September 8, 2000

Trustees Vote in Favor of eCornell

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The University Trustee executive committee has laid the virtual eCornell foundation and envisioned its blueprints. Now the construction team is assembled as well, with tools in hand.

Trustees opened the door yesterday to take further action with eCornell — an independent, for profit corporation that will develop distance learning courses under the Cornell name. Then the trustees fueled the project with its first budget while meeting behind closed doors at The Cornell Club in Manhattan.

“This is a very important step for the future of the University,” said President Hunter R. Rawlings III. “The creation of eCornell presents an extraordinary opportunity to extend the high-quality educational programs of Cornell to organizations and individuals far beyond the confines of our physical campus.”

The groundwork for eCornell had been laid on March 10, in fact, when the Board approved the organization in conception. But at the time the trustees made no particular decisions to expedite development of the distance learning business.

The original proposal for eCornell, drafted by Vice Provost Mary Sansalone, involved a consideration to seek outside venture capital. According to then-Provost Don M. Randel, the University would desire about $50 million for start-up costs.

Yesterday, however, the Trustees agreed to draw $12 million — money entirely from the University’s own endowment — and grant the new company those funds for a year’s duration ending on June 30, 2001.

During the meeting Trustees also selected five of the six leaders who will carry eCornell forward.

Attending the executive committee deliberations, Vice President of University relations Henrik N. Dullea ’61 said that the decision on management was made “to bring people with different kinds of strengths to the leadership of eCornell.”

“That group is also the board that will run the business,” he added. “They’ll be reporting regularly to the full Board of Trustees and to the President.”

Myra Maloney Hart ’62, Peter C Meinig ’62 and Jeffrey P. Parker ’65, trustees, Inge T. Reichenbach, vice president of public affairs and Philip M. Young ’63 will combine to guide eCornell as members of the original Board of Directors. Rawlings and Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin will later fill the one remaining position on the board.

Dean of Faculty J. Robert Cooke suggested that faculty members who have been heavily involved in the distance learning discussions to date make up likely candidates to complete eCornell’s Board of Directors.

He also mentioned that should the President and the Provost seek assistance from the Faculty Senate while deciding upon their appointment, they could turn to the standing Senate committee that deals with faculty appointments.

Already the progress forged in this distance learning venture has incorporated the input of various representatives of the Cornell community, and administrators will rely on their educators for any fruits that the corporation might bear.

“The Trustees’ authorization of the creation of eCornell is predicated on the negotiation of an overarching agreement between eCornell and the University that will clearly vest responsibility for the creation of course content in the hands of the Cornell faculty,” Martin said.

Rawlings also recognized the integral role faculty have already played in realizing eCornell.

“The board of trustees’ decision today … has benefited greatly from consultation with Cornell faculty members, particularly the University Faculty Committee of the Faculty Senate and the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Distance Learning,” he said.

“The deans of our colleges and schools as well as many individual faculty members also offered sound advice and recommendations,” Rawlings added.

While the corporation’s structure has been set, debate on the topic will be a central piece of the Faculty Senate’s agenda during its meeting on Sept. 13. Faculty support may lie in a not-for-profit eCornell or the for-profit version that has been chosen.

Reporting with suggestions on the development of eCornell, the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Distance Learning chaired by William Arms, computer science, made no mention of a better structure for the corporation.

“From a faculty point of view we don’t think it is important,” Arms said of the corporation’s structure. “An aggressive not-for-profit is almost indistinguishable from a for profit.”

Acknowledging that some may be surprised by the committee’s witholding of a statement about the structure of eCornell, he added that it is of utmost importance that the University control eCornell by directing its mission and by maintaining leadership of the company’s finances.

“Any organization can get out of the control of the University,” he said.

Arms added that the University might not have arrived at this junction of the decision-making process if not for the accelerated actions of the University Faculty Committee.

He said, “They have broken new ground by being willing to make important new statements on behalf of the Faculty Senate over the summer. Delaying things for more discussions can be very destructive.”

In preparation for next week’s Faculty Senate meeting, Seymour Smidt, the Nicholas H. Noyes Professor of Economics and Finance will prepare questions to propel ensuing debate. However, he expects there to be a consensus supporting some decisions already made regarding eCornell.

“My opinion is that the Arms Committee report is going to have broad support, but it is up to the Faculty Senate,” Smidt said.

Michael Goldstein, a University lawyer and participant at the Trustee meetings will also be present at the faculty meeting next week to explain the rationale for the decisions made and to participate in the faculty’s own discussions.

The full Board of Trustees will convene again in Ithaca on Oct. 28. The executive committee will meet next in three months, but that meeting will take place in New York City.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch