September 13, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Revisiting ‘The Road to Ithaka’

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The sky was clear on the bright, sun-filled morning just a year ago when Cornellians gathered on the Arts Quad to celebrate the start of the next chapter in Cornell’s history. During Homecoming, the community met for the inauguration of our 13th president, marking the closing celebrations of our sesquicentennial year. With the statue of Ezra Cornell looming in the background, Elizabeth Garrett stood strong, detailing her vision for Cornell at home and abroad.

Just months later, over 1,000 Cornellians gathered at the same site, but now on an overcast afternoon. Facing toward Andrew Dickson White this time, we gathered in silence as the chimes rang commemorating President Garrett’s time on the Hill. Some held back tears. Others embraced. Many stood seemingly lifeless, contemplating the tragedy facing our campus after she lost her battle with colon cancer on March 6.

At President Garrett’s inauguration, I’m certain no one considered that within a few short months, she would become the first Cornell president to pass while holding office. What many of us saw instead was an inspirational leader ready to challenge many of the structures that defined Cornell for years. In the few short months she was president, she presented decisions that some Cornellians found controversial, from the introduction of the College of Business to refusing to commit to divestiture from the fossil fuels industry. What stood out, however, was her commitment to be radical and progressive, ideals Cornell’s founders instilled in the University’s identity.

In her inaugural address, Garrett referenced the poem Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy, describing the journey to the many Ithakas in our lives. With her words now a year behind us, reflecting upon her vision for Cornell remains just as imperative as we seek to evaluate the priorities of Cornell moving forward. I hope to consider some of the ideas she spoke of last year in this column.

Garrett began discussing the role of the faculty, stressing the need for diverse viewpoints, teaching methods and lived experiences. Much of this, to little surprise, remains germane.

Given recent flashpoints of racial tensions in the last few years and the polarizing political discourse this election season, the faculty and staff should be equipped to have meaningful conversations to engage diversity, inclusion and social justice across all of the disciplines. Doing so will not only benefit our community, but will enable Cornellians to tackle some of the greatest challenges facing contemporary society, including injustice and inequality. Additionally, given last year’s study that found 96 percent of political contributions from Cornell faculty members gave to Democratic campaigns between 2011 and 2014, considerations to ensure Cornell’s teaching force is politically diverse should be examined to allow a variety of ideas in academia.

She further commented on the University’s motto, “any person … any study,” arguing that we should embrace the “spirit of any study” by focusing energy on disciplines that build upon the  excellence of a Cornell education, rather than teaching literally every study. As the community has dialogues about what future curricula will become — the College of Arts and Sciences aims to undergo these conversations this year, for example — we ought define what “any study” means in the 21st century. What will the role of study abroad and Engaged Cornell be on the undergraduate experience? Should there be a diversity requirement for all students? Which programs should Cornell offer? Which should it not? By no means am I qualified to answer these questions alone, but discourses including faculty, students and alumni must be had to identify answers to questions like these and more.

Cornell Tech — arguably one of the most ambitious and stimulating developments in Cornell’s recent history — was also highlighted. Garrett stressed that the new campus should be connected with our home on the Hill and argued that skills addressing the challenges of today should be emphasized in Ithaca, New York and around the world. With the Roosevelt Island campus set to open next year, the tech campus provides a number of opportunities that should be seized and touted by Cornell. As Garrett described, “our academic community must be bold in our ambition,” and these new partnerships provide a clear path to continue its quest to further its role as a global institution.

The few interactions I had with President Garrett readied me for a new period in Cornell’s history that I hoped to experience as an alumnus (and little did I know this time last year, as a graduate student). I won’t pretend to have known President Garrett well, but I was fortunate enough to cross paths with her during her time here, from interviewing her when the Board of Trustees announced her appointment to meeting with her through my role as Editor in Chief of The Sun. I was left speechless when I heard she died, the day after I finished my term as an editor. Tragically, I realized I covered her time with the Big Red as a reporter and editor from start to finish.

Nonetheless, we must continue to honor and remember her legacy. One year later, President Garrett’s vision for Cornell still lives. Undoubtedly, her time in Day Hall affected this University in tangible ways, but we must continue the fight with the same passion and empathy Garrett brought, “traveling to the many diverse Ithakas that await our discovery.” If the previous presidential search is any indication, the Cornell community could soon learn who will be the next person to helm this institution. However, as we examine the many journeys to Ithaka, we should do so as a community, acknowledging the freedom and responsibility that is engrained in the Cornell identity.

Tyler Alicea is a graduate student in Computing and Information Science. He completed his undergraduate degree at Cornell in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in May 2016 and served as the editor in chief and managing editor of The Sun. He may be reached at Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

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