Presidential Archives

2012 State of University Address

David J. Skorton
President, Cornell University

As prepared for presentation
October 26, 2012

Thank you, Chairman Harrison, and welcome, everyone, to the 62nd annual meeting of the Cornell University Council and the Cornell University Board of Trustees.

As some of you know, in his day job, as chief executive officer of the Clinton Global Initiative, Bob Harrison helped put together one of the few events this fall outside the debates to draw both Presidential candidates. Bob has done an equally outstanding job of bringing together Cornellians and extending Cornell’s impact.

I also commend the University Council, under the leadership of Katrina James, for its service to Cornell and for serving so effectively as ambassadors for the university at dozens of events across the world.

Like Bob, I’m delighted that Pete and Nancy Meinig and Frank Rhodes are with us today, and I recognize the partnership and leadership of Jane Harrison. And I also note the passing of Dale Corson, whose contributions to Cornell we celebrated in Sage Chapel last month.

The American statesman John W. Gardner once said, “I count it a mark of maturity that men and women nurture the institutions that nurtured them, not uncritically, but lovingly, not to preserve them unchanged, but to renew them as the times require.”

Thank you for giving your time, energy, support and your love to nurture and renew Cornell.

In the past, I have used this time to share thoughts on pressing issues in higher education; to make observations about Cornell’s strengths, challenges and prospects; and to imagine our university in days to come. Today, I am going to share my view of the state of the university, based on information we are gathering in our strategic planning process.

Three years ago, with a faculty-led advisory committee chaired by Professor Ed Lawler of the ILR School, we developed a strategic plan to guide our university toward the sesquicentennial and beyond.

One of the features of the strategic plan is its emphasis on measuring our progress toward the seven strategic initiatives the plan set for us. Briefly, those seven initiatives are:

We will give an in-depth presentation on the strategic plan to the Board of Trustees this afternoon. Tonight in Barton, highlighting a strategic priority and the 150th anniversary of the “land grant” Morrill Act, we’ll meet some of the extraordinary faculty and students who help connect outreach and public engagement so effectively to teaching, learning and research. In addition you can read about our progress in the 2011-12 Annual Report. There are copies in the lobby if you didn’t pick one up on your way in. This morning, I want to reflect on the substantial progress we are making–and on work we still have to do.

The overarching aspiration, as you may recall, is for Cornell to be “widely recognized as a top-ten research university in the world, and a model university for the interweaving of liberal education and fundamental knowledge with practical education and impact on societal and world problems.” All of this, of course, is in the context of our commitment to the intellectual, physical and emotional health and well-being of all of our students.

According to Academic Analytics data Cornell’s Ithaca campus now has 47 programs ranked in the top 10 of their disciplines, more than any other American university. And that number will likely increase when we receive the report about the superb programs at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Top programs require exceptional faculty who discover, create, innovate, transform individual lives…and change the world for the better. With half of our professors over age 55, faculty renewal is a top priority for Cornell. No task is more important to our future than recruiting and retaining the next generation of great professors.

Although competition for the best faculty is increasing as other institutions recover from the Great Recession, we’ve been very successful in attracting rising stars as well as senior-level colleagues. On the Ithaca campus, with a professorial total of about 1,600, we made 71 new tenure-track appointments in 2011-12, up from just 27 in 2010-11 and 42 in 2009-10. We have made another 54 appointments so far this year, and that number will increase over the next several months. During the same timeframe at Weill Cornell Medical College, with a total complement of 1,255 full-time, salaried faculty, we made 85 new tenure-track appointments, compared to 54 in 2010-11 and 49 in 2009-10.

One of our new rising stars is Jenny Sabin, assistant professor of design and emerging technologies in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. Jenny applies insights and theories from biology and mathematics to the design of material structures. A few years ago Science magazine featured on their cover one of her projects, which had won the International Visualization Challenge. You can see an example of her work at the myThread Pavilion installation in Nike’s Bowery Stadium in Manhattan.

At the senior level, we recruited Dr. Lewis Cantley, a pioneering researcher at Harvard, to lead the newly established cancer center at Weill Cornell Medical College-New York Presbyterian Hospital. As director, Dr. Cantley will bring together Weill Cornell’s basic, translational and clinical research expertise, enabling us to convert cancer research breakthroughs into precise, personalized patient therapies.

We have raised nearly $35 million for faculty renewal on the Ithaca campus over the past two years, putting us ahead of schedule toward our Cornell NOW faculty renewal goal of $50 million, and $42 million over the past two fiscal years for faculty renewal at Weill Cornell.

