Presidential Archives

2011 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
October 21, 2011

I, too, want to welcome you, as Cornell’s leaders and my partners, colleagues and friends, to the 2011 joint meeting of the Cornell University Board of Trustees and the Cornell University Council. It is a wonderful commencement of the countdown to our sesquicentennial, which we’ll celebrate at the joint meetings of 2014 and 2015. I thank you for all you do, and I hope you’ll attend the special session tomorrow morning to explore how Council members can be even more effective ambassadors for Cornell.

I am grateful for the leadership that Pete Meinig ’61 and Katrina James ’96 provide —and for Mitch Lee’s (’90, JD ’96) leadership of Council during the previous two years. I am delighted that Pete and Nancy Meinig—Pete’s gracious wife, partner and dedicated Cornellian, Class of 1962—have agreed to chair our sesquicentennial. Please join me in thanking the Meinigs for shouldering yet another enormous responsibility for our Cornell.

My message to you today is one of continuity of tradition and principles and yet of new ideas and exciting opportunities. Cornell has had another extraordinary year and is poised to flourish and lead as never before. Thanks to our strategic plan, we have never been clearer about the path we will follow to recruit tomorrow’s most talented faculty; to educate the most deserving and diverse undergraduate, graduate and professional students from the US and from abroad; to set the standard for internationalization in higher education; and to bring our expertise to the greater society locally, in New York State, nationally, and globally.

Every day, we at Cornell are doing the hard work needed for success. We are finding ways, despite the financial challenges of the Great Recession, to bring our budget into a balance that is sustainable over the long term—with resources to recruit hundreds of new faculty, stabilize our superb staff workforce, and continue our commitment to need-based student financial aid. And we are taking the time to think deeply, clearly and creatively about who we are and what we can become.

What is it that makes Cornell “Cornell”?

Cornell is first and foremost a community of scholars. In the 2010-11 academic year, Cornell faculty members earned more places in the distinguished national academies and societies than in any other single year since my arrival at Cornell, confirming the high regard in which our faculty are held everywhere.

Excellence in our faculty extends from senior members of the academy to our newest recruits. Last month, for example, Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies and professor of government, was honored by the American Political Science Association (along with co-authors Leila Mohsen Ibrahim, a graduate student in government, and Katherine D. Rubin ’01) for the best journal article of the year. At the same meeting, one of our newest faculty members, Adam Seth Levine ’03, an assistant professor in government, received an APSA award for the best doctoral thesis in his field.

This year, four of our faculty members won Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on young professionals in these fields. They are Salman Avestimehr in electrical and computer engineering, David Erickson in mechanical and aerospace engineering, John C. March in biological and environmental engineering, and Kyle Shen in physics. With only 94 awards made nationally this year, it is truly remarkable that four of the awards have come to Cornell.

Also inherent in our community of scholars is the expectation that we will tap the breadth and depth of our expertise, and our propensity for multidisciplinary approaches, to contribute to the solution of the world’s most pressing challenges. Our faculty collaborate seamlessly across disciplines, departments and campuses as “One Cornell” to frame questions and develop novel research approaches that offer the promise of exceptional results.

To begin with one example, the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (ACSF), established by a gift from David Atkinson, Class of 1960, and Pat Atkinson, “advances multidisciplinary research in energy, the environment and economic development.” Through its Academic Venture Fund, ACSF “seeds” interdisciplinary Cornell projects that have potential to involve external partners, such as industry, government, foundations and nongovernmental organizations. Its latest awards support 10 projects ranging from the use of Geographic Information Systems technology in the formalization of property rights in Tanzania to the implications of methane production related to the extraction of natural gas from shale.

In another example, an innovative approach to fighting cancer by targeting the regulation of metabolic enzymes has led to a $3-million-plus, five-year Transformative Research Projects (T-R01) Award from the National Institutes of Health for two faculty members in the College of Veterinary Medicine—Richard A. Cerione and Robert S. Weiss—and Hening Lin, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. T-R01 awards are designed to support “exceptionally innovative and/or unconventional research projects” with “potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms.”

