Presidential Archives

2007 State of the University Address

President David J. Skorton

October 19, 2007
Statler Auditorium

Thank you, Chairman Meinig, and welcome back to Cornell, everyone, for this annual joint meeting of the Cornell Board of Trustees and the Cornell University Council.

Cornell University was founded as a new kind of American university. During the past year, I have come to appreciate more than ever what an extraordinary university Cornell is its breathtaking natural beauty, the warmth of its people, the intellectual vibrancy and sense of mission that characterize Cornell and inform our relationships with the wider world – and the deep commitment that so many alumni have to the university and to its future.

You who serve on the Board of Trustees and the Cornell University Council set the standard for dedication and involvement within the vast global network of Cornell alumni leaders and volunteers. This morning, I first want to thank you for all that you do.

The past year has been one of remarkable achievement for Cornell. Please share my pride in the university’s achievements across key aspects of its mission. In August, Cornell was the top-rated Ivy League school in Washington Monthly’s third annual college rankings, which take into account how universities serve as engines of social mobility, their support for the research enterprise and the extent to which their students engage in national service.

Also in August, Newsweek called us the “hottest” Ivy in a special section on “hot” colleges. The magazine made special note of our land grant status – with its emphasis on “problem-solving as well as scholarly debate.” It praised the quality of the College of Engineering as well as our programs in liberal arts, science and fine arts, and it called the Hotel School “the world’s best.”

Of course, high school students and their parents were onto Cornell long before the Newsweek and Washington Monthly articles appeared. We received 30,383 applications for 3,055 places in the Class of 2011 – the largest number ever – and our first-year students are truly remarkable. They include musicians and model bridge builders; NASA interns and a grand national jump-rope champion; Alaska backpackers and Alzheimer’s researchers, published writers and volunteer firefighters – and that was before they had even arrived at Cornell. The first-year students are off to a strong start this semester and eager to contribute to the university and the world. On West Campus, where Robin and I are Becker House Fellows, continuing students are enjoying the living-learning experience that is a distinguishing feature of West Campus life.

I want to recognize the leadership of my predecessor Hunter Rawlings and the continuing commitment of Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy in creating our new approach to residential life at Cornell. Professors Ross Brann, Cindy Hazan, and Porus Olpadwala are serving as house professors and deans of the three residential houses that are currently offering full programming to student residents – the Alice Cook House, the Carl Becker House and the Hans Bethe House, respectively. We’ll open the fourth house – the William T. Keeton House – next fall along with a fifth house, still unnamed, which will function as a traditional residence hall in its first year and then move to full programming, in the residential house model, in 2009.

I am very pleased to announce this morning that professor of history Jefferson Cowie of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations has accepted our offer to become the house professor and dean of Keeton House.

Students are thriving in the Cornell environment – as evidenced by the national and international awards that our students and recent graduates won last year – including Rhodes, Marshall, Luce, Goldwater and Udall scholarships. Our students continue to accomplish remarkable feats across the campus – from the sciences and engineering to the arts, humanities and social sciences – and sometimes in endeavors that span several domains at a time.

Those of you who check out YouTube from time to time may have seen the video “Mandelbrot Set.”  It was created by Pisut Wisessing ’07, a physics major from Thailand, who created it as his final project in a film animation course he took at Cornell this summer. Through the video, Wisessing demonstrates that math can be beautiful, funny and fun – even for non-mathematicians.

But there are areas in which we need to do even better to help our students succeed.  Cornell was the lead institution on a Teagle Foundation study of minority achievement in higher education, which – among other findings – documented that average differences in college success among racial and ethnic groups are not simply a reflection of differences present at the time of college admission. Many of the differences we observe among college students are a result of aspects of the college experience. The Teagle study encourages schools to implement 14 diversity programs. Three of these programs were already being conducted at Cornell.

This semester, Cornell’s University Diversity Council, which the university provost and I co-chair, and its working group chaired by Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development, and David Harris, deputy provost and vice provost for the social sciences, are implementing additional ideas to come out of the Teagle study, and you can learn more about them on our new diversity web site, a link for which can be found on the Cornell home page. We need to do better and with this evidence-based approach, I am hopeful that we will.

