Presidential Archives

Reunion 2014 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
Saturday, June 7, 2014

Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

Thank you, Mayor Myrick, and good morning, everyone. Whether you’re celebrating your 5th Cornell reunion, like Mayor Myrick and the rest of the Class of 2009, or celebrating your 75th Cornell reunion, like Austin Kiplinger, chair emeritus of the Cornell Board of Trustees, and other proud members of the Cornell Class of 1939, or celebrating Reunion Zero with members of the Class of 2014, who earned their degrees less than two weeks ago; whether you are connecting again with your undergraduate class or a professional school, or a special interest alumni association, or the continuous reunion group; whether you are here in Bailey Hall this morning, or watching the live-stream of this event from a location across the country or around the world—we are thrilled to have you with us for this spectacular Big Red Reunion Weekend. Welcome home!

Robin and I have been touched by the outpouring of affection and support from Cornellians everywhere since it was announced that I would become the next Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in July 2015, and we thank you. Moving to Washington, DC was a hard choice for us, but the opportunity to work at the intersection of science and culture for such a national treasure proved irresistible. And Robin and I are counting on staying in touch with so many of you.

What makes Cornell so memorable to so many of us? The answers are as varied as our alumni; for most it seems to be some combination of remarkable people—faculty, staff and students; the physical beauty of the campus and surrounding area; the opportunities, personal and professional, you’ve gained as Cornellians; and our university’s contributions to meeting the world’s most difficult challenges.

People are the heart of Cornell. Our faculty members continue to be honored for their vision, teaching, and research. For example, we had another four faculty members elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences this year.

Faculty excellence at Cornell extends across disciplines and academic ranks. Many of us heard beloved senior professors Glenn Altschuler and Isaac Kramnick give their Olin Lecture yesterday on “The Way We Were…And Are,” and we’re looking forward to their book on the same topic, Cornell: A History, 1940-2015, which will be out in September.

Professor Stewart Schwab is completing a decade of distinguished service as the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School this month, and we’ll be honoring and thanking him at a Law School event tonight. And on July 1, we’ll welcome Eduardo Peñalver ’94, professor at the University of Chicago Law School, back to Cornell as our new law school dean. Eduardo joins Gretchen Ritter ’83, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Kathryn Boor ’80, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, proving once again the power that Cornell has in drawing its distinguished alumni back to the Hill as leaders.

One of our newer faculty members, Caitlín Barrett, assistant professor of classics, was recognized last month with the Robert A. and Donna B. Paul Academic Advising Award for her work as director of undergraduate studies in the archaeology program, completely revising the undergraduate major and minor in archaeology, which resulted in eight times more students pursuing the degree.

Jenny Mann, associate professor of English, who received this year’s Robert and Helen Appel Fellowship for Humanists and Social Scientists, has offered workshops through our Center for Teaching Excellence, improved job placement support for English PhDs, and teaches an immensely popular course on utopias.

Recognizing their commitment to encouraging civic engagement in our students through service-learning, we awarded this year’s Kaplan Family Distinguished Faculty Fellowships to two faculty members: Debra Castillo, the Emerson Hinchliff Professor of Hispanic Studies and professor of comparative literature, and Angela Gonzales, associate professor of development sociology. And I am pleased to note that Barbara Kaplan ’59, who helped make those fellowships possible, is here this weekend celebrating her 55th Cornell reunion.

Our staff members are also an integral part of Cornell’s excellence and the student experience, and their contributions are recognized not only at Cornell, but nationally. To give just one example: Dr. Janet Corson-Rikert, associate vice president for campus health and director of University Health Services, received the American College Health Association’s Ollie B. Moten Award for her “exceptional service and commitment to the field of college health.” Because of student demand for health services and the facility’s wider importance to campus health, we are moving to update and expand our current building into a comprehensive university health center, which we hope to complete in 2017.

Our incredible students also have gained their share of academic honors this year including two Marshall Scholarships for graduate work in the United Kingdom, and a variety of prestigious national awards.

