September 2, 2013

SKORTON: Thoughts for the New Academic Year

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As the semester gets underway, I welcome you to the new academic year and all of the opportunities it presents to us individually and as an academic community. I especially commend all the faculty, staff and continuing students who are helping the newest members of our community feel at home and get off to a strong start.

First-year and Transfer Orientation at Cornell offered a wonderful introduction to our University, with a rich mix of academic and social activities along with programs that helped convey community norms and aspirations regarding academic integrity, bias, sexual violence, student health and wellbeing and respect for the community. These aspects of the campus climate caused concern last year, and I am pleased that we are addressing them constructively. I encourage all of us to build on the success of Orientation to create positive and meaningful experiences for everyone inside and outside of the classroom.

Some of Cornell’s greatest strengths are the diversity of talents, backgrounds and perspectives within our community. Our newest students are especially accomplished and diverse.  As the most selective undergraduate class in Cornell history, they have come to campus from 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 51 other nations.  The Class of 2017 has the highest recorded number of students of color (1,340), African-American students (231) and international citizens (371).  In the Graduate School, the percentage of international students is even higher.

Each and every one of our new students, and all members of the Cornell community, have the right to feel safe, valued and fulfilled in our work and activities at Cornell.  As we begin the semester, I ask all of us to be more aware of the effect of our behavior and choices on others, to view differences in background and perspective as opportunities to learn and grow and to make the Cornell experience as good as it can possibly be for everyone.

Toward New Destinations, Cornell’s diversity planning initiative, provides a foundation for a culture that supports the full participation of all members of our community, and it is being implemented in all of Cornell’s colleges and administrative units.  You can learn more about Cornell’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion and the resources available to all of us by clicking on the link on Cornell’s home page.

And, as you consider the groups you will join this year — Greek houses, athletic teams and other organizations — I ask you to demand that all organizations in which you participate utilize positive, respectful ways to integrate new members into the group. Please be aware of the potential for hazing and alcohol abuse, and resist the allure of dangerous rituals that some think are merely rites of passage.  If you are a current member of a group, team or organization, lead the way by designing and participating in activities that are free of hazing and alcohol abuse.

During the past year, we have taken significant steps to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our community. Within the Greek system, for example, we have shortened the new member education period in order to reduce the opportunities for inappropriate behavior to occur. Last spring a maximum of six weeks was allotted for new member education activities; next spring the time for new member education will be further reduced to four weeks. Many of our fraternity and sorority members have devised orientation activities that keep the focus on the positive traditions and values espoused by their chapters. In their dedication to preserving what is good and valuable about Greek life, these students, in partnership with alumni and the national/international Greek organizations, are beginning to bring the rest along with them.

No matter what organizations you participate in this academic year, I encourage you to find positive ways of building affinity within the group. If you are the victim of hazing or have information about a hazing incident, report it on our confidential website,, so that we can investigate and address the issue.

As Vice President Susan Murphy and I wrote in a recent op-ed in USA Today: “You can stop hazing in its tracks now by refusing to participate … You can be part of a growing effort led by other students, alumni and administrators to create better ways for students to come together in socially productive, enjoyable and memorable ways.”

Together we can make Cornell the welcoming and respectful community we aspire to be — a place where each of us, and all of us, can add our perspectives and broaden everyone’s horizons.  The start of the semester is the perfect time to renew and expand our efforts. One place to begin is by being more aware and considerate of each other in all that we do.

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at [email protected] From David appears bi-monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton