November 28, 2007

Former Pres. Corson Recalls Time Spent in Service of Science

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The President of Cornell is challenged with leading the University while shaping the institution for generations to come. Cornell has thre past presidents living in Ithaca. This article is the third in a series in which former presidents reflect on their time at Cornell and on their current projects.
It’s not every day that a university president can claim an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. But Dale Corson, president of Cornell from 1969 through 1977, holds the world record for discovering and naming the rarest substance on Earth: number 85 on the periodic table.
“I’ve published only one paper in Nature,” said Corson. “and it’s proposing a name for the element, Astatine, which comes from a Greek word meaning unstable.”
Corson came to Cornell in 1946 as an assistant professor of physics after working for both MIT and the Pentagon. During World War II, Corson devoted his time to developing the potential of radar, and traveled to England in the summer of 1941.
“There were still raids occasionally,” he said “and you were very much aware that the war was on and it was a pretty grim business.”
While in England, Corson worked directly with the British on improving the radar system, which was critical in defending both Great Britain from invasion and the United States from German attacks.
“There are people who tend to say that radar won the war and the atomic bomb ended it,” he said, “which I think is a fair statement.”
After the end of World War II, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project and one of Corson’s former professors, invited him to join the staff of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where Corson helped establish the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. “Oppenheimer was one of my professors and I had known him since 1936,” said Corson. “Anything we [at the Pentagon] were working on would never get in to combat [in 1945] and so I wrote Oppenheimer a letter and asked him if he knew of somewhere I could be useful. He wrote me a letter back essentially saying to be in New Mexico tomorrow [and] a couple of months later I moved.”
Many of the initiatives Corson began as president continue to shape the University. One of his central projects was bringing together the statutory and endowed schools to form the single University that was envisioned by Ezra Cornell.
“[It’s] a long hard struggle that still goes on to try to get funding for each side to be in parity,” he said, “but you’d like to have free flow of students back and forth.”
For example, Corson had the various biology departments in three separate schools stop duplicating courses and instead focus on providing the teaching and research needs of each specific area.
“I worked with five different departments of economics,” said Corson, “in the Arts School, Agricultural and Life Sciences School, ILR School, Human Ecology and the Johnson School, and those have never been brought together as they ought to be.”
After returning the University to stability through a tenuous period that included the end of the Vietnam War and the economic recession of the 1970s, Corson retired and became very involved in federal science policy.
“There were a number of things I planned to do after I retired but since I had lots of experience in Washington starting in World War II … I got swept up in these Washington enterprises.”
Corson became the founding Chairman of the Government-University Industry Research Roundtable and worked to convene senior-most representatives from government, universities, and industry to discuss the science agenda for the United States.
“There are great big problems that need solving,” said Corson. “There is no easy way for Congressmen, for example, to know what is good policy with respect to technical things, science things — they have no background in that. That is true for many people at the leadership level at the federal agencies.”
Corson led a major initiative by the World Bank in the 1980s to invest in science and technology education in China. He chaired an oversight team that administered the loan, totaling $500 million, that helped hundreds of Chinese universities send faculty and graduate students abroad for training and support.
After his presidency Corson also worked directly with President Reagan’s administration on proposing new rules governing the secrecy of American technology. “There was large scale Soviet espionage and they were stealing us blind,” explained Corson. “Reagan, and particularly his secretary of defense Weinberger, wanted to make everything secret.”
One example of Reagan’s insistence on secrecy was his decree that a symposium on permafrost at the University of Alaska be classified because professors from the Soviet Union were attending.
“If there is anybody in the world who knows about permafrost it was the Soviets … It seemed absurd.”
Corson led a study that recommended loosening restrictions on secrecy that became known as the Corson Report and was a major achievement for the advancement science research in American universities. President Reagan acted on the Corson Report through an executive order that made its recommendations official policy.
“I was impressed by Reagan,” said Corson. “He didn’t know anything about science but he was a good listener.”
During one meeting, Reagan claimed that the kind of research that universities perform was not very useful. Reagan told Corson that hybrid corn was an example of a useful type of science, and that it didn’t come from universities.
“Well I knew a lot about hybrid corn,” explained Corson. “I grew up in Kansas and I pointed out to Mr. Reagan that hybrid corn had come out of those great agricultural universities … It came out from basic geneticists trying to just understand the genetics of corn.”
Corson now lives in a retirement community called Kendal at Ithaca, on a 105-acre site near Cornell’s campus. After accepting a position to teach at Cornell, Corson visited with his wife in May of 1946. During his visit, he asked to be placed on a move-in list for new faculty housing that the university was scheduled to build that summer. The housing was never built, but the land was kept by Cornell and sold to Kendal in the early 90’s to develop the retirement community. Corson did finally get on the priority list for housing on the site — but he had to wait exactly fifty years to move in.

This article is the third in a series in which former presidents reflect on their time at Cornell and on their current projects.
Click here for part one on President Hunter R. Rawlings III.
Click here for part two on President Frank H.T. Rhodes.