November 11, 2013

HENRY: Cornell Alumni: More Than Just Millionaires

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“Cornell is a community of scholars, known for intellectual rigor and engaged in deep and broad research, teaching tomorrow’s thought leaders to think otherwise, care for others, and create and disseminate knowledge with a public purpose.”

The statement above is the caption on Cornell’s Facebook profile photo. I follow the University on Facebook and get their updates on my newsfeed. Yesterday morning, I opened my account to a post from the school at the very top, proclaiming Cornell as number 11 on a list of the world’s top 100 universities for producing millionaires. Pretty much instantaneously, I felt a little weird about University Communications touting this position on its official social media. I know that it’s possible that every listicle we appear on gets shared on our social media sites, but maybe it’s time that the University be a little more considerate about what gets posted to University accounts.

Being both a Cornellian and a millionaire has to be a relatively anomalous phenomenon — it’s not as if the majority of our students graduate yo become millionaires. Why would we brag about something that’s so exclusionary to so much of our alumni population? The post left a sour taste in my mouth as an implicit indication of what Cornell wants to share about us with the outside world.

Interested, I followed the link to a Times Higher Education blog post commenting on UK universities’ position on the list. I followed it subsequently to the original page for the publication, Spear’s, a bimonthly British magazine founded in 2006. The original article was there, with some comments from the editor illuminating his personal interpretation of the list order. There was no hard information on what rubric Spear’s and its partner WealthInsight, a wealth consulting company, used in calculating the list. Essentially, the way the article is laid out, the list could possibly include inherited wealth, a quality that has little to do with the influence of an academic institution on someone’s financial success.

The lack of valuable information on Spear’s and WealthInsight’s rubric was not the only element of the article that made me question Cornell’s espousement of its place on the list. Spear’s targets high net-worth individuals and people employed in the financial services industry. It is definitively not a publication produced by education specialists. Emphasizing this, the editorial comments attributed universities’ places on the list to their alumni who choose to work in the financial services industry, not the quality of the institutions themselves: “It’s also no surprise to find that the brightest people, who go to the best universities, often leave their degrees behind and go into high finance to seek their fortune.”

Though the list included information on preferred majors, the interpretations offered were largely qualitative. The article suggested an advantage in income for those who complete “numerical degrees.” In keeping with the focus on the financial services industry, the piece also suggested that those individuals who studied the humanities and became wealthy “owe their fortunes not to practicing their professions but climbing the ranks of the financial services sector” without providing any corroborating data.

Embarrassingly, the blog post Cornell linked to invited site visitors to compare the millionaire list to the Times Higher Education’s overall global university rankings (which, of course, could also be bupkis.) We’re ranked 19th on that global list, a full eight spots below how we rank at producing millionaires. The rubric for the overall rankings are still limited when you compare it to the immeasurable rewards of being part of a global community like Cornell, but at least they’re a more holistic standard of evaluation than the income of aggregated alumni pools. The contrast of Cornell’s place on the two lists might not mean anything at all, but it’s still enough to create an embarrassing image for Cornell’s sense of self-worth.

I’m glad that there are a lot of Cornell alumni out there who are financially successful. It means a great deal for the University’s future and however an editor at Times Higher Education UK might feel, it probably means that there are plenty of people out there achieving financial success both inside and outside of the financial services industry. More than simply failing to encapsulate all of the awesome things about this place, the list also sends the wrong message. Yes, the administration should care about how alumni fare in all facets of life after graduation, but it should celebrate alumni for the intrinsic value of their achievements, not the dollar value that those achievements may or may not have produced.

Why not post stories about successful alumni, who may or may not have made a great deal of money, detailing their accomplishments? We should use our social media accounts to publicize our art projects, engineering accomplishments and contributions to social good. We should share with the world, in the words of the caption on Cornell’s profile photo, our tradition of doing things for “a public purpose” and our students’ efforts to become “tomorrow’s thought leaders.” The worth of tomorrow’s thought leaders isn’t in our potential to make a million bucks. It’s in our ability to appreciate, learn from and put into action the benefits of being part of a diverse and rigorous academic community. It’s our ability to bring our greatest qualities to whatever we do, whether that’s a job in the financial services industry or as a community organizer or as a journalist.

Those are the things that make me proud of my Cornellian peers and the things that make me happy to share stories of my soon-to-be alma mater with people. Advertising our arbitrary ranking in number of millionaire alumni feels hollow and insecure, and this school is better than that.