Here is a third example: Working with advanced micro- and nano-engineering methods, researchers here in Ithaca, led by Harold Craighead, Ph.D. ’80 C.W. Lake Professor of Engineering, and at Weill Cornell Medical College, led by Barbara Hempstead, professor of medicine, are exploring the origins and development of cancer at the single-cell level with support from the National Cancer Institute, providing new methods for early diagnosis of cancer and new opportunities for drug treatment.

Thanks to careful stewardship by the provosts, vice presidents and deans and to the generosity of so many alumni, parents and friends, we are succeeding in our faculty renewal initiative. To replenish our community of scholars, in anticipation of a significant number of faculty retirements over the next decade, we have made a number of strong new appointments. We have 63 new faculty members in Ithaca this year; 40 percent of them are women. Twenty-seven of these new appointments are in the College of Arts and Sciences.  I am pleased to note that 18 of them are in the humanities. In addition we welcomed 104 new tenure-track assistant professors at Weill Cornell, including Weill Cornell-Qatar, this year, giving a tremendous boost to our faculty renewal efforts at the medical college.

Dr. Laurie Glimcher will become our new dean of Weill Cornell Medical College and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University on January 1, 2012. A distinguished physician-scientist and researcher, Dr. Glimcher is currently the Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she directs the Division of Biological Sciences, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, where she led one of the top immunology programs in the world. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, and author of more than 350 scientific articles and chapters.

When Dr. Glimcher assumes her WCMC duties next year, Dr. Tony Gotto, who has served with such distinction as medical college dean and provost for medical affairs since 1997, will become co-chair of the board of overseers for the college and vice president at Cornell. As he has for so many others, Tony has been a model and mentor for me for decades, and I am delighted that we will continue to benefit from his wisdom and experience.
During the past year, my colleagues and I have been writing and speaking out about the importance of the humanities—and the National Endowment for the Humanities—to our national life and our understanding of ourselves and our world, through the lens of today and yesterday. To give one example from our own faculty, Ziad Fahmy, assistant professor of modern Middle East history in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, published his first book this year–Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture—which examines how from the 1870s until the eve of the 1919 revolution, popular media and culture helped Egyptians construct a modern identity. It is wonderful to see the centrality of the humanities to the academic mission of the university affirmed by our own faculty hiring.

With our Society for the Humanities, our strength in the digital humanities, and the recent renewal of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded Central New York Humanities Corridor, in which we participate with Syracuse University and the University of Rochester, Cornell is poised for even greater leadership. We will be learning more about that later this morning from Don Randel, president of the Mellon Foundation, whom many of us remember from his years as a Cornell professor of musicology, Arts College dean and university provost.

We must keep our focus on faculty renewal in all major academic spheres of the university, building strategically on areas of promise and strength. We need to balance growth in faculty numbers and new initiatives with discipline in overall cost containment—to attenuate the rate of rise in costs that are reflected in the price of a Cornell education. Yet we must also ensure that Cornell extends its excellence, its influence and its impact.

A second distinctive quality of Cornell is our commitment to student access. Cornell is the original “opportunity university,” and we still carry forward our founder’s vision of inclusion. Even in the darkest days of the Great Recession, we kept our policy of need-blind admissions and need-based undergraduate financial aid. In fact, we substantially enhanced the financial aid we provide to students from low- and middle-income groups so that they could graduate without a crushing burden of debt. We are proud of this commitment to access and to the diversity within our student body it fosters.

Our Sesquicentennial Class—the Class of 2015—comes from 48 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and 45 countries worldwide. (We hope we’ve done nothing to offend Arkansas and Nebraska….and I will work on that for next year.) The sesquicentennial class was selected from among 36,387 applicants for freshman admission—an all-time high and the largest applicant pool in the Ivy League. One fifth self-identify as underrepresented minorities. We currently rank 10th for economic diversity, according to a report from US News & World report. And about one tenth are international students. Transfer students, too, come from all across the country, and this year over 13% are international students.

As part of our  commitment to creating a diverse  campus community, we began the year with three new high-level professionals to provide leadership to our diversity initiatives for undergraduate, graduate and professional students, and we opened two diversity units—the Cornell Intercultural Center and the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives.

