With the Board of Trustees convening in Ithaca this weekend for their annual meeting, The Sun sat down with Stephen Ashley ’62, MBA ’64 to discuss his role as co-chair of the $4 billion capital campaign. Ashley is currently the chairman and CEO of The Ashley Group, a collection of real estate, brokerage and investment companies. In September, Ashley resigned as chairman of the mortgage giant Fannie Mae, after the government-sponsored enterprise was placed into conservatorship by the U.S. Treasury.
The Sun: The Capital Campaign has raised an impressive $2.29 billion to date. How would you describe your role with the campaign as co-chair?
Stephen Ashley: I co-chair with Jan Zubrow ’77. [We work with President] David Skorton in terms of oversight of the progress of the campaign … and work to ensure that we stay on track with our solicitations and fundraising goals.
Sun: In the wake of the financial crisis, has the capital campaign run into any challenges staying on track to meet its goal?
Ashley: Well we’ve had really, really wonderful success to date with a lot of hard work being done by Cornell alums, by the president, by the chair of the board and by the development staff. The deans and the faculty are all very active participants in helping to raise the $2.2 billion that we have to date. We are very cognizant of the changed economic circumstances that have really come upon in more recent months.
We’re working very hard at staying close to Cornelian everywhere, understanding that we need to be there for them and be flexible in how our gift structure works … We’re committed to raising this money for Cornell. Our students and our faculty are our campaign priorities, and that translates to our support for financial aid and scholarships for students.
Sun: So to back up a little bit, what was it like to run the mortgage giant Fannie Mae?
Ashley: I’m going to be careful here for obvious reasons. My professional life has been devoted to real-estate investment, real-estate finances and particularly housing finance. So helping Fannie Mae address the multiple issues over the last four years was a challenge. It was an honor. I had the opportunity to work with some outstanding individuals in management and also on the board. I’ll also say some of the market situations today made it very, very difficult.
Sun: So your role at Fannie Mae is done?
Ashley: I resigned from the board.
Sun: What are you doing now?
Ashley: I have my own business and I’m helping Cornell raise money. I’m putting in a greater presence at my own business where my colleagues work very hard professionally. I observe from the sidelines the evolving issues around the housing market.
Sun: Given the current financial crisis, what specific areas of the University do you think are going to be affected in the coming years? As banks continue to falter, is the University going to be offering different financial aid packages?
Ashley: I shouldn’t comment on specific actions of the University. That’s something you should hear from someone in the administration.
Sun: In terms of making the overall cost of college more affordable for students, we have heard Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) propose a plan to provide $4,000 toward college tuition to most Americans in exchange for community service. What are your personal views on making college more affordable?
Ashley: Generally, as it applies to Cornell, I think it is very important for Cornell to have the multiple resources to fulfill our mission of need-blind admissions for both domestic and international students. And that’s what we, with the campaign, are working very hard to do. [We must] raise the philanthropy that will endow scholarships and financial aid, going forward.
Sun: Is that a goal you see being fulfilled in the next few years?
Ashley: We will meet our goals in the campaign … The campaign target right now is to be wrapped up by the end of 2011.
Sun: Is the campaign going to be taking any alternative approaches in the coming years?
Ashley: To meet our goals we’re going to be working very closely with our donors to understand the circumstances that [they] are facing. And all of this being built around maintaining close contact and friendship with those who know a lot about Cornell.
Sun: Is there anything else you would like to say to the community?
Ashley: I’d say it is the work of the faculty, the energy that we see in the students here, and the future that we know they are going to build that motivates all of us as trustees to give our time to Cornell. It is that energy that fires us up and keeps alums close to the University and feeling positive about what we can do as a society in the times we are facing here.