Our University is entering its 145th year. Our traditions are well-established; our missions and aspirations well understood. Yet, each year, as students graduate and others enter Cornell — as first-year or transfer students or as graduate/professional students — an important turnover occurs that makes Cornell a slightly different place than the year before or any other year. How much different depends on the attributes and dreams of the entering students and how much they want to become involved in the Cornell beyond the classroom, lab and studio. My early experience with the Class of 2013 and this year’s other new students suggests to me that we have an activist and engaged group on the Hill. Let me share some observations and a call to conversation and action.
We selected the Class of 2013 from a record applicant pool of over 34,000. As usual, they (and the new transfer, graduate and professional students) are hugely talented individuals with broad, varying backgrounds. In fact, the Class of 2013 is our most diverse class ever: over a third identify themselves as students of color, and they hail from 49 states and over 45 countries other than the U.S. In order to begin the process of meeting and getting to know them, I just spent a few days living in Mary Donlon Hall (a tradition that my wife, Prof. Robin Davisson, biomedical sciences, suggested and that we have done each year) and visiting open houses and welcome events throughout the campus. In the evenings, over ice cream, a musical jam session or just plain conversation, I met entering students. They hadn’t even started classes yet, but they were already questioning the University’s commitment to sustainability, its inclusiveness of student opinions and input, and our strategies to deal with the ongoing recession and its effects on Cornell. Challenging? You bet. Welcome? Definitely! We cannot share this campus and its joys and sorrows without engaging each other before, during and after crises and, most importantly, establishing good avenues to do that engagement.
One evening, during a jam session at Donlon, conversation turned to the music performance scene at Cornell. Who are the students who participate in the organized ensembles and groups, from orchestra to winds to jazz to a capella groups that make up the beautiful fabric of Cornell’s cultural quilt? The fact that most of the involved students are not music majors was fascinating to one freshman from a neighboring state — fascinating and encouraging of her involvement.
Another evening, during a dessert discussion at a faculty apartment in one of the residence halls, our commitment to sustainability was questioned; not to criticize but to probe, to learn, to suggest, to make us better and more true to our rhetoric. That student and I have begun an email discussion, which I anticipate will grow and involve many others.
At a welcoming event at a program house, my commitment to these special living/learning centers was queried, and I was able to reassure the student of my support of program houses and discuss some current issues related to optimizing the experiences of every student on North Campus.
Another student, following our Tapestry of Possibilities session together, e-mailed to suggest that we help new students to connect with the Ithaca community. Following up on that suggestion, I want to encourage new and returning students to visit the Cornell Public Service Center in Barnes Hall to discover opportunities for participation in the local community, which engaged more than 6,000 students last year.
What these encounters — and dozens of others — accomplished was to begin anew the critical, annual process of building trust and communication between the students of Cornell and the administrators currently leading the institution. My years as your president and yours as members of the Cornell community, whatever their number, will in the end represent one small chapter in the history of this unusual and wonderful place. In order to make those years most productive and most representative of the culture and the people of Cornell, real, straightforward and honest engagement must occur, with students, faculty and staff at all locations where Cornell teaches, discovers and serves (including Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and Qatar), and with alumni, Boards of Trustees and Overseers members, community neighbors, state and federal leaders and citizens of New York, the U.S. and, to a great extent, the world.
In the weeks to come, I will be hosting open, public forums with faculty, students and staff to continue our discussion of the University’s response to our financial challenges and the extremely important strategic planning process in which we are engaged presently. This planning process is unique in Cornell’s recent history, and its importance to our future and future excellence cannot be overstated. Please come to those forums, and please ask your friends to do likewise. Students, both new and returning, please engage with other students, professors, house professors and deans, staff whom you meet each day and with me. Please join me in leading this old and yet very new University.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at email@example.com. From David appears monthly.