Another priority of the strategic plan is to move departments or fields of critical importance into positions of world leadership. The humanities are well represented on this list, and the College of Arts and Sciences has made 34 new faculty appointments in humanities fields over the past two years. With the construction of Klarman Hall, our first new building for the humanities in a century, Cornell humanists will have a beautiful, sustainably designed facility in which to pursue their scholarship and teaching in the heart of central campus. And Klarman Hall supports yet another strategic plan priority–implementing strategically focused, cost-effective enhancements to the infrastructure: it will be built completely through philanthropy. We expect to break ground next summer and to open the building, built to LEED platinum standards, in 2015.

Another strategic priority is to “develop stronger connections across colleges.” We have done that on the Ithaca campus and between the Ithaca and New York City campuses. Here in Ithaca, after extensive review by our own faculty, advisors from other universities, and distinguished alumni, we have created a new university-wide economics department. The new department brings together all economics faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences and all labor economists from the ILR School, along with selected faculty from Johnson, the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in CALS, and the Department of Policy Analysis and Management in Human Ecology. As a result we now offer a much broader perspective on economics–including theory, policy, and empirical methods–making us much more competitive in attracting new faculty and students in this area. We are especially grateful to Trustee Don Opatrny, whose leadership is helping to make Cornell’s program among the best in the world. To date, we have raised $4.3 million for the Economics Initiative, toward a $34-million goal.

We’re also bringing together our Ithaca and New York City campuses in a major way.For example, an educational program linking the Department of Biomedical Engineering in our College of Engineering with Weill Cornell Medical College provides Ithaca-based PhD students with an opportunity to be mentored in New York City by clinicians over a 7-week period in the summer. Students observe patient consultation, diagnostic procedures, treatment planning, and surgical operations and do a short-term research project with their clinician mentor. Support is provided through a National Institutes of Health training grant, a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and through a National Cancer Institute Physical Sciences-Oncology grant.

Cornell NYC Tech, currently based in space donated by Google, Inc. in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, will open additional opportunities for cross-campus–and multidisciplinary–collaboration by offering a distinctive model of graduate tech education fusing academic excellence with commercial success and societal good. We’re delighted that a steering committee of distinguished tech entrepreneurs–New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Qualcomm Founder and Cornell alumnus Irwin Jacobs, and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt–will help guide the development of Cornell NYC Tech. We’ve hired the first new professor: Deborah Estrin, professor of computer science at UCLA. She has a joint appointment with Weill Cornell and is already actively collaborating on research proposals. We are on track to welcome the first class of master’s students in computer science in January, and earlier this month the Cornell Faculty Senate approved our first dual degree with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The U.S. Department of Commerce will establish a unique one-stop Innovator’s Resource Center at Cornell NYC Tech to make it even easier for entrepreneurs to bring ideas to markets. Plans to open the Roosevelt Island campus in 2017 are well underway.

The final priority of the strategic plan that I want to highlight this morning is diversity in our students, faculty and staff. When many of us think about diversity, we have in mind a way to reduce inequalities by creating opportunities–part of Ezra Cornell’s famous aspiration.

There is a growing body of evidence as well that suggests that diversity also leads to greater excellence. In his 2007 book The Difference, Scott E. Page, a University of Michigan professor, demonstrates in quantifiable terms, “how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies.” As Page notes, “What each of us has to offer, what we can contribute to the vibrancy of our worlds, depends on our being different in some way, in having combinations of perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, and predictive models that differ from those of others. These differences aggregate into a collective ability that exceeds what we possess individually.” (p. 374)

As Bob Harrison noted, the Class of 2016 is talented and diverse across a broad range of metrics. We remain among the most economically diverse national universities, ranking 10th in the nation, according to US News & World Report.

Despite notable progress toward diversity, however, challenges remain. Women accounted for 27.6 percent of the faculty last year compared to 26.7 in fall 2010. Underrepresented minorities made up only 5.7 percent of the faculty last year, down from 6.3 percent in fall 2010, and underrepresented minorities account for a similarly small percentage of our staff.

In addition, the campus has experienced incidents of bias and sexual violence this fall. We are working to get the word out about safety services and other resources that are available, improving lighting in areas where incidents may occur, and continuing conversations with individuals and groups so that we can move closer to being the diverse, welcoming and caring community we aspire to be. I appreciate the energy with which students have taken on this challenge, with activities ranging from protests to the “Illuminate the Night” event on Ho Plaza on Wednesday, at which Chairman Harrison spoke. The event was sponsored by a wide range of student groups and other campus organizations–from Black Students United to the Big Red Bears–and provided an important opportunity for students to promote mutual responsibility and respect, safety and well-being, and to change the campus culture for the better.

