Presidential Archives

Reunion 2015 State of the University Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
June 6, 2015

Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

I’m grateful to Glenn Altschuler for his analysis of my time as Cornell’s president and appreciate the kind words. I also appreciate, Glenn, your friendship and mentorship on matters large and small, professional and personal. And I thank Robin for all she has done and continues to do as part of this wonderful university and community and for sharing with me this extraordinary journey.

One of the very first Cornell events that Robin and I attended was Reunion 2006, before we had officially begun our appointments at Cornell. As I mentioned in my last and final Cornell Alumni Magazine column, that weekend was our first large—scale introduction to the Cornell spirit. Immersed in a sea of red and white (and mud!) and chatting with so many alumni and their guests from across the generations and around the world, we were sure we had come to a very special place. That turned out to be a huge understatement! And, as much as Robin and I are looking forward to our new adventures in Washington, D.C., we thank all of you and will truly miss Cornell and the faculty, students, staff, and alumni who contribute, in their own special ways, to the university’s strength.

There has been much to celebrate in this sesquicentennial year for the university: the distinction of our faculty, the achievements of our students, the talents of our staff, the successes of our alumni, and the role that Cornell has always played in the world and continues to play with such distinction and innovation.

But it is also a year of complicated transitions for our university—with not only a new president, but also a new provost, a new chief student affairs officer and a new chief alumni affairs and development officer soon to come on board.

Jeff McCarthy is stepping in to fill the vice president for alumni affairs and development position on an interim basis when Charlie Phlegar and his wife, Karen, return to their alma mater, Virginia Tech. Charlie will assume the duties of vice president for advancement, and Cornell is mounting a national search for Charlie’s successor. Charlie, thank you for your leadership and for a job immensely well done!

Ryan Lombardi, currently a vice president at Ohio University, will be joining the Cornell community in August as vice president for student and campus life-taking over responsibilities that Vice President Susan Murphy has carried out so superbly as vice president for student and academic services since 1994. Susan, it would take hours to even begin to recount what you have accomplished and what you mean to all of us. Congratulations!

A search for Cornell’s next provost is underway, with ILR professor and former dean Harry Katz serving most ably as interim provost. Thank you, Harry!

And, of course, on July 1, Cornell will have a new president, Elizabeth Garrett, former provost and senior vice president at the University of Southern California, who also will have faculty appointments in the Cornell Law School, Johnson, and the Government Department in the College of Arts and Sciences. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Beth Garrett during the nine months since her appointment was announced. She is incredibly bright, energetic, articulate, and she is going to be terrific for Cornell.

Without a doubt, though, the upcoming period of transition is one of the most far-reaching in Cornell’s recent history, and many of you have asked me what alumni can do to help during such time of broad leadership change.

Alumni are truly an enormously important force that holds our university together. As a group you span the continents and the generations and, collectively, you know and love Cornell across all the dimensions of our mission. You have a central role to play in helping to preserve continuity while effecting positive change.

There are at least three ways in which you and others in our far-flung alumni body can increase the likelihood that Cornell will remain an extraordinary university far into the future.

The first is by understanding and celebrating the achievements of our faculty, students and staff. The faculty-generation after generation– are the heart of the university and the main determinant of Cornell’s academic excellence.

Many of you, I suspect, crossed paths with M.H. (Mike) Abrams, the Class of 1916 Professor of English Literature Emeritus, who passed away recently at the age of 102, after some 70 years as a member of our community. Mike was one of the dominant figures in literary criticism of the twentieth century and edited the Norton Anthology of English Literature for four decades. He was also the quintessential Cornellian: an inspiring teacher, an extraordinary colleague, a Big Red football fan, and someone whose optimism, sense of humor, and deep wisdom inspired many of us over the years.

Cornell’s tradition of academic excellence, as exemplified by our faculty, continues. This year, eight members of our faculty were elected to distinguished national academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

And just last month, we learned that two rising stars on the Cornell faculty-Hening Lin, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, who studies enzymes that have important physiological functions, and Olga Boudker, a structural biologist in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Weill Cornell Medical College who works on glutamate transporters-were selected as Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators, a very high honor linked to substantial research funding. They join Michele Wang, professor of physics and of cell and developmental biology, who is already an HHMI Investigator at Cornell.

Excellent faculty, excellent staff, and excellent students are a potent combination, and our students and staff members have also distinguished themselves this year. Two recent alumnae–Rachel Harmon ’15, who just graduated from the ILR School, and Swati Sureka ’15, who graduated with a double major in biology and chemistry from Arts & Sciences–won prestigious fellowships, a Rhodes and a Keasbey, respectively, for graduate work in Great Britain.

I’m pleased to note that our experienced alumni continue to excel years after earning their degrees. To give just one very recent example: Five Cornell alumnae made Forbes’s 2015 list of the world’s 100 most powerful women: Irene Rosenfeld ’75, MS ’77, PhD ’80; Lubna Olayan ’77; Mary Meeker MBA ’86; Padmasree Warrior MS ’84; and Jenny Lee ’94 MEng ’95

Our continuing students have also done well this year in securing national awards, including Boren, Udall, and Goldwater scholarships, and in distinguishing themselves in so many other ways, including in athletic competitions. This year, Cornell captured Ivy League titles in men’s wrestling (for the 13th straight year), men’s lacrosse for the 29th Ivy title in the program’s history, and men’s lightweight rowing, for the second year in the row. Men’s lightweight rowing went undefeated all season, earning its second straight national championship, joining women’s polo, which also won the national championship.

