January 19, 2006

New Professorship Honors Cornellian Pan Am 103 Victim

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Seventeen years after the tragic explosion of Pan American flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, a Libyan government settlement is helping to memorialize a Cornell student who died in the bombing.

The entire $3.8 million payment to the family of Kenneth J. Bissett ’89 has been given to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) to create a professorship, a community center in Mann Library and technological improvements across the college. Cornell received the first portion of the funds this year.

Bissett was on his way back from a semester in London on Dec. 21, 1988 when a suitcase bomb exploded and killed him and 258 other passengers. In early 2003, the Libyan government took responsibility for the terrorist attack and promised a payout of $2.7 billion to victims’ families.

Bissett’s parents, Florence and John, split his life insurance between Cornell and Syracuse University, which hosted his study abroad program. That initial contribution established the Kenneth J. Bissett Communication Award, a $1,000 annual gift to a junior or senior in the communication department. It also created the Kenneth J. Bissett Memorial Jazz Fun, which provides funding for an annual jazz concert in the music department.

When Florence died in December 2002, she directed that all settlement proceeds go to CALS. She died just a few months before the settlement was made official.

“Florence Bissett transcended unspeakable loss to make the ultimate expression of belief in the path her son had chosen,” said Susan A. Henry, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in a press statement. “This legacy offers us a tremendous opportunity to further enhance our program in communication, and we will do everything possible to honor her desire to have her son’s aspirations realized through others.”

The college established the Kenneth J. Bissett ’89 Senior Professorship in Communication, naming Prof. Geri Gay the first recipient of this endowed title. Gay is currently chair of the department and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Group.

Gay said she was flattered to receive the title, noting that her research foci were in “areas that were aligned with his interests.”

Bissett, who had entered Cornell in the School of Engineering, transferred to CALS the semester before going abroad. He had particular interests in information science and human-computer interactions, a direction in which the department of communication has gone in the past few years.

Gay also said the professorship is important in further establishing the importance of the department. “It is a transition for us to actually move into serious research and serious teaching,” she said. A “stable endowment,” rather than complete reliance on state funding, will allow the department to pursue new research paths and plan more for the future, she added.

A portion of the $3.8 million gift has also been directed to create the Kenneth J. Bissett Community Center in Mann Library. Eveline Ferretti, special projects administrator at Mann Library, said plans for the new space have been incorporated into the general library renovation plans and should be open for use by fall 2007.

Although “plans are still evolving for specific details,” Ferretti said, the center will be “a vibrant and vital community space” for students and faculty to gather. With a strong emphasis on media technology, the center is expected to have televisions to broadcast events and an exhibit area for student projects.

Money has also been allocated to set up 24-hour news broadcasts in the David L. Call Alumni Auditorium, Trillium and classrooms throughout the Ag Quad.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Editor