We are focusing a great deal of effort and attention on the physical and emotional wellbeing of our students. As many of you know, I recently directed fraternities and sororities to end pledging as we know it and create a new system of recruitment, education and induction starting next year to eliminate the hazing and high-risk use of alcohol that too often have become part of the pledging process. This approach, I am convinced, will strengthen the Greek system, which can have – and has had – such a positive impact on so many Cornellians. We are devoting increased attention to the safe use of our beautiful campus gorges and also, with increased staffing at Gannett Health Services, we are providing extended hours for counseling as well as on-line resources to all members of our community.

A diverse student body taught by distinguished faculty members within a caring community is a winning combination, and our students seem to agree. Eighty-eight percent of Cornell undergraduates rate their educational experience at Cornell as “excellent” or “good,” according to a survey conducted last spring; 93 percent said they are “very satisfied” or “generally satisfied” with the overall quality of instruction.

Going forward, we will keep Cornell within reach, not only of American undergraduates, but also of graduate and professional students, and of international students, who—especially as undergraduates—have only limited access to financial aid.

A third aspect of Cornell’s uniqueness is our long-standing global reach, beginning with our founding. Ezra Cornell’s determination to “…found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” as expansive a goal as any in the history of higher education, included the assumption that the dream would not be limited to New York or to the United States.

Cornell is widely respected as an international powerhouse of learning, discovery and creativity and is a magnet for students and scholars from scores of countries. At this time we have students and scholars from more than 120 countries here in Ithaca. Faculty excel in work involving nearly every continent, and in both developed and developing countries. Our undergraduate major in China and Asia-Pacific Studies has revolutionized the preparation of students in foreign relations and international business. We have the distinction of developing and operating the Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar in Doha, Qatar—and being the first American university to offer our M.D. degree abroad.

But the world of international scholarship and engagement is changing, and Cornell must—and will—change with it or risk being left behind. Global climate change, infectious diseases, nuclear proliferation, trade regulation require international collaboration, and all of us need the skills to live and work effectively across cultures and national borders. We will be giving increasing attention to internationalization between now and our sesquicentennial—to prepare our students and increase our impact in a world of interconnected challenges.

A fourth key to Cornell’s character is our mandate for public engagement as the only private university with a full land grant mission of service and outreach. Through Cornell Cooperative Extension, which is celebrating its centennial this year, our agricultural experiment facilities, and other initiatives, Cornell is in every county in the state and in all five boroughs of New York City.

The Cornell Public Service Center, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, connects students, staff, faculty and alumni with community organizations. For two decades, it has reinforced academic learning with practical experiences that strengthen civic values and respond to community needs. Since Hurricane Lee caused devastating flooding in our area last month, hundreds of Cornell students, working through the Cornell Public Service Center and other organizations—including the women’s gymnastics team, Black Students United and the Interfraternity Council—have helped our neighbors in need.

Staff members also contribute to Cornell’s public engagement through their excellence in formal activities, as just mentioned, and through their participation in a host of civic and volunteer activities. I especially want to commend the volunteer staff of the Emergency CARE Fund Committee and its chair Beth McKinney ’82, employee-elected trustee and director of our Wellness Program, for the assistance the fund has provided to flood victims in the Cornell community. Yesterday, with support from the university and those in our campus and local communities, the CARE Fund concluded a successful auction—on-line and in person—to aid members of our campus community who face emergencies.

And we are moving ahead with additional initiatives that will promote public engagement—as land grant university to the world. Earlier this month, David Einhorn and Cheryl Strauss-Einhorn, both Class of 1991, in partnership with the Office of the Provost and the Division of Student and Academic Services, established the Center for Community Engaged Learning and Research, which will be the core academic unit that connects public engagement to Cornell’s educational mission. The Einhorns’ gift allows Cornell to take a crucial next step—not only enhancing the work we have already been doing but transforming our approaches to public engagement and advancing a key priority in our strategic plan. The integrated service-learning initiative will place Cornell in the lead among its peers for engaged teaching, learning and scholarship.

Another way in which Cornell is expanding its public engagement is by taking a leadership role in economic development within our region and state. I serve, with Lt. Governor Robert Duffy and Tom Tranter, president and CEO of Corning Enterprises, as co-chair of the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council—one of 10 such councils that Governor Andrew Cuomo has established to foster economic development in the state. I am convinced that New York’s colleges and universities, in partnership with business, government, and the venture capital community, can play an important role in fostering sustainable economic development. Between FY 2007 and FY2011, Cornell research efforts helped launch 35 companies—26 of them within New York State. And in FY 2010—the most recent for which comparable data are now available – New York’s colleges and universities spun off at least 45 companies – including 12 that grew out of Cornell research—providing an economic boost to our state.

