After it was announced on Tuesday that former Cornell President Frank H.T. Rhodes died, scores of Cornellians mourned the loss. Cornell’s ninth president died Monday night in Bonita Springs, Florida. He was 93.
“Frank Rhodes was a brilliant scholar and a gracious leader who was not only deeply respected, but truly loved by generations of Cornellians,” said President Martha E. Pollack in a University press release.
Glenn Altschuler Ph.D. ’76, American studies and dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, commented on the former president’s polite demeanor on a condolences page — which is filled with responses from alumni, faculty and administrators on Rhodes’ lasting impact on Cornell.
“It was a graciousness that included time he spent chatting with my mom, when he encountered us at Sunday brunch at Banfi’s; that extended … to day-to-day kindnesses that are too little in evidence in 2020,” Altschuler wrote.
Regarded by many as one of Cornell’s greatest presidents, Rhodes served as the University’s ninth president from 1977 to 1995 — making him one of the longest-serving presidents at Cornell and in the Ivy League. Once Rhodes was inaugurated president, he dedicated the rest of his life to the University.
In his 1977 inaugural speech, Rhodes first spoke of this lifelong commitment to a crowd of 6,000 guests at Barton Hall on Nov. 10, 1977.
“I can promise no certain success and no simple solutions,” Rhodes said. “For hard times lie ahead for all of higher education. And hard choices lie ahead for Cornell. What I can promise is my absolute commitment to the overall welfare of Cornell and to the well-being of its several parts.”
One of the hallmarks of the ninth president’s tenure was his efforts to bolster student and faculty diversity at the University. The number of minority and women faculty doubled during his tenure, while the percentage of minority students increased from 8 percent in 1977 to 28 percent in 1994.
Another one of Rhodes’ major endeavors was an ambitious $1.5 billion fundraising campaign — something nearly unheard of for major universities at the time. The University was able to raise $1 billion ahead of schedule because of Rhodes’ efforts to strengthen financial aid, educational programs and libraries.
The esteemed scholar also saw the establishment of many major buildings — continuously used by students and faculty alike — on campus. Under Rhodes’ administration, the supercomputing center, the Statler teaching hotel, the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the Carl A. Kroch Library, Snee Hall and Akwe:kon were among those constructed under his leadership.
While tackling the duties of University president, Rhodes also played an integral role in shaping national science policy under several U.S. presidents. The former Cornell president served on the National Science Board under President Ronald Reagan, and was also a former chairman of the board.
While Rhodes remained popular with Cornellians for the duration of his presidency, he sometimes ran into controversy with students. At the height of activism against South Africa’s apartheid, students stormed Rhodes’ office, urging the University to divest from its relationship with the country. Ultimately, Cornell did not completely cut ties with South Africa.
In 1993 — inspired by the 1969 Willard Straight Hall Takeover — students occupied Day Hall in light of a vandalism incident against a display of artwork by a Chicano artist on the Arts Quad. Rhodes agreed to hear the students’ demands four days into the occupation.
Despite the controversies, the ninth president was a revered figure on campus. His 1995 retirement celebration included a parade, a horse-drawn carriage from Day Hall to Barton Hall and more than 200 student groups, athletic teams and University departments attended.
Rhodes was born on Oct. 29, 1926 in Warwickshire, England. He graduated in 1948 from the University of Birmingham with a Bachelors of Science in geology, and went on to earn three other degrees from the British university. The former president was also a Fulbright Scholar, spending a year at the University of Illinois.
Prior to his arrival at Cornell, Rhodes was a professor in geology and mineralogy at the University of Michigan. At Michigan, Rhodes rose up the ranks — becoming the dean of the University’s College of Arts, Sciences and Letters and eventually served as the vice president of academic affairs.
Even after Rhodes retired in 1995, his presence could still be felt on Cornell’s campus. Upon his retirement, the Board of Trustees renamed the Cornell Theory Center to Frank H.T. Rhodes Hall. After his presidency, Rhodes continued to serve as a professor emeritus in geology.
In 2011, the University also created a postdoctoral fellowship in Rhodes’ name to support research in poverty alleviation, public health, human rights and supporting elderly and disadvantaged children. Every year, the University also bestows the Frank H.T. Rhodes Exemplary Alumni Award to alumni who have dedicated their time to Cornell post-graduation.
After retirement, Rhodes split his time between Florida and Ithaca, commenting in a May 2015 interview that he was “enjoying the sunshine.”
Rhodes is survived by his wife, Rosa, four daughters, 11 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. A date for a memorial on campus has yet to be announced.