June 11, 2016

Rawlings Highlights Faculty Research, Dialogue in State of University Address

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Cornell’s future growth will depend on maintaining the strength of its faculty and developing its campuses outside of Ithaca, Interim President Hunter Rawlings said in his state of the university address before hundreds of alumni Saturday.

Introducing Rawlings, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Robert Harrison ’76 urged alumni to remember President Elizabeth Garrett, whose death brought Rawlings to Cornell this spring to serve his third term as president.

“This would have been her first official reunion weekend … and I know she would have sampled every activity offered,” Harrison said.

Rawlings, who said he was speaking from his experience as the President of the Association of American Universities — a position he left to assume his current post at Cornell — discussed the strengths of various universities in the United States, which he said hinge upon the faculty’s academic freedom.

“The administration oversees the operation of the University, making day to day decisions; the board has fiduciary responsibility,” he said. “But the faculty hold the primary responsibility, for matters related to education and research.”

He also emphasized that he was “distressed” by decreased faculty involvement in University-wide issues.

“We’re so pinned into our professional disciplines that we just don’t care about college-wide issues,” he said. “Anything we can do to engender more enthusiasm in the faculty for college-wide discussions, particularly the curriculum, would be very beneficial.”

Rawlings also detailed his “fun” discussions with Cornell faculty — ranging from Prof. Jon Kleinberg, computer science, to Prof. Jessica Weiss, government — about their work.

“This kind of stuff is what goes on at Cornell, if and only if we get classicists talking to mathematicians talking to physicians talking to economists talking to political scientists,” he said. “That doesn’t happen often in the academy, and it’s our fault, because we live in our silos and don’t talk to … people from vastly different fields. But when you do, it’s amazing.”

The need for collaboration across disciplines also extends to the Cornell Tech campus, according to Rawlings.

“Cornell Tech’s a great thing, but unless it stays closely tied to Ithaca and the departments here it won’t be a great thing,” he said.

Rawlings discussed research as an area of focus, which he pointed out is now conducted largely at universities.

“Private corporations have stopped doing basic research,” he said. “They’re paying so much attention to the bottom line, they don’t want to do prolonged, blue-sky research that might lead to no profit. It’s left to the universities to do the work.”

Maintaining the strength of university research is crucial for the United States as well as Cornell, according to Rawlings.

“Now [competition for grants] is getting unhealthy because there isn’t enough money to go around,” he said. “Fortunately, Cornell is extremely well positioned to do well. We have top-flight faculty in Ithaca, we have a medical college that’s developing its research very powerfully and we have growing up on Roosevelt Island a remarkable thing called Cornell Tech.”