October 5, 2005

Rawlings Commends 'Fantastic' Employees

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“It’s fun to be back,” declared Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III as he stepped up to the podium in James Law auditorium to address an audience of University employees yesterday afternoon.

Rawlings, who served from 1995 to 2003 as Cornell’s tenth president, returned to the presidency this summer following the resignation of Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77. During yesterday’s 25-minute long speech, he covered a variety of topics, cracking jokes and keeping the tone light while praising the skill and dedication of University staff members. The Employee Assembly, a 13-member body representing the approximately 7,500 non-academic employees at Cornell, sponsored the speech.

“We have a fantastic group of employees,” Rawlings told the audience of about 200. “I value the work that you do, and your commitment to Cornell … [and the fact that] every day you work to make Cornell better,” he added.

In the spirit of acknowledging the value of Cornell employees, Rawlings explained that the University has recently adopted a new, broader family leave policy which gives staff more flexible work hours and additional time off to deal with family emergencies. This new policy reflects the belief that, “we’re not just employees of an institution, we’re human beings,” Rawlings said, to considerable applause.

After the conclusion of the speech, Donna Goss, chair of the Employee Assembly, expressed satisfaction with Rawlings’ speech. “It was refreshing to hear the president talk about staff and our contributions to Cornell University,” she said.

Mary George Opperman, vice president for human resources, introduced Rawlings. Starting off the afternoon on a light note, Opperman read off her list of the “Top 5 Things I’ve Learned from Hunter Rawlings.” Topping the list at number one was a joking reference to the unusual circumstances which led to Rawlings accepting a second stint as Cornell’s president: “When you decide to leave a job at Cornell, it is very important to take appropriate measures to change your identity… or else we’ll find you and bring you back.”

Rawlings himself briefly touched on the highly charged subject of his return to the presidency.

“I know that many of you are curious or confused about the changes at Day Hall that took place over a very short time this summer,” he said.

Rawlings stressed that he would step down as interim president after a year on the job, and he praised the ongoing work of the Presidential Search Committee in finding a successor.

He also commented on Cornell’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Noting that Cornell “opened its doors” to victims of the hurricane, Rawlings said that “Cornell is also a place that cares a lot about people.” He praised the many employees who had been involved in the effort to accommodate 200 displaced students from Tulane and Xavier Universities.

Mars rovers and ivory billed woodpeckers, two Cornell-related news stories which, as Rawlings put it, “won’t die,” also occupied his attention during the speech. Professors Steven Squyres ’78, astronomy, and Jim Bell, astronomy, played an influential role in the launch of the NASA’s two Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, which touched down on the red planet in Jan. 2004. Cornell ornithologists announced the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a magnificent two-foot tall bird which scientists had feared for decades was extinct. Rawlings said he “wouldn’t want to put money” on which one of these two favorable stories to Cornell would drop out of the news first.

The two Mars rovers, Rawlings said, have continued to function for “600 days and counting,” far beyond initial NASA estimates that they would last “at most” 120 days. Rawlings drew parallels between the durability of the Mars rovers and the tenacity of Cornell students and staff. Just like Cornellians, he said, “[the rovers] are operating long beyond the point where people thought they would die.”

Regarding the rovers themselves, Rawlings explained that thanks to the solar panels with which they are equipped, “they have more energy now than when they landed; they have more energy than the Energizer Bunny.”

“Who says solar power has no future – at least on Mars,” Rawlings quipped.

Goss, commenting after the speech, remarked that, “It was great that [Rawlings] recognized the rover, but also the employees who helped make it happen.”

Rawlings closed his speech as he began it – by thanking the assembled employees.

“Thank you for everything you do for Cornell, I really do appreciate it,” he said.

Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Sun Senior Writer