President Hunter R. Rawlings III will leave Cornell after an eight year term that changed the campus’ landscape with the residential initiative and other buildings, nursed research and undergraduate education, and expanded Cornell’s horizons overseas with a new medical college in Qatar.
“He really loves the intellectual life of the University, he’s dedicated to it, and he will be remembered for his emphasis on the intellectual life on campus,” said Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin.
Rawlings focus on intellectual life brought him to propose a vision that would attempt to change how Cornell students live.
Even in Rawlings’ 1995 inaugural address he announced his intention to explore and end geographical, class year, racial and ethnic differences that tended to separate students.
“And if in the vast terra incognita of the undergraduate experience at Cornell, we discover a chasm separating our students’ intellectual lives from their social and personal lives … then let us fling a rope bridge, however narrow and tenuous, across that abyss,” Rawlings said.
Housing has always been a touchy issue at Cornell, especially when Rawlings took it on. Between 1959 and 1995 there had been 23 reports on housing and lawsuits challenged the legality of Cornell’s ethnic program houses.
In May of 1996 Rawlings drafted a broad statement that endorsed residential communities while also prohibiting freshmen from joining program houses.
In response, fourteen students began a hunger strike and hundreds of students rallied in protest, blocking traffic to prevent what they felt would threaten the existence of the program houses.
That month, Rawlings delayed a final decision and appointed the 24th committee to find a solution that met the broad objectives of his residential communities proposal.
That committee’s report, while offering general support for residential communities and program houses, did not satisfy Rawlings. Rawlings called the report “limited in scope and incremental in approach,” and began constructing his own plan.
In his report, Rawlings proposed to settle all freshmen on North Campus, require program houses accepting freshmen to be located on North and spend $65 million constructing new dorms and a community center on North Campus.
Rawlings’ initial emphasis and ultimate plan built the Mews and Court dormitories and Community Commons, which along with the freshmen reading program can be seen as the fruition of his desire to strengthen freshmen community ties.
“For the first time, the University is focused on combining living and learning into one place,” said Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president of student and academic services.
By Fall 2001 Rawlings’ project to tie together the intellectual and social lives of freshmen students was in place when the Sept. 11 attacks gave him an opportunity to expand his notion of community across the University.
While former President James A. Perkins is remembered for his leadership during the Willard Straight takeover in 1969, Rawlings also led during a transitional time when the country, not the campus, was under siege.
“I think one of his major achievements was the way he handled the tragedy,” Martin said. “He really brought people together and reaffirmed our sense of community.”
The $200 million West Campus Initiative will be no less dramatic in effect than North Campus. It will remove the current University Halls and replace them with five residential colleges, centers where students’ living and education will more closely linked together.
“Rawlings reminded everyone that the heart of a great University is its undergraduate education,” said Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education and the Richard J. Schwartz professor of government.
“West campus would not have gone ahead without his leadership.”
Each house will include a live-in faculty member, a dining hall, and specialized programming to bring cultural and intellectual events into the houses. Construction will begin in 2003.
Apart from the residential initiative, $381.8 million has been or will soon be spent on renovations and new construction on campus begun during Rawlings’ term. That estimate includes renovations of Bailey Hall ($13.1 million), Lincoln Hall ($19 million), Mann Library ($16.7 million), Martha Van Rensselaer Hall ($30 million), Tjaden Hall ($8 million), Robert Purcell Community Center ($12.5 million), and White Hall ($12 million). New construction includes Duffield Hall ($58.5 million), the Lake Source Cooling project ($60 million), the Life Sciences Technology building ($110 million), and Milstein Hall ($25 million).
Not one of the new building projects has escaped controversy: Duffield Hall for disturbance, the Lake Source Cooling project for environmental impact, Milstein Hall for design, and the Life Sciences Technology building for its location, currently the Alumni Fields.
The buildings, however, were only the beginning of efforts to comprehensively review and improve undergraduate education.
While not as visible and more abstract than the residential initiative, Rawlings considers this re-emphasis on undergraduate education just as essential to his goal of providing “the best undergraduate education of any research university in the United States.”
