Interim President Hunter Rawlings is very familiar with the responsibility of heading a complex institution like Cornell. With a unique perspective in his third separate term working from an office in Day Hall, the president spoke about pressing issues facing the University today — including campus safety, Title IX investigations and the construction of “One Cornell.”
Safe at School
The safety of students at Cornell has become a concern for many Cornellians and parents this semester, in the wake of two stabbings that occurred either on or near campus in the first months of the academic year.
Acknowledging the severity of these incidents, Rawlings reaffirmed the success of Cornell’s alert system and encouraged more students to take advantage of resources like police escorts and the blue light system.
He also praised the collaboration between Ithaca and Cornell police, saying the teams have been “very cooperative” and crediting this effort with the arrest of a suspect in the fatal stabbing of Ithaca College student Anthony Nazaire this week.
Sanctity of Speech
Many students this week have also been notably upset by the results of the 2016 presidential election, prompting the president to discuss the role of free speech and faculty freedom at a prestigious research institution like Cornell.
“Nationally the country is very polarized,” he said. “The country is evenly divided — there’s no middle ground. It’s so polarized and our students feel that too.”
Addressing the University of Chicago’s now infamous letter, addressed to accepted students this fall on the importance of engaging with diverse viewpoints, Rawlings commended Chicago for seeking faculty input before sending the letter, but said “they maybe spoke in a way that is ahead of faculty, dictates how faculty should act, which is not what we do.”
He proceeded to defend the absolute freedom of faculty members to shape their own courses and the discourse within them, calling such flexibility the bedrock of academic success.
“It’s totally up to faculty what they teach,” he said. “Faculty owns it — that’s a rock bottom principle. And it’s the reason why American research institutions are the best in the world. Without academic freedom we can’t be a great University.”
Title IX Probes
Rawlings also answered questions about the multiple Title IX investigations that the Department of Education has levied against Cornell — a proliferation that mirrors a pattern of such cases appearing at colleges across the country.
The interim president explained that the University’s process of handling such cases can be exceedingly difficult, as sexual assault allegations often come down to “he said, she said” testimonies and also often involve alcohol.
“You must help the victim without trampling on the rights of the accused,” he explained. “You can’t subpoena witnesses, so sometimes you’re handicapped. And lots of public prosecutors won’t take the case so it’s up to universities without a lot of the legal powers.”
However, Rawlings critiqued the Department of Education for its repetitive launch of Title IX cases, saying, “I don’t think Washington has helped much and their presumption that universities aren’t dealing with this problem is wrong.”
“The federal government is demanding we be on top of the issue, but where they presume we’re not doing a good job it’s not helpful,” he said. “This is a really bad problem.”
He also pointed out that statistics say an individual is less likely to be sexually assaulted on a college campus than off it, stressing that college students are “not uniquely unsafe.”
Although the timeline for when Rawlings will depart Day Hall for a third time is still somewhat ambiguous, the interim president said the hunt for Cornell’s next leader is “moving well” and the search process “has been a good one.”
Naming the qualities that he said he thinks make a president successful, Rawlings said an ideal candidate would have good judgement, an ability to work with a diverse set of stakeholders and be a strong scholar and teacher.
“The number one quality is good judgment and it is really required — it’s the best asset a president could have,” he said. “The president should also be a good scholar and teacher — without that it’s hard to earn the respect of the faculty.”
Rawlings also stressed that, despite frequent administrative turnover, ambitious projects like Cornell’s 2035 carbon neutrality goal remain priorities for Day Hall.
“It’s an aspirational goal, a big goal, a tough goal,” he said of carbon neutrality. “And Cornell is a leader.”
Listing initiatives like the lake source cooling project and the success of Cornell’s New York Tech campus in energy efficiency, he said, “We’re not just committed to this stuff — we do this stuff. We have a record.”
When asked what one change he would like to see in the remainder of his time at Cornell, Rawlings reiterated his desire to see students and administrators bridge the divide between the University’s campuses upstate and downstate.
“[Cornell has] always been seen as upstate and with Cornell Tech, this now is changing,” he said. “This makes Cornell unique. The opportunities are unbelievable, in both directions, Ithaca to city and New York City to Ithaca.”
Rawlings shared his hope that the next president will further connect the campuses, mentioning that he already spends about 40 to 50 percent of his time in New York City — something he did not do the last time he was Cornell’s president.
Reflecting on all this travel, the interim president had one final suggestion for a way to meaningfully link Ithaca to New York City.
“If only we had a train,” he said, leaning back. “I could fit on a train.”