As an extension of Cornell’s commitment to diversity and an amplification of the university’s land grant mission, I have spoken widely during the year about Cornell’s long history of international involvement and about the role of universities in building human and institutional capacity overseas.
Vice Provost for International Relations David Wippman is providing strong leadership to our university-wide efforts internationally.
We have many recent activities to report in this area, including a new master’s of professional studies degree program at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia, with a focus on integrated watershed management. And I want to congratulate Alice Pell, director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD), and her colleagues for their work, over several years, to put this program in place.

I also want to note that Cornell is having a positive impact in many other parts of the world with the System of Rice Intensification that professor Norm Uphoff and his colleagues in CIIFAD (in partnership with Tefy Saina, the organization that developed the method) have introduced.

Cornell’s work on campus and throughout the world is supported by staff members of incredible dedication and great skill, and we aim to be an employer of choice in order to keep the best people working for Cornell.
I am pleased to report that Cornell was recognized nationally again this year for its innovative programs and policies that enable academic and non-academic employees to do their best work.

Notably the American Association of Retired Persons named us a top-50 employer for people over 50. Working Mother Magazine again included us among the top 100 employers for working mothers, and just a few days ago we received the good news that Cornell has been selected by the U.S. Department of Labor for one of the 2007 Exemplary Voluntary Efforts Awards, which recognize federal contractors with exceptional equal employment opportunity programs.

This morning I want to recognize Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, and Lynette Chappell-Williams, director of the Office of Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality, for their efforts on behalf of Cornell employees.

And I want to recognize my colleagues in the Office of the President, including Teri Burdick, Kacy Covert, Pat Driscoll, Liz Holmes, Ann Huntzinger, Connie Kintner and Laurie Summers, for their efforts to make sure that I am prepared for the multitude of commitments and events for which I am scheduled every day.

As you know, the faculty is the heart of Cornell and one of the key areas of focus in the current Far Above campaign. We seek for our faculty individuals from diverse backgrounds who are, or have the potential to be, world leaders in their fields. Faculty at research universities are, by definition, pursuing future knowledge and creative works, and incorporating it into their teaching.

I am pleased to report that a near-record number of our current faculty members were elected to the major national academies (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society) this year.

This year’s total of 10 new academy members is the best since 1989, when we had 11 new members elected.

As we build the faculty of the future we seek to replenish faculty positions as retirements increase (we expect as many as 600 current faculty members to retire within the next 10 years), maintain Cornell’s breadth and depth, increase diversity and lead the university into new areas of intellectual promise and opportunity. I am grateful to our dean of university faculty, professor Charles Walcott, for his perspective on the issues we face with regard to the faculty.

For 2006-07, Cornell carried out faculty searches that resulted in 84 successful hires, including 28 women and 15 members of minority groups.  In addition, we were able to retain 39 faculty members who had attractive offers to go elsewhere.

Among the new appointments – and they are just a few examples from many that could be highlighted – are Jordan Matsudaira, assistant professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology (and recently a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Berkeley), who works in the areas of education and health inequality. Suzanne Mettler ’94, the Rossiter Professor in Government (until recently a distinguished professor at Syracuse), whose areas of research include public policy, citizenship and democracy, and politics and gender. Tad Brennan, another senior-level faculty member (whom we recruited from Northwestern), is arguably the strongest young full professor in classical philosophy in the country not already at Cornell. Natalie Mahowald, associate professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, who is a recognized leader in the study of global climate change and who came to us from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

And, although he is not new to Cornell, I might mention that 36-year-old E. Gun Sirer, associate professor of computer science, is featured in the October 16 issue of Popular Science Magazine as one of its “Brilliant 10” scientists and researchers.

The magazine cited his work to make the Internet less vulnerable to hackers – a problem that had not even been identified until he set to work on it 3 years ago.

On the leadership side, I am pleased to report that Bob Buhrman, formerly director of Cornell’s Center for Nanoscale Systems, has accepted Provost Martin’s offer to serve as our new vice provost for research. He succeeds Nobel Laureate Bob Richardson, professor of physics, who is now science advisor to the provost and president.

