As the nation’s only private university with a full land grant mission of service and outreach, Cornell has made “public engagement” a special part of our ethos, and we are about to take our historic commitment to service and outreach to a new level in which I hope students will play an even more prominent role.
Our strategic plan includes among its goals making public engagement a distinctive feature of a Cornell education, and a recent gift from David Einhorn ’91 and Cheryl Strauss-Einhorn ’91 promises to make Cornell a visible national leader in service-learning and public engagement. More on that later.
As we move toward our sesquicentennial in 2015, students, faculty and staff will continue to play critical roles in sharing what we learn and create with our neighbors across the street and across the globe. And all of us will be building on a solid historical foundation of service and outreach that goes back to the University’s early years. Let’s look back at our history to see how far we have come and let’s also look forward to what the future might hold.
One hundred years ago, John Barron, the first “county agent” in New York State, bounced along muddy roads by horse and buggy to bring the latest Cornell research to farmers in the Binghamton area. So began Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of speaking at a system-wide centennial event to commend CCE for its efforts — which now touch every county in New York State and all five boroughs of New York City through programs on agriculture and food systems, environmental quality, and community and economic development. I suggested additional opportunities, including expanded regional economic development efforts and involvement in the proposed tech campus in New York City, where CCE’s expertise could be invaluable. Cornell students work with Cornell Cooperative Extension here in Tompkins County, in New York City and elsewhere, and I believe those opportunities will expand over the next several years.
Flash forward to 1991, when the Cornell Public Service Center was established “to champion the conviction that the Cornell University experience confirms service as essential to active citizenship.” For 20 years, using service-learning as its educational philosophy, PSC has combined academic learning with practical experiences to strengthen civic values and respond to community needs. Examples include formal service-learning courses on topics from emerging markets, to landscape architecture, to interior design; the alternative break program of community-based service trips; pre-orientation service trips for new students; and the Urban Semester program, now offered in Washington, D.C. in partnership with our Cornell in Washington program.
Within the greater Ithaca area alone, students working through the Public Service Center contribute hundreds of thousands of hours of service to community organizations each year. This fall, hundreds of students have gone to Tioga County, and especially Owego, each weekend since Sept. 8 to assist victims of the devastating flood. And later this week alumni in the New York City area will join with Public Service Center staff for a day of service in the city, kicked off by chair-elect of our Board of Trustees Robert Harrison ’76, who is CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Last summer we merged the Family Life Development Center and the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center in the College of Human Ecology to create the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research. The new center plans to operate as a “living laboratory” for putting research-based knowledge into practice and policy settings and, reciprocally, for incorporating problems from those domains into researchers’ agendas.
And most recently, with the gift from the Einhorns mentioned above, we have established the Center for Community Engaged Learning and Research to further stimulate our efforts to set the standard for excellence in public engagement in American higher education. The Einhorns’ gift allows us not only to enhance and expand the work we have already been doing but to transform our efforts by launching an integrated public service initiative that will link service-learning courses throughout the University with one another, with engaged research and scholarship, and with the many dimensions of engagement and outreach at Cornell. Richard Kiely Ph.D. ’02, who has long been involved with the Public Service Center as a scholar in community-engaged learning, is the director of the new center. Within a few months we will appoint a Provost Fellow from the tenured faculty to help build an internal institutional infrastructure for public engagement.
Institutional attempts to foster public engagement in education, no matter how ambitious, don’t work well “top down.” Rather, they depend on the interest and enthusiasm of faculty, staff and especially students to be successful. Fortunately Cornell student activists have played an important role in public engagement since at least the 1960s, and they continue to do so. The students in Kyoto NOW!, for example, were instrumental in convincing me to become one of the early signers of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Cornell developed a plan, based on the Kyoto Protocol, for reducing carbon-based emissions for the Ithaca campus to net zero by 2050 — a goal toward which we have already made substantial progress. Similarly students in the Cornell Organization for Labor Action continue to bring concerns about fair labor practices to the attention of students, staff and campus administrators. I acknowledge and thank all the Cornell students who continue to challenge each other and me with ideas and constructive criticisms of the status quo.
To realize the full benefits of our public engagement efforts, we need your commitment and leadership more than ever. As we go forward, I hope you will continue and even expand your commitment to public engagement — by taking advantage of service learning classes and PSC programs and resources, by pursuing internships through Cornell in Washington, the New York State Legislature’s intern program and other options available through Cornell Career Services, and by seeking other ways to contribute to civic life and help lift the world’s burdens.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. From David appears bi-monthly this semester.