Going forward, we have responded to Mayor Bloomberg’s call for proposals to build an applied science and technology campus in New York City. Our new partnership with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology will bring the full spectrum of each institution’s academic strengths to this new venture. Together, our two great universities will create global avenues of economic opportunity and tech leadership. Next week we will submit a formal proposal to Mayor Bloomberg and his team, who will make their decision by the end of the year.

Although competition for this campus is stiff, I believe Cornell is the right choice for this venture:
1.      Cornell is highly ranked in the fields necessary to succeed in technology entrepreneurship: engineering, computer science, and interdisciplinary and applied research.
2.      Our faculty, staff, and alumni are heavily involved in the New York City tech network.
3.      We are experienced in developing major capital projects in New York City; for example, the current $1-billion project to double the research space at Weill Cornell Medical College.
4.      And Cornell has experience in establishing and managing a complete campus far from our home campus—as we have done so successfully with Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar.

I can sum up our proposal for a new campus in New York City in two words “Excellence” and “Commitment.” Cornell’s new campus will bring excellence in innovation and entrepreneurship to New York City and Cornell is committed to the future of New York City.

So there you have it:  Four years before our sesquicentennial, high on a hill with our feet on the ground and with the momentum already beginning to build, we are a university with our house in order and a strategic plan in place to expand our reach, enhance our academic prowess and extend our leadership. I am grateful to our colleague, Professor, Dean and Vice President Glenn Altschuler Ph.D. ’76, who, working with Pete and Nancy Meinig and a broadly based campus committee, is leading campus planning for the sesquicentennial.

We can measure Cornell’s progress by the extent to which Cornell’s expertise is known and respected worldwide; by the national and international honors our faculty, students, and staff—and the institution as a whole—receive; by the faculty members who not only educate our students but inform and shape the direction of their fields; by the broader action that our efforts inspire, and by the positive changes on the state, national and international level that result.

We owe a great deal to our alumni, parents and friends, who strengthen it with their love and support. You serve on advisory councils and boards; provide leadership for reunions and other class activities; organize activities for Cornell clubs, alumni associations and affinity groups, encourage and mentor our students, and provide a remarkable level of financial support. Those in this room have been among the leaders of our efforts, and I am pleased to report that we ended the 2011 fiscal year with more than $30 million raised for the Cornell Annual Fund, surpassing a long-time goal and setting a new record. Thank you. And since the campaign began, despite the daunting economic climate, Cornell’s alumni, parents and friends have donated a record-breaking $3.3 billion in gifts to the university.

Through the leadership of campaign co-chairs Stephen Ashley ’62, MBA ’64 and Andrew Tisch ’71 and past co-chair Jan Rock Zubrow ’77, who is now chair of the Executive Committee of our Board of Trustees, and Robert Appel ’53, who heads the campaign at Weill Cornell Medical College, we have achieved remarkable results. And with their enthusiastic support and commitment, I am pleased to announce today, in honor of our upcoming sesquicentennial, an expanded campaign goal of $4.75 billion, to be raised by Dec. 31, 2015. I know that together we can exceed this ambitious goal.

On our 150th birthday:

In America’s bicentennial year, speaking to Cornell graduates and their guests in Schoellkopf Stadium, beloved Cornell Professor Emeritus Walter Lafeber noted, “The founders of this nation and the founders of Cornell shared a common commitment, indeed a common passion: a belief in the power of ideas to transform individual lives and to improve human society.”

That commitment and passion remain part of Cornell’s special magic—the pride that so many of us feel about being Cornellians, no matter what our major or college or the path we’ve followed since earning our degrees; the sense that we are part of a great and noble enterprise… where ideas matter…and where human society can be improved and individual lives transformed. Cornell’s magic continues to ground us, inspire us, motivate us to become the university we aspire to be…we can be…we must be…we will be.

To realize our aspirations we need the engagement, guidance, help and support of every person in this room and tens of thousands of loyal Cornellians around the country and the world. For our sesquicentennial and beyond–the time is NOW!