November 7, 2007

Frank Rhodes: Scientist, Activist, Cornell President

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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 second of a series in which the former presidents speak of their time at Cornell and of their current projects.
Frank H.T. Rhodes, president of Cornell from 1977 to 1995, is regarded as one of the great intellectuals and university presidents of the 20th Century. When Rhodes arrived in Ithaca, he inherited a university that was running deep deficits and struggling for resources. During his long tenure, Rhodes took Cornell from a middle-of-the-road university to the world-class research and teaching institution that it is today. During the process, Rhodes became a national leader in higher education, and his work as a visionary included many high-profile roles advising two separate U.S. presidents on national science policy.
Over the past decade, from his office in Snee Hall that overlooks the Law School, Rhodes has continued researching and writing about issues relevant to higher education. As a geologist, he has also found the time to return to studying the earth sciences, and is set to publish a new book next year at the age of 81. The Earth Attendance Manual will attempt to explain the “planet on which we live to the general reader,” said Rhodes, “and also to link a whole bundle of environmental issues and [sustainable] stewardship.” The lake source cooling project began under his presidency and is now studied globally as a model for sustainable energy use. Rhodes believes that addressing the issue of sustainability represents a new movement, and has the ability to be “the new liberal art that will bring people together.”
After his presidency, he became a director on the board of General Electric and was President of the American Philosophical Society — the oldest learned society in the country. He also was chairman of the Atlantic Philanthropies, founded by Chuck Feeney ’56, the “anonymous” donor responsible for funding the West Campus Initiative. Rhodes’s charity work includes serving as vice chairman of the Johnson Foundation and sitting on the board of the Goldman Sachs Foundation.
As a member of the National Science Board under President Reagan, Rhodes worked directly on rebuilding a base at the South Pole. The facility, located in one of the harshest environments in the world, provides valuable research that is used in earth sciences. “I really devoted a lot of time trying to recapture the lead [the U.S.] had in earlier years in science,” explained Rhodes. “Although it was an ongoing battle, those were good years and I’ve remained reasonably close to the Washington scene.”
The Creation of the Future, a book he published in 2001, examines the role of the American university. One of the issues he addresses is the trend of the fragmenting university curriculum. “When I was [at Cornell] I started something called Common Learning,” Rhodes said. “We attempted to address those issues, and it eventually blossomed into the residence life program.”
When Rhodes arrived at Cornell from the University of Michigan, he explained how he was “just welcomed with open arms by everybody, the students, faculty, alumni and trustees.”
His initial focus was the dire financial situation of the University. “Things were just unimaginably tight with deficits running and physical facilities in need of repair and replacement. We did a lot of building — in the end we had two fundraising campaigns, one of which was the biggest in history of higher education,” he said.
As a grandfather of two current Cornellians, Rhodes still feels a bond with the student body. He hosted a number of weekly student breakfasts during his presidency. “I always enjoyed the student body, and during the time I was here there was a period of real turbulence following the trouble in the late 60s that carried over in the 70s and 80s with concerns about investments in South Africa and other things that seem remote now.”
“I think [Cornell] students have a lively interest in the larger world,” he added, “and not just a narrow focus on whatever they are studying.”
During his presidency, Rhodes placed a special emphasis on improving the quality of teaching at Cornell.
He still maintains that teaching is “probably the happiest part of the whole range of professional activities I’ve been involved in.” When he was a professor at the University of Michigan, he took a class to Great Britain for a month to tour the areas where the geologic time scale was developed.
“We went around to places where Charles Darwin lived and tried to understand the context,” he said. “I still hear from students who were part of those groups.”
“Frank was one of the first people who stressed the notion of research universities having an obligation to be great teaching universities as well,” said Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial labor relations, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. “It was an extraordinary thing that he could be President for the number of years that he was,” said Ehrenberg. “Typically, the longer you are president the more enemies you build up, but there was just an outpouring of affection from every part of the University community when he retired.”
Last month, Rhodes spoke at the opening of a new science and technology university in Saudi Arabia. It is the first university in the Kingdom to be independent from state control and has its own sheltered endowment and independent board. “It’s a very difficult business to found a university from scratch,” said Rhodes. “But it is my hope that it is going to be a very important force for good in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia … and I was very well received.”
After traveling around the world and experiencing the campus life of hundreds of other schools, Rhodes still believes that Cornell’s campus is the most beautiful. “I have a particular fondness for the whole campus,” he said, “but a really magical spot is the plantations where I walk frequently early in the morning.”

This article is the second of a series in which the former presidents speak of their time at Cornell and of their current projects.
Click here for part one on President Hunter R. Rawlings III.
Click here for part three on President Dale Corson.