Under a 1996 Rawlings initiative all 73 academic departments began a review process that will continue indefinitely.
“This gives faculty an opportunity to look at where the department is and where it should go to ensure the quality of research, and undergraduate and graduate education,” said Martin. “Overall, they are very useful.”
Rawlings has teamed with Martin to raise the average faculty salary to the median range of 13 peer institutions.
“It’s really critical for recruiting the best faculty in the country and retaining the best faculty,” Martin said.
Rawlings and Martin created the office of the vice provost for undergraduate education, and helped appoint Kramnick to that position.
Part of Kramnick’s job has involved coordinating the freshmen book project, an endeavor Rawlings eagerly jumped into. Earlier this year, Rawlings spoke at the panel discussion on the book and chaired one of the faculty led small discussion sections.
In addition to his administrative duties, for the last two years he has co-instructed an undergraduate introductory course on Periclean Athens in the classics department.
“The impetus for this particular course came from him — he really wanted to start teaching in the regular curriculum,” said Prof. Jeffrey Rusten, classics, one of Rawlings’ co-instructors. Rawlings delivers one-half to one-third of the course lectures.
As president, Rawlings issued many statements reaffirming his commitment to community and diversity. Several groups questioned the effectiveness of this gesture.
“In spite of criticism, he has consistently come out in favor of enhancing diversity,” Martin said. “He would probably still assert that we have a long way to go.”
Rawlings created the position of vice provost for diversity and faculty development. According to Rawlings, his administration is notable for the number of high-ranking women and minorities it has.
Perhaps Rawlings’ most accidental, but nonetheless significant accomplishment was the establishment of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. Unlike the changes in undergraduate education — the realization of years of Rawlings’ persistent focus — the opportunity in Qatar came
In late 2000, Cornell was approached by The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development. The foundation agreed to pay $750 million to cover the expenses of the first eleven years of operation while giving Cornell total autonomy over curriculum, faculty, and admissions for the school.
“President Rawlings was very actively involved in discussions, negotiations, and getting it approved,” said Dr. Antonio Gotto, provost for medical affairs and dean of the Weill Medical College.
The medical school’s Qatar branch will begin accepting an estimated 50 pre-med students for class beginning September 2002, the medical school will open in 2004, and the first degrees will be awarded in 2008.
About 65 faculty members are expected to be drawn from the medical school in New York City and the Ithaca campus. To prevent a shortage of instructors, the University is preparing to hire adjunct professors.
“I don’t want to be self-serving but we’ve seen tremendous growth in the [medical school’s] endowment, the clinical programs, and the research faculty and staff,” Gotto said. “He has been very supportive of strengthening the ties between Weill and the Ithaca campus.”
Tremendous growth in the endowment could certainly describe the doubling of the University’s endowment under Rawlings — from $1.4 to $2.8 billion.
Tremendous could also describe the 36 percent jump in tuition during the same time period — from $20,000 to $27,720.
The importance of fundraising to Rawlings cannot be understated.
“He has been very concerned with finding enough resources to meet the resources of the University,” Martin said.
Rawlings raised $2.3 billion in gifts, according to the Cornell Chronicle.
In early 1999, Rawlings took the lead in strengthening need-based financial aid. Rawlings’ proposal, which was approved by 28 universities, binds participating members to using common standards to analyze need and takes other measures to reaffirm need-based financial aid.
Top administrators had mixed feelings about Rawlings’ retirement announcement.
“I have a sense of regret that I won’t be working with him,” Gotto said. “He is delightful and warm and engaging and we’ve had an excellent working and personal relationship.”
Murphy expressed a similar sentiment.
“It’s been a privilege, a very busy privilege,” Murphy said. “He’s been very focused on improving the undergraduate experience.”
Rawlings’ inaugural address bridge-building metaphor could still fit his attempts to rebuild harmony among living, departmental, and cultural differences on campus while building new bridges to Qatar and the Weill Medical College.
Archived article by Peter Norlander