During Cornell’s spring break I had the opportunity to attend the first meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University, a new project of the William J. Clinton Foundation designed to challenge college students and institutions to take concrete steps, large or small, to address social problems wherever they occur around the world. There were more than 700 students, including two Cornell students, at the meeting, representing colleges and universities around the country, as well as numerous college and university presidents. Each came ready to make a commitment of time, money, goods or skills that would help improve a specific social, economic or other problem.
While the Clinton Global Initiative University was meeting at Tulane University, a separate group of Cornell undergraduate and graduate students from City and Regional Planning, under the direction of visiting lecturer George Frantz '80, M.R.P. '91, was hard at work in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward — repairing the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and continuing Cornell involvement there that began shortly after the disastrous hurricane struck. During the break, more than 100 other Cornell students were working at sites in New York, New England, West Virginia, Florida and elsewhere on service learning projects as part of the student-led Alternative Break Program in the Cornell Public Service Center.
Service is a way of life for many at Cornell. Students, staff and faculty volunteer throughout the year — through the Public Service Center, through the United Way of Tompkins County, and through service-learning courses offered by faculty members in a variety of colleges and departments as well as through many other organizations and programs we endeavor to support every day at Cornell.
Much of our research and teaching is geared to creating knowledge that can be applied to the world’s problems. For example, Cornell has made a commitment to action through the Clinton Global Initiative University that involves the continued development of our Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF). CCSF is intended to stimulate cross-cutting research and teaching in the broad areas of energy, environment, and economic development (the last including poverty alleviation, water and food systems, infrastructure, institutions, and education).
Many other college campuses share our instincts for public service efforts — from community colleges to other major research universities. That is certainly a good thing, because the problems of our nation and world call out for a broad, innovative, energetic and sustained response.
Yet I believe there is a unique role for colleges and universities to play in addressing inequalities in our nation and elsewhere that has not yet been fully developed, and that Cornell can and should play a major role in catalyzing a broader national and international response. Our efforts should grow from the strengths and interests on the campus, and they should contribute in positive ways to the quality, distinctiveness and relevance of a Cornell education.
I offer two observations here that I hope will galvanize further discussion and commentary on campus. First, a lost opportunity to alleviate much of the human toll taken by poverty, hunger, lack of health care and environmental degradation stems from the thwarted aspirations of young people to obtain the education that they need to contribute effectively to problem solving and thereby productive change. Second, in addition to all the many other useful ways that American colleges and universities reach out to others through direct action and public service, there is an urgent need for us to help build educational capacity at home and abroad as we struggle to meet the demands of all people for the advanced skills needed to improve their own lives and the lives of their families and communities. U.S. universities will also benefit from interactions with partner institutions in the developing world through academic exchange, research collaboration, and the diversification of our student bodies.
As I’ve talked with students, faculty, staff and alumni at Cornell over the last two years, I’ve come to understand and appreciate Cornell's particular brand of public service, stemming from its singular DNA. I believe our approach to public service is sufficiently imaginative and capacious enough to lead a global university initiative. We have a unique role to play in addressing the world's challenges that goes beyond what we can accomplish as individuals through the organizations and initiatives in which we participate. This is based, in part, on our land-grant tradition of putting knowledge to work for the people of the state and nation; a well-developed delivery system for some of these actions within New York State through Cornell Cooperative Extension; partnerships with overseas institutions that go back more than 80 years; and the prominence of our alumni in leadership roles around the world, including both U.S. and international alumni. All these factors bode well for our ability to develop more fully our potential to serve as the world's land grant university, although there are obvious constraints, even in the best of times, which the realities of budgets impose on initiatives that require new university funding.
I look forward to listening to the ideas that continue to emanate from discussions of how Cornell can provide leadership in developing a global university initiative by which we would partner with colleagues in other colleges and universities in our own country and around the world to ameliorate global challenges, whether they occur in Tompkins County, New York State, or beyond. And I invite you to share your observations and insights in wider campus discussions, in letters and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun, in the blogosphere, and in letters and e-mail that I hope you will send directly to me at email@example.com.
David J. Skorton is the President of Cornell University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. From David appears every month.