August 31, 2005

Students voice opinions at open meeting

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The Cornell University Presidential Search Committee held an open forum yesterday for students to provide input in the selection process of the school’s next leader.

Leading the discussion were five trustees, all members of the Search Committee: Robert Harrison ’76, Doug Mitarotonda grad, Josh Katcher ’06, Paul Gould ’67 and Ezra Cornell ’70.

The trustees asked students to articulate their feelings on specific topics. Questions posted on a Power Point slide asked attendees to voice opinions on what structural and policy changes should be made to improve the student experience, what is the single most important thing for Cornell to accomplish, what attributes the next leader should have, and what kind of balance must be struck between the focus on the University and on its capital campaign.

Nearly every person in the room expressed a point of view, but fewer than two dozen students were present at the meeting.

Some wonder how the public is to accurately assess the qualities of a new leader when they do not know the full reasons why the last one resigned.

“We focused on core questions that need to be answered before choosing a new president and none of them have anything to do with why the last president left,” Mitarotonda told The Sun. The Committee is currently drafting an opportunity statement, which will describe exactly what the president of Cornell will be responsible for in coming years.

“Right now we’re trying to identify prospects, and the first step in doing that is making the opportunity statement,” Mitarotonda said. “We’re seeking input from different constituencies: undergraduates, graduate students, faculty staff, alumni, and the rest of the Cornell community – We’re just trying to get everyone’s input, and trying to cover a broad enough range so that everyone has a chance to tell us what they think.”

It appears, however, that the event’s location may have been a prohibiting factor in getting the broadest range of student opinion. Held in the Biotechnology Building, the forum was “not along the beaten path of most students’ day-to-day travels,” said Jenna Odett ’07.

The “inconvenient” building choice may have been a simple oversight: “[it’s] not the case at all [that we didn’t want students to come], but I did have one new student email me and ask me where the Biotechnology Building was,” Mitarotonda said.

Those who did make it to the meeting used the opportunity to speak to the Board about student criticisms of certain aspects of life at Cornell, including lack of diversity, doubts regarding Cornell’s position on sustainability, and the limited interaction between upperclassmen and freshmen fostered by the North Campus Residential Initiative. They also expressed frustration with the secrecy surrounding various issues, including President Jeffrey S. Lehman’s ’77 resignation, and hope for a new president who would work to address these concerns.

“I want the next president to have a general openness to the whole campus,” said Jason Levine ’06. “The president definitely needs to listen to the students and be accessible to them.”

Many of the students’ suggestions focused on the future president’s commitment to diversity, his or her approachability, willingness to ensure that Cornell maintains a good relationship with the City of Ithaca, dedication to sustainability and other environmental initiatives, and commitment to the notion that students should graduate from Cornell with intellectual depth and a sense of what is waiting for them in the world at large.

Regarding a possible deadline for the search, trustees were hesitant to provide an exact date. “There’s no deadline – we’re not going to stop because we’ve arrived at a target date,” Harrison said. He added that the Committee hopes to have made significant progress, if not a final recommendation, by early 2006.

Students agreed that they want their voices to be heard, and that the new president should constantly seek out the opinions of all Cornellians.

In addition to the student meeting, a Presidential Search Committee forum was held for faculty simultaneously, and there was one for staff earlier in the day.

The Search Committee was assembled shortly after the unexpected resignation of President Lehman ’77 in June. The Committee, which is charged with the responsibility of finding Cornell’s 12th president, consists of 18 members of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, 4 non-trustees and 3 advisors. In addition, the Committee has chosen Korn/Ferry International, an executive search firm, to assist with procuring appropriate candidates for the position.

Archived article by ndrew Beckwith and Erica Fink
Sun News Editors