Among Cornell’s diverse and exceptionally talented staff, who contribute so much to our campuses every day, I am especially proud of the 17 staff members who completed college degrees while also being employed at Cornell. Vice President Mary Opperman and I were privileged to congratulate 12 of the staff graduates-earning degrees that ranged from associate’s degrees to a PhD-at a reception in their honor last month, recognizing them for the incredible talent, organization and dedication required to accomplish such an ambitious goal.

I can’t say emphatically enough how critical our staff are to the excellence of Cornell-in the support they give our faculty and students, and, quite separately, in the expertise and dedication they bring to carrying out the varied and essential work of the university day by day. There is no better proof than the talented staff members who have done so much to make this a Reunion Weekend to remember. Please join me in thanking Cornell’s talented staff for their part in creating the excellence that is Cornell.

As I’ve talked with alumni at reunions and at events on campus and around the world during these past nine years, you’ve told me time and again about the people-faculty, staff and other students-who shaped your Cornell experience, and whom you remember to this day. During this time of transition, the excellence of our faculty, staff and students must continue and, indeed, must increase.

A second way that so many of you have already helped with a smooth transition is through your philanthropy, and that will continue to be vital to the health of Cornell. The Cornell NOW campaign is fast approaching the $6 billion mark. It has surpassed its goals for faculty renewal and for undergraduate scholarships, and that, in turn, has made it possible for us to recruit exceptional new faculty members and to retain those in high demand, and to attract extraordinary students from all backgrounds-and to provide the need-based financial aid to enable them to pursue a Cornell degree.

In addition, with $685 million already raised, you’ve helped make possible a wonderfully strong start for Cornell Tech, our new graduate campus in New York City. Cornell Tech is already redefining graduate education for the digital age through close connections with the tech sector and by combining applied science and entrepreneurship in the student experience. Cornell Tech graduates officially participated in the Ithaca commencement for the first time this year, and we’ll officially celebrate the construction of Cornell Tech’s permanent campus on Roosevelt Island, which has been underway since winter, on June 16.

I don’t often talk in detail about the importance of philanthropy at this address, but in a national climate of skepticism about the cost and value of higher education, I’ve been asked many times why people should support higher education rather than any number of other worthy causes. The truth is that philanthropy is an essential component of our operating budget and also provides an edge for excellence that we would be hard-pressed to obtain in any other way. For universities like Cornell, who award need-based financial aid to undergraduates, access, while essential to our founding vision and continuing mission, comes at a considerable cost. For the Cornell Class of 2017, comprising 3223 students, nearly half (1,553 or 48%) received financial aid, with an average need-based scholarship or grant award of $36,604. In addition universities nationwide have faced a decade of little or no increase in federal support for university research. Despite growth in state expenditures for public higher education in 40 states last year, state funding for higher education nationally is still 4 percent lower than before the start of the Great Recession.

Cornell is fortunate to be among the relatively few universities nationally with a substantial endowment. There are approximately 3,000 four-year colleges in the United States. Of the 832 of those institutions included in the 2014 NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments, only 92 had endowments of $1 billion or more in 2014. Cornell ranked number 19 on the list-but our endowment of about $6 billion is only 28% of Princeton’s (#5 on the list) and 17% of Harvard’s (ranked #1).

Here on the Ithaca campus, payout from the endowment and current operating gifts account for almost 20 percent (19.6%) of our operating budget. Factoring in clinical practice growth at Weill Cornell Medical College, endowment payout and current operating gifts account for 13.5% of the total operating budget university-wide. So I thank those of you who contributed to your reunion campaigns, and encourage you to keep up the good work.

Third, in times of complex transition, it is the alumni, along with the faculty, students, and staff, who provide continuity and also critique that will keep the university true to its founding values while also leading in new directions as our students and the larger society require.

During my nine years as president, I’ve truly appreciated alumni concern about the university and its future. You’ve been quick to respond-and to challenge me-on ideas I’ve put forward in my Cornell Alumni Magazine columns and during the questions and comment times that have been built into various alumni events….

You’ve also made yourselves available when special needs occur. During the Great Recession, when some within the greater alumni body found themselves without jobs, alumni came together through Cornell’s LinkedIn groups and other social media channels to help each other move to new roles. Today, more than 53,000 alumni are a part of Cornell’s LinkedIn alumni network. And, thanks to you, these Cornell connections continue to grow and strengthen daily.

And you not only help each other. You continue to serve Cornell – as volunteers, advocates and ambassadors. Some 15,000 Cornellians volunteer on behalf of your alma mater, overseeing programs and activities of the more than 700 – yes, 700 – alumni groups around the globe. For Reunion, alone, more than 300 volunteers have spent countless hours planning and implementing the details of this weekend, making your return to campus extra special for all of us. They deserve our heartfelt thanks!

During this complex transition, I hope you will build upon your long-standing connection with Cornell: celebrating our achievements, supporting our excellence, and providing insightful and constructive critique.

One of the truths that has become apparent during this sesquicentennial year is that Cornell, throughout its history, has remained true to certain founding-and foundational-values:

Robin and I have gained enormously during these past nine year from your interest and involvement in all things Cornell, and I encourage you to welcome Beth Garrett and Andrei Marmor as warmly as you welcomed us, and to provide her with ideas, feedback and support that will help ensure a successful transition and even greater achievements for our Cornell. And know that, although Robin and I are moving on to new opportunities, Cornell will always be in our hearts. Thank you!