And how about Big Red athletics?! Six Ivy League titles this year, five medals at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi by students or alumni, and a recent national championship for our men’s lightweight rowing team!

To get a fuller sense of our remarkable students, I invite you to look at the profiles of 19 “incredibly impressive” Cornell students that appeared in Business Insider this spring. Our students are creating clinics, companies and new technologies, finding new species, and producing videos to excite young people about math. I have no doubt that some of these young men and women, and many other Cornell students, will continue to help change the world.

We are pleased to extend the opportunities of a Cornell education to our newest students, who will enter next August as the Class of 2018. We received more than 43,000 applications for the roughly 3,200 spots in the class—up 7.6 percent from the previous year—and our admitted students are already an accomplished group from whom we expect great things.

A second factor important to Cornellians far and near is the beauty of Cornell’s natural and built environment. I hope you’ll make time to visit some of the beautiful natural areas on campus and in the greater Ithaca area. As you tour the campus, you’ll also see many new buildings, including Stocking Hall, with its new and expanded dairy plant and a beautiful, updated reincarnation of the beloved Dairy Bar. Across from Barton is Gates Hall, the new home of our Faculty of Computing and Information Sciences, which will be dedicated by Bill Gates this fall. And Klarman Hall, our first new building for the humanities in a century, is taking shape along East Avenue, adjacent to Goldwin Smith Hall. It was funded completely through philanthropy, including a lead gift from Seth ’79 and Beth Klarman, from whom it is named.

At Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, we have opened the 18-story Belfer Research Building, which is ushering in a new era of translational medicine, in which scientific discoveries can be translated more rapidly into advanced patient care. Also in New York City, we are building a campus for the information age, focused on creating pioneering leaders and technologies for the new economy. Cornell NYC Tech currently is operating from donated space in Google’s building in Manhattan, and we look forward to opening the first phase of the permanent Roosevelt Island campus in summer 2017.

College affordability is one of our society’s major issues. Cornell continues to make admissions decisions without regard for the ability of students or their families to pay and then awards need-based financial aid. Currently, 50 percent of undergraduates receive need-based aid from Cornell sources. Cornell’s financial aid initiatives in 2008 made Cornell more affordable for all aided undergraduates. The median net cost of attendance for this group of undergraduate students is lower today than it was six years ago. These policies have helped make Cornell the 8th most economically diverse national university based on the percentage of undergraduate students receiving federal Pell Grants, according to the 2014 US News & World Report.

I thank those who have helped us with contributions to financial aid and many other areas in your reunion campaigns and Cornell NOW, which stands at $4.7 billion toward our $4.75 billion goal. Thank you. When we include gifts to Cornell NYC Tech we have raised over $5.3 billion! Thank you. Over 161,000 alumni, parents, students, staff, and friends have made gifts to the campaign. Thank you.

And we’ve made excellent progress on all our priorities, including over $47 million raised for faculty renewal, toward our $50 million goal, and $327 million toward our $350 million goal for undergraduate scholarships. And the Cornell Annual Fund will set another record this year—its 12th consecutive year of growth—with over 32,000 donors so far, including especially good participation growth from our younger alumni. Thank you all.

In this sesquicentennial year, it is worth remembering that for 150 years, Cornell and Cornellians have mobilized to tackle seemingly intractable real-world problems. And the commitment of Cornellians to contribute productively toward solutions remains as strong—indeed stronger—than ever.

Take, as one example, the issue of racial diversity and inclusion, which has been on the minds of many this year, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Although Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White both advocated for granting educational opportunity to people of all races, campus life for students of color was sometimes harsh in the university’s early yearsAttitudes toward diversity began to change in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as part of a growing national awareness of civil rights, and Cornellians were part of that change. Among the participants in “Freedom Summer” in 1964, for example, were Michael Schwerner ’61, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, whose parents were both Cornellians. They were killed while attempting to register black voters in Mississippi 50 years ago this month, and their sacrifice is commemorated in a stained glass window in Sage Chapel, made possible by a gift from the Class of ’61.

