March 25, 2002

Cornell in D.C. Reflects On President's Career

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WASHINGTON D.C. — At the Cornell Center in Washington, photo collages of past semesters line the walls. Students pose in front of national monuments and drape their arms around famous politicians, such as Al Gore and Ross Perot.

Tall Stranger

In the spring of 1995, a new celebrity entered the scene. Yet his face was unfamiliar to the crowd of students who gathered around him for a picture. The tall, slender stranger they were all excited to meet was Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the University of Iowa and incoming president of Cornell University.

“While he was still president of the University of Iowa, he came and met with Cornell in Washington (CIW) students,” said Linda Jarschauer Johnson ’60, executive director of CIW. “He actually met with them before he was president of Cornell, so I maintain that they were the first Cornell students that he met.”

Rawlings’ appointment to the presidency was announced by the University in the winter of 1994-95 school year. Johnson was helping the Cornell government relations office in Washington D.C. by going to weekly meetings of the American Council on Education.

“Someone at the meeting said, ‘Hey, your new president is in town,’ ” Johnson said. “I walked over [to his hotel] just to try to get a glimpse of him, and everyone said you can’t miss him.”

Handwritten Note

Johnson didn’t get the chance to meet Rawlings at that time. However, she left a note for him at the hotel desk to let him know about the Cornell in Washington program and to invite him to stop by the center anytime he was in the area.

“A week later I got a handwritten note from Iowa,” Johnson said,”saying that he was pleased to know that Cornell had a program, and he would be here.”

At the time, Johnson said, Rawlings was coming to Washington D.C. often as part of his position in Iowa.

Three weeks later Johnson received a call that Rawlings would be in Washington D.C., “and he’d love to come by,” she recalled.

On January 27, 1995, after the students had only been in Washington D.C. one week “we just had a very informal session back in the reading room,” Johnson remembered.

“He was very interested in what [the students] were doing. He was very interested in the program,” Johnson said.

She recalled a conversation Rawlings had with the students. He told them that administrators on campus had shown him different restaurants in Ithaca, but he asked the students, “I want to know, from you, where are the good places to eat?”

“So the students told him the Nines, in Collegetown,” Johnson said. She remembered one student giving her impression that Rawlings would join students for pizza at the Nines if they asked him to come along.

“So that was the sort of image he projected,” Johnson said. “He was very engaging and engaged. He was curious about what they were doing and what they expected to get out of Washington,” she said. “He was so interested in the students and their experience in Washington that he said he was going to come back and see how they were doing and he did.”

Rawlings returned later that semester in April to get an update on the students’ experience in Washington D.C.

“We thought it was a great way to share with him one of the good things about Cornell,” Johnson said of their meetings with the president.

After his inauguration as President in autumn of 1995, Rawlings came twice more — once in spring 1996 and once the following fall.

“For at least the first couple of years, he succeeded in coming to see the students once a semester, but later on it became impossible,” Johnson said. “His time in general was much more booked, so he was flying in and out.”

Johnson remembered a quip Rawlings made when he visited in spring of 1996.

“We served food at the [spring 1996] one. And what I ordered was a six-foot hero. And he said, ‘Well it’s not six-foot-seven,’ or however tall he is,” Johnson said.

Students in Washington responded to the e-mail announcement of Rawlings’ retirement.

“I was very surprised when I was reading the e-mail, though not entirely shocked, because a lot of [Ivy League] presidents have retired recently,” said Stephen Mak ’03.

Chris Smith ’03 shared his idea of who would be an appropriate replacement. “I do think an oligarchy of John Cleese and Bill Nye would be a nice change for a couple years,” he said.

Some students praised Rawlings for his residential initiative to move all freshman to North Campus, while others expressed appreciation for his handling of the Sept. 11 incidents on campus.

Another student criticized the West Campus Initiative, which has been planned during Rawlings’ administration.

“Moving the freshmen to North and the West Campus Initiative is certainly his legacy; however, I disagree with his attempt to undermine the Greek system,” said Matt Cohen ’03.

Jason Berman ’03 suggested that Rawlings’ office will be difficult to fill. “We need someone even taller, now that we’ve set a bar,” he said. “He’s like our Abe Lincoln — he’s tall.”

Archived article by Heather Schroeder