Building on earlier efforts and the goals outlined in our strategic plan–we have re-energized our diversity and inclusiveness initiatives through the “Toward New Destinations” program, which involves four broad areas: composition, engagement, inclusion and achievement. In this first year of implementation the deans and vice presidents have committed to 158 specific initiatives that support diversity across our entire community. This year, too, many of us on the faculty and staff are taking the training course, Respect@Cornell, to learn our responsibilities for dealing with reports of sexual violence, harassment, discrimination and other climate issues under Title IX. Clearly we still have work to do, but I am proud of the seriousness and the sensitivity with which so many on our campuses are attempting to address the challenges we face.

Two other areas, not specifically addressed in the strategic plan, remain challenging for us, and in the interest of transparency, I want you to know about them.

First, as you know, we rely on and deeply appreciate Cornell’s talented and hard-working staff members. While most staff members are satisfied with their work life at Cornell, based on a staff survey we administered last year, many have concerns, particularly in the wake of the belt-tightening of the past few years. Working with deans, vice presidents and human resource professionals, we are responding to their concerns and renewing our efforts to maintain the long-standing partnership between our faculty and staff that is at the heart of Cornell’s excellence.

Second, thanks to administrative streamlining and other cost containment measures, we will have a balanced consolidated operating budget at the end of this fiscal year–a full year ahead of schedule. But there is not a lot of slack in that budget. Therefore, as we advance our strategic priorities, we will continue to do so in ways that make prudent use of our resources and that allow us to live within our means.

Let me give you one example: As many of you know, during the darkest days of the Great Recession, when we were reducing many parts of our budget, we actually enhanced our financial aid program to maintain our commitment as the original opportunity university. Tuition in Cornell’s endowed colleges has increased an average of 4.6 percent, yearly, since 2008, while our expenditures on financial aid have grown on average nearly 20 percent, annually, during the same period. We now spend more than $225 million, every year, on financial aid.

To keep Cornell’s doors open to talented students regardless of economic circumstances, we increased the portion of the Cornell Now campaign goal to be used for financial aid. I am pleased to report that we have raised $282.5 million for undergraduate scholarships since the start of the campaign toward our $350-million goal. I thank the literally thousands of alumni, parents and friends who have contributed to undergraduate scholarships.

We remain committed to need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid. However, beginning with students matriculating in Fall 2013, we will be asking students whose families earn between $60,000 a year and $120,000 a year to accept aid packages that include a bit larger loan than they had before, and all students will be asked to earn more through their work on campus. These changes will allow us to ensure that our commitment to access is durable and enduring.

Through all our challenges and in all our aspirations, we are buoyed by the loyalty, the devotion and the generosity of our alumni and friends. Last year was the best fundraising year in Cornell history, with $778 million raised, and the Cornell NOW campaign (excluding Cornell NYC Tech) now stands at $3.81 billion–4/5 of the way to our $4.75 billion goal for the Ithaca and Weill Cornell campuses. The Cornell Annual Fund has set records for the past decade–with $31.4 million raised from over 31,000 donors last year. And in the coming year, we will continue to stress participation with a new giving society–the 1865 Society–to recognize and celebrate those who support Cornell year after year.

As we contemplate the 150 years of achievement that will bring us to our sesquicentennial in 2015, we will be reaching out to all Cornellians–asking each of us and all of us to describe “My Cornell.” Among the opportunities for Cornellians to weigh in, there will be an essay contest–and a video contest–so keep your cameras, Androids iPhones, and Number 2 pencils handy. Frank Rhodes has promised to be part of our Charter Day celebration, in April 2015, and we will have many other special guests on campus at that time and throughout the year.

Because of the experiences Cornellians have had for nearly 150 years, Cornell is the superb university it is today. Because of our remarkable faculty, we have more fields in the top 10 than any other American university. Because of the excellence and diversity of our student body, Cornell graduates are making contributions throughout the world. Because Cornellians have given back so much–so very much–to their alma mater, we’ve achieved our current level of distinction.

But as Adlai Stevenson said long ago, “We dare not just look back to great yesterdays. We must look forward to great tomorrows.”

As we begin another year together, I challenge you, through your commitment of time, energy, resources and skills, to help create great tomorrows for new generations of Cornellians-on the Hill, in New York City, and throughout the world. Thank you.