The President of Cornell has the challenge of leading the University while shaping the campus and the institution for generations to come. Cornell has three past presidents living in Ithaca. This article is the first of a series in which the former presidents speak of their time at Cornell and of their current projects.
Many students dread the late semester rush of deadlines for papers and long-term projects. This year, they are not alone in having an important due date before classes end in December. Prof. Hunter R. Rawlings III, classics, who served as president of Cornell from 1995 to 2003, has just four weeks left to complete a major report on higher education in New York State. And who is grading his work? Governor Eliot Spitzer (D).
As Chair of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education, Rawlings is leading a group of 30 in making recommendations on how to improve the SUNY and CUNY system. As the nation’s largest public system of higher education, New York is “trying to look at the future and improve its educational system and create greater access for students, better support for students and better articulation with the high school and the community colleges,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings, along with many other prominent members of the Cornell community, is also involved in the current “Campaign for Cornell.” Rawlings is familiar with the intricacies of running a successful capital campaign — Cornell’s last ended under his tenure. Although his involvement is more informal, he has “worked with a number of our alumni on the Campaign and I try to be as helpful as I can.”
“Even when you are not in a formal campaign mode, you are still raising money — Cornell is just especially good at it,” he added.
As president, Rawlings was a major proponent of the West Campus Initiative and had a crucial role in raising money for the new dorms including the Becker House and the Alice Cook House. As the West Campus Initiative has evolved over the past few years, Rawlings has had the enjoyment of watching the residential houses and community centers grow from an idea to actual structures.
“It’s very fulfilling to see first the North Campus and than the West Campus come to fruition,” he said. “From what I’ve learned, and I’ve been down to West Campus quite a lot, it seems to be a place that students really do like.”
When asked what the most difficult aspect of being president was, Rawlings said that dealing with the many constituencies that have an interest in the University, including alumni, faculty, students, staff and the local community, is “the most demanding aspect of the job. It just keeps you very active because you are trying to provide leadership to an institution that is very broad and has lots of different points of view.”
Before Rawlings arrived at Cornell, he taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder and was president of the University of Iowa. As an academic and administrator who has traveled to and spent time at many different universities and colleges, Rawlings still identifies Cornell students as being unique: “They are active, they participate, and they are not shy.”
“The classes are more intense here and by that I mean that there is a lot of work but the students seem quite capable of doing it,” he said. “In fact, they often surprise themselves with how much they accomplish — there are all kinds of clubs and student-run programs, so academically and culturally this is a pretty intense place and I find my classes are very lively.”
Cornell continues to send Rawlings around the world as an ambassador of the University. This past summer, he was in China, where he met with educational and government leaders in Shanghai and Beijing to follow-up on initiatives he started as president. These include the new undergraduate major in China and Asia Pacific Studies and Cornell’s relationship with Peking University.
When Rawlings stepped down as president, he could have left Ithaca for a lucrative job at a major philanthropy or another educational institution, but he decided to stay.
“I really like it here,” he said. “I have great colleagues here and for me that’s a very big intellectual pleasure. I started life as an academic teaching and writing and that’s what I am really enjoying picking up again — a chance to be back with colleagues and students in the heart of the University.”
Rawlings is currently teaching a course on the influences of classical thinkers on the Founding Fathers. For his students, it’s clear that Rawlings has a true passion for teaching.
“He certainly is very dedicated to what he talks about in class,” said Johnny Miles ’07. “I’ve had two classes with him and they have both been great.”
Other faculty in the Classics Department only had praise for Rawlings. Professor Charles Brittain, the current chair of the Classics Department, said, “What’s amazing about Hunter is he really loves teaching and he is just full of joy — it’s incredibly cheering to us as academics to have somebody who has had all this power and who has really chosen to come and do this because he thinks this is really important.”
Although Brittain is aware that “since Hunter is very forthright and very clear it may annoy him how long it takes to do things [in the department].”
“He is really part of our democratic process [in the Classics Department], and it is fantastic because we get a lot of extra advantage from him being with us,” he added.
When Rawlings has the time, he enjoys walking to the top of Libe Slope, his favorite spot on campus.
“I think that’s a spectacular place because you look down on West Campus with it new development and also look down at the town and the lake and the hills, and for me its an inspiring vantage point,” he said. “You can kind of imagine Ezra standing on that spot thinking this would be a nice place for a University.”
This article is the first in a series in which former presidents reflect on their time at Cornell and on their current projects.
Click here for part two on President Frank H.T. Rhodes.
Click here for part three on President Dale Corson.