Thanks to the efforts of Vice President Charlie Phlegar and colleagues in Alumni Affairs and Development, and to the extraordinary commitment of our volunteer campaign chairs – Bob Appel, Steve Ashley, and Jan Rock Zubrow – this year has been one of unprecedented partnership between the university and its alumni, parents and friends, as we worked together to advance the campaign. I am profoundly grateful to all those who have contributed.

I’ve been particularly touched by a growing number of gifts from young alumni, many of whom have established endowed undergraduate scholarships. Cornell parents have also made significant gifts to this campaign. They have been joined by a number of Cornell’s staff and faculty and faculty emeriti.

Fiscal Year 2007 was the most successful fund-raising year in Cornell history, with $754.8 million in new gifts and commitments. At the same time, gifts to the Cornell Annual Fund also reached a record level at $18.4 million – a 29 percent increase over last year – due to the remarkably effective efforts of Bob Katz and others. To date, over $1.78 billion has been raised toward our goal of $4 billion.

As of this week the Ithaca portion of the campaign surpassed the $1-billion mark, and at the Weill Cornell Medical College, we had the best year in fundraising ever for an American medical college – catapulted by an extraordinary $300 million gift from Joan and Sandy Weill, which included $50 million for our new life sciences technology building. These results are truly remarkable and demonstrate the extraordinary commitment of many individuals.

One of Cornell’s great strengths as a university is its comprehensiveness and balance among the disciplines – including science and technology, the various professional fields, and the arts, humanities and social sciences. Our alumni, parents and friends have been generous in their support of all these areas.

This morning I am pleased to announce that several distinguished alumni have demonstrated their generosity and love of learning by donating a total of $61.5 million in support of groundbreaking programs in the humanities, arts and social sciences at Cornell. Provost Martin has made the arts, humanities and social sciences an area of focus in terms of the university’s academic priorities, a focus I passionately share, and these new gifts will make it possible for us to act upon those academic priorities in ways that will ensure their long-term strength.

$46.5 million in several gifts will energize our efforts in fundamental ways, enabling our arts and humanities faculty to offer new approaches to learning that inspire our students to discover and create. I would like to thank the donors, some of whom wish to remain anonymous, who have made extraordinary gifts.

A third generation Cornellian has committed $15 million for enhancements of the arts and humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences. This is the largest gift to the humanities in the university’s history. A Cornell couple has committed $10 million to the humanities, of which $5 million will endow the chair of the English Department. A $4 million gift from Stanford ’51 and Jo Ann Taylor will name the chair of the Sage School of Philosophy.

Through her estate, the late Beatrice Stump ’37 has donated $6.5 million, of which half will support undergraduate scholarships in the College of Arts and Sciences; the balance will serve as an unrestricted endowment for the college. In the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, Trustee Ira Drukier and his wife, Dr. Gale Drukier, have given a generous gift of $5 million to name the deanship of that college and another $1 million to support the Johnson Museum. Trustee Emeritus Bob Appel and Helen Appel have donated $1 million to the Johnson Museum. In honor of her late husband, Ronald, Susan Lynch has made a gift to the museum of $1.5 million.

Finally, the Mellon Foundation has generously approved a $2.5 million challenge grant for multidisciplinary professorships in the humanities. In the social sciences, where Cornell enjoys enormous breadth, gifts totaling $15 million will allow us to begin to reframe the line between basic and applied research, add new professorships and meet our goal of excellence, attracting scholars from all over the world.  To make this possible, I would like to thank Trustee Don Opatrny for his generous gift of $5 million to name the chair of the Department of Economics. I also thank an anonymous donor for the $5 million that will endow the chair of the Department of Government. And, a special thanks to Ken Kahn for his $5 million gift to name the ILR deanship.

As generous as you’ve been, and as successful as Cornell has been, I’m going to ask you to more than double the amount you’ve already invested in Cornell so that we will reach and exceed our goal of $4 billion. This is a bold request, and I don’t take your response for granted. Philanthropy is a more active process than it once was. Before you are forthcoming with even more support, you want to know what the return on your investment will be. You deserve to know what our broad goals are for the entire university and the strategies that will enable us to reach those goals.

