. The role of universities in regional economic development and technology transfer is being emphasized more seriously and consistently.

Cornellians, of course, view these challenges as opportunities to take dramatic and bold leadership. What institution can match Cornell’s combination of academic distinction and public service to change the world? None of which I am aware. Cornell is alone in its class in its combination of talent and purpose, of resources and resolve, of vision and mission.

Let us now move ahead to the year 2015 and retake our campus tour and learn how Cornell has changed.

We enter a new Visitor’s Center on an autumn morning and notice a tour group forming. Those prospective students are more diverse racially, economically, and by international background than our students are today. Those who will join the Cornell family will later graduate with significantly less debt and many with no debt. These students will complete a mandatory experience in research or creative activity, as well as one in service learning and public service, showing Cornell’s continuing commitment to its public service mission.

As the tour heads down Tower Road, we encounter a bustling Life Science complex bringing together physical scientists, engineers, and social scientists, with members of the clinical and basic science faculty at the Weill Cornell Medical College. We see neurosurgeons from Weill Cornell and biomedical engineers from Ithaca working together to imagine and develop innovations in health care, including diagnostic, preventive, and treatment advances. The incredible range of ideas and backgrounds brings together plant, animal and human life sciences to understand the living world in a way that has never been attempted before.

As the group passes buildings in the Engineering Quad, exciting new classes on alternate sources of energy are bringing creative, distinguished senior faculty into contact with undergraduates. In addition to the facilities on the Engineering Quad and the Life Sciences complex, many other areas of campus benefit from interdisciplinary activity with our engineering faculty. An example is Gates Hall and the evolving Computing and Information Science campus, which bring the theory and practice of information technology to all aspects of the intellectual life of Cornell.

The major science complexes we pass on our way are homes not only to education and discovery, but also to experimental work/life environments in which men and women of all career and life stages work together in flexible ways that ensure not only productivity but a satisfying and balanced life. The consequence: the recruitment and retention of faculty have never been more successful.

The tour passes the complexes of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the hallways and conference rooms are crowded with undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral associates, distinguished faculty and visitors from every corner of the globe. Their pioneering work is not only educating Cornell students, but is feeding the billions, relieving hunger and poverty throughout the globe.

Continuing along the Arts Quad, the guide points out that an international conference in sustainable design and architecture is occurring at the College of Architecture, Art and Planning in Milstein Hall. Nearby, recent faculty additions to our distinguished humanistic disciplines are studying and creating tomorrow’s culture in offices and classrooms in a beautifully renovated and enlarged Goldwin Smith Hall. The humanities are flourishing at Cornell and serving as an inspiration for renewed attention to literature, language, philosophy, and culture. And in key fields in the social sciences, and in our professional schools, Cornell faculty and programs are now in a position to lead.

Returning from the Arts Quad along East Avenue, an impressive new Physical Sciences Complex is the center for activities in spheres ranging from Chemistry and Chemical Biology to newly forming interdisciplinary physics and engineering programs, continuing Cornell’s leadership in physical sciences and engineering disciplines and enabling the work of the next generation of Nobel Laureates.

Our guide helps us envision the progress on the world-class research complex along York Avenue in New York City, which has attracted the top interdisciplinary workers in a wide variety of disciplines in the health sciences. Weill Cornell’s Strategic Plan III will allow the college to invest in a new biomedical research building, research cores and infrastructure; faculty recruitment in basic, translational and clinical research, faculty retention, chair recruitment and departmental revitalization. There is an even greater emphasis on translating basic science into clinical practice. Core services in genetics and proteomics, still in development, will usher in a new world of personalized medicine, and there are flourishing collaborative partnerships and joint programs with Ithaca.

In Doha, Qatar the 8th class of students at Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar is graduating and continuing to populate the Gulf region with the most highly trained men and women in the breadth of medical disciplines, and the college has nurtured its other national and international relationships, from Texas to Tanzania, China, South Korea and South Africa.

In Ithaca, the group visits the fully realized West Campus complex, where sophomores, juniors and seniors benefit from house professors and faculty fellows who share their lives in and out of formal academic settings. These and the North Campus living-learning communities attract record numbers of applicants from the U.S. and abroad and retain them at Cornell.

Returning to the Visitor’s Center the students and families are supplied with helpful information about flexible financial strategies to obtain a transformative education that is Cornell.

Cornellians are dreamers, yes, but this is no dreamy scenario. We have concrete and focused plans and strategies to deal with many of the problems I have identified and to achieve our goals for the sesquicentennial. First, we are focusing on accountability, on even better stewardship of the tremendous resources already at our disposal. Whether in facilities planning, economic development and technology transfer, investment management or budgetary planning in general, we are reviewing current systems and implementing improvements. Weill Cornell has been an exemplar in utilizing strategic planning, successfully completing the first two phases of its strategic plan to realize its vision, and it continues to focus, in its third phase, on continuing the success of the strategic plan, strengthening its ties with the Ithaca campus and nurturing its new national and international relationships.

We are making still more changes to our already award-winning workplace policies and procedures in an effort to remain an employer of choice. We are intensifying our links with local, regional, state and federal leaders on whose partnership we depend. We are enhancing our means of communication.

In addition, we are seeking the right balance between the resources we need and the students we must serve. And so we are reviewing our admissions and financial aid processes, assessing the entire student life experience, including the costs and the quality of our students’ housing and dining, mental health services and our overall support for student health and welfare.