For much of our history Cornell has tried, albeit imperfectly, to insist on integration and an end to discrimination while fostering a dynamic and productive tension between assimilation and affinities rooted in an individual’s background and interests. Some of the credit for our progress toward increased diversity belongs to James A. Perkins, Cornell’s 7th president. In 1964, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, President Perkins established the Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP) to help recruit African American students to Cornell and support their success. During his presidency, black enrollment increased from under 10 students to over 250. Yet some of those enrolled through COSEP felt as much “part and apart” as did the earlier generations of black students.

Those of you in the Class of 1969, especially, will remember the tension between black and white students during your time here, which rocked the foundations of Cornell but also set the stage for productive change. Twenty years ago, Tom Jones ’69, one of the student leaders during the Perkins era, an emeritus Cornell trustee and member of this year’s 45th reunion class, established the Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony in honor of President Perkins and with the goal of encouraging greater understanding across differences. This year’s winner was the Intergroup Dialogue Project, a course now offered across all colleges, where students learn through frank, constructive discussions about issues of conflict and community including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Thank you, Tom!

In recent years, we have stepped up our efforts to address issues of diversity and inclusion. Last fall the university launched a study of the campus climate for students, and, with the help of a team led by Professor Sylvia Hurtado, a noted scholar from the University of California, Los Angeles, obtained both qualitative and quantitative data. While most students have positive perceptions of the Cornell experience, the Hurtado study found the degree to which students feel included, respected and safe on campus varies significantly depending upon their social identities. The study is already informing our work on the campus climate going forward.

Another issue of growing concern nationally as well as at Cornell is sexual violence. Like racial bias, it is an issue on which we, as a community and a nation, must take a stand, a strong stand. Our broad-based Council on Sexual Violence Prevention, which includes faculty, students, staff and members of the local community, is strengthening efforts to prevent and respond effectively to sexual violence and to change the culture that permits it to exist. And, thanks to our determination to tackle this issue, we were already well out in front among institutions of higher education when President Obama’s White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault urged colleges to take action to curb sexual violence that has long plagued schools across the country.

For nearly a century and a half, Cornellians have attempted to address big problems while acting as custodians and disseminators of knowledge and promoting free inquiry with our unique combination of excellence in teaching, research and public engagement and our unswerving commitment to student access.

In addition to efforts to improve the campus climate that I’ve focused on in this talk, we are also leading the way in undergraduate curricular programs designed for the needs of today and tomorrow—including a university-wide undergraduate business minor designed for students majoring in subject areas other than business to get exposure to business concepts, frameworks, and methods; a wide variety of “hands-on” team projects in the College of Engineering, building everything from Mars rovers to autonomous underwater vehicles to an on-campus sustainable research facility to explore new energy technologies and sustainable building practices; and the China and Asia-Pacific Studies Program, designed to “train future leaders who are equipped to address the inevitable challenges and negotiate the delicate complexities in the various domains of U.S.-China relations,” which has benefited greatly from the vision and support of Mike Zak ’75, Adam Levinson ’92, and other alumni.

In 1967, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare John W. Gardner wrote an article in the American Bar Association Journal entitled “A Nation Is Never Finished.” The article covered civil rights, poverty, the decay of cities and threats to community cohesion, and it ended with these memorable words: “A nation is never finished. You can’t build it and then leave it standing as the Pharaohs did the pyramids….It has to be re-created in each generation by believing, caring men and women. It is now our turn. If we don’t believe or don’t care, nothing can save the nation. If we believe and care, nothing can stop us.”

A great university, like a great nation, is never finished. And now it is our turn. Our sesquicentennial year will provide many opportunities, here in Ithaca, in New York City and around the country and the world, to look back at Cornell’s past accomplishments, celebrate current successes, and chart a course for the future. As we celebrate 150 years of extraordinary contribution, I invite you to be part of the continuing conversation about difficult issues—and help identify solutions—that are hallmarks of our revolutionary and beloved Cornell. As I welcome you home this weekend, I welcome you also to that larger task. Thank you.