We’ve just completed a series of retreats involving the deans and the senior staff and have reached consensus on a number of overarching goals for our university. These goals are as follows:

1. Sustain and renew the exceptional intellectual quality of the university.  Recruit, retain and support a diverse and talented faculty, staff and student body.

2. Enroll, educate, and graduate the most deserving and promising students at every level, regardless of background and economic circumstance. Provide students with a distinctive education and extracurricular experience in an integrated living-learning environment. Inspire them to be ethical and purposeful citizens of the world with a lifelong zest for learning.

3. Enable and encourage the faculty, their students, and staff to lead in the preservation, discovery, transmission and application of knowledge, creativity and critical thought.

4. Extend our leadership in the use of research and education to serve the public good, in fulfillment of Cornell’s land grant mission, and its longstanding commitment to capacity building in communities in the U.S. and around the world.

5. Ensure the long-term stability and quality of the institution through careful stewardship of our financial and human resources, our natural and built environments, and our infrastructure, by means of careful planning, efficiencies, the appropriate integration of operations across the university, development of new income sources, and increases in private support.

From these overarching goals, we have developed enabling strategies that will, in aggregate, permit us to achieve the overarching goals.  At the senior staff and collegiate level – where the real day-to-day leadership occurs – specific initiatives, goals and strategies have been developed in areas of importance to the university, our community, state, nation and world.  In January, Provost Martin will reiterate the goals I just enumerated and present the remainder of our strategic plan to the Board of Trustees.

I would like to share just one example of an area of specific focus – sustainability (a theme I highlighted in my State of the University Address during Reunion Weekend in June) – which reflects and draws strength from the overarching goals.

The role that Cornell can play in sustainability is an issue that has been studied extensively on our campus in recent years, including by two different faculty task forces. Last February, I signed the American University and College Presidents Climate Commitment, which commits Cornell to developing a plan for the university to achieve climate neutrality, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, starting on our main campus here in Ithaca. And we are carrying out many other initiatives institutionally to reduce our environmental footprint and promote a sustainable campus.

On the academic side, Frank DiSalvo, the J.A. Newman Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology who served as co-chair of one of the sustainability task forces, is leading our efforts to bring together expertise from across the campus to work toward common sustainability goals as interim director of our new Center for a Sustainable Future.

We envision the new Center for a Sustainable Future as providing a way to bring together faculty, staff and students from across the university around three themes: energy (including new sources, efficiency, global climate change, mitigation and new businesses), environment (including biodiversity, water, resource management, agriculture and the built environment) and economic development (including poverty alleviation, water and food systems, infrastructure, institutions and education).

The center will seed promising research, build collaborative teams on campus and seek partnerships with industry, government and other institutions beyond Cornell. We are investing a significant amount in the start-up of the center and have already begun actively seeking interested partners to invest with us in realizing this critically important aspiration.

I am pleased to report that we have already been given several large gifts, including $5 million from David Croll to establish the David D. Croll Professorship of Sustainable Energy Systems in the College of Engineering and a related programmatic fund, also in the College of Engineering, and a gift of $1 million a year over the next three to five years from David Atkinson to help launch the Center for a Sustainable Future. We are confident that the center will succeed in positioning us to attract additional funds from industry and government agencies as well as from individual donors, and, most important, to solve some of our planet’s most compelling problems.

As we move forward, additional enabling strategies for excellence will be forthcoming—derived from and supporting our overarching goals. They will enable us to move forward in a carefully planned strategic fashion—as we draw together Cornell’s vast strengths and marshal our resources in ways that will fulfill our potential for contribution and impact across all aspects of our mission.

You have already done so much for Cornell. We are humbled by your generosity. But the challenges facing our world are great. The time to address and ameliorate them is short. The opportunity for action is now. And the agent of positive change—perhaps more than ever before in our history—can be Cornell.

Since its founding in 1865, Cornell has shaped the character and scope of higher education and transformed countless individual lives. We now have the opportunity to achieve a significantly higher level of academic distinction and global impact.

I look forward to your continued counsel, wisdom and support as—together—we re-create our Cornell as the model university for the 21st century.

Thank you.