Next, we are emphasizing our need to be even more competitive in the increasingly difficult national scientific research-funding environment. Even the National Institutes of Health, long the federal agency virtually always experiencing suprainflationary increases, has seen a reduction in real dollars available for investigator-initiated research grants. We are focusing our administrative functions to support our faculty’s aggressive seeking of peer-reviewed funding. One excellent example of strategic thinking from grassroots faculty efforts is the new spirit of cooperation among faculty in Ithaca and New York to capitalize on the synergies between research activities on both campuses. Especially noteworthy are: computational biology as a component of biomedical engineering, nanomedicine, and systems biology; chemical biology and experimental therapeutics; global health and infectious diseases; cancer-related cell biology, and biomedical engineering. Faculty in these areas are already organizing and getting the administration on board so that they can compete successfully for federal research dollars to advance their work.

Yes, I am passionate about our stewardship responsibilities and about optimal coordination across our very complex organization.

And I am passionate about outreach, about engagement in the world, and about public service. We are renewing our long-term commitment to Cornell Cooperative Extension as it works to improve lives throughout New York State. The Jeffrey Sean Lehman Fund for Scholarly Exchange with China is in the midst of its first competition to fund faculty and graduate student exchanges with the finest institutions in China. We will leverage the prestigious National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant awarded to Provost Martin, Vice Provost Robert Harris, and Professors Sheila Hemami, Shelley Correll, and Marjolein van der Meulen by developing innovative academic and social science approaches to meet head-on the issue of gender equity in and outside of academic science and engineering. We can do even more.

In our efforts to respond to the challenges of globalization and sustainability, one area that has not received adequate attention, and in which Cornell faculty are already engaged is sub-Saharan Africa. And so today I announce a new initiative to coordinate our many and varied activities in support of sub-Saharan African development, to seek new levels of effectiveness in our approaches to this critical area of our world. I have discussed this with Provost Martin who shares my belief that we can be more strategic in our efforts to help address problems in sub-Saharan Africa. She will work with Vice Provosts David Wippman, Steve Kresovich and David Harris to develop a proposal for Cornell’s contribution by the end of the academic year. This initiative will draw on the groundbreaking work that is already underway in the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Arts and Sciences, the Law School, Human Ecology, Veterinary Medicine, and Weill Cornell Medical College, as well as in the Institute for African Development and the Africana Center. I believe the work undertaken over the past year and a half by faculty task forces on sustainability, interdisciplinary life sciences, and the information age has helped prepare us for this initiative, and the initiative itself will help us focus the efforts of many of the faculty who contributed to the task forces.

Now, how do we realize our dreams? How do we enable Cornell not only to realize, but to exceed Ezra’s original vision? It is our responsibility to seize this moment and secure the resources necessary to guarantee students’ access to Cornell, to provide a first-rate education when they get here, to meet the challenge of retirements in our professoriate, and to renew our aging physical plant. These are the foundations that enable the contributions we want to make to the world.

Therefore, I am proud and honored to launch by far the most ambitious fund-raising campaign in the history of our university and among the most ambitious in the history of higher education. Not for the sake of competition over the level of endowment, but to support the activities I have outlined, activities that will define the future of Cornell and determine our mark on the world. I aim to exceed our goal of $4 billion and with your help, to ensure the brightest possible future for this university.

We have three priorities, which are essential to achieving our goals.

First, we must enroll and educate the most deserving students at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels. And that requires the appropriate mechanisms and level of financial aid so we can guarantee access to the most academically promising students, regardless of socioeconomic, racial, or international background. This is true for our undergraduates, but also for our graduate and professional students. For students, we intend to raise at least $640 million.

Second, we must recruit, support and inspire the next generation of faculty in every college and in every program at Cornell. The wave of faculty retirements that will occur in the next decade poses a great challenge, but also a great opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the range of excellence that characterizes our campus and to diversify our faculty. To attract faculty in the enormously competitive environment that is occasioned by the anticipated retirements, we will need to focus resources on professorships and the infrastructure of offices, laboratories, and studios as well as libraries. For faculty and program support, we intend to raise at least $1.885 billion.

Third, we must develop state-of-the-art facilities on a beautiful and environmentally friendly, sustainable campus. This environment must foster creativity and inspire both education and discovery throughout the campus. Appropriate technologies for learning, research, creativity and sustainability must be a part of this development. For facilities, we intend to raise at least $1.175 billion.

In addition, in order to maintain agility, in order to respond to fast-breaking opportunities as they occur, we intend to raise approximately $300 million in unrestricted support.

Support for these three priorities: resources for students, for faculty, and for the university’s physical infrastructure, will permit us to realize the overarching goal that has guided Cornell since 1865: to serve the needs of the world whether in Ithaca, Upstate New York, the cities of our country, or any area around the world where the talents and courage of higher education can provide a solution to the problems and challenges of everyday life.

This is the time. Cornell is the place. Working together– faculty, students, staff, alumni and friends — we can realize this vision by the time of our university’s sesquicentennial. The history of Cornell will permit us to accept no outcome other than to fulfill our shared ambition: to be the best of our kind –a model combination of academic distinction and public service—a beacon of hope, a community whose sights are high and whose imaginations and aspirations have no boundaries and no limits. Please join me in this effort. Let us build the Cornell of the future.