Cornell University’s founding principle, “any person, any study,” is arguably best embodied by a small cohort of students in what is known as the College Scholar Program. In April, the program, which is within the College of Arts and Sciences, received a $10 million gift from Robert S. Harrison ’76, effectively renaming the program in his honor.
The now Robert S. Harrison College Scholar program provides Arts and Sciences students with the unique opportunity to pursue rigorous, independent and interdisciplinary study through the completion of an independent senior research project, which often takes the form of an honors thesis.
Program Director Michael Goldstein told The Sun that Harrison had three concrete objectives for his donation: Increase research funding, improve connections to New York City and enhance socio-economic diversification.
“The first area the gift will go toward is increasing the amount of research funds for our students,” Goldstein said.
While Harrison College Scholar students are eligible to receive research grants that are available to Arts and Sciences and Cornell students, such as the Einhorn Discovery Grant or the Summer Experience Grant, as well as the Lynne S. Abel ’62 College Scholar Endowment Fund that offers College Scholars up to $500 per semester for independent research, Goldstein said that Harrison’s gift will provide substantial additional support.
“[Harrison’s] gift will help College Scholars set up their honors theses, whether that involves traveling to conferences, lab work, library work and everything in between,” Goldstein said.
Harrison also wanted his gift to go towards New York City excursion trips to help College Scholar students develop closer connections with the city.
“Imagine a trip where we have our STEM-students serve as guides at the American Museum of Natural History, and then later that day we have our humanities students interpret exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art,” Goldstein said. “The United Nations is also there, so New York City provides our students with vast and wonderful cultural resources and opportunities.”
The last area Harrison’s gift is going toward includes initiatives to increase socioeconomic diversity of incoming students within the program.
“One of our biggest challenges is letting students know that the program exists,” Goldstein said. “We’re going to do more outreach. We are thinking about creating an option for high school students to apply to the College Scholar program directly through the Common Application.”
A week ago, College Scholars received news of the gift through a Canvas announcement from Goldstein.
“When I first read the announcement, my initial reaction was shock and excitement in the most positive sense. I’m going to be a senior next year, so I am looking forward to the opportunities this gift will give us,” said Lia Sokol ’23. “I am excited to see my peers take advantage of New York City’s proximity to Cornell, and I personally would like to use the additional research funding to attend conferences in Washington D.C.”
While some students showed enthusiasm for the gift, Aliou Gambrel ’22 expressed some skepticism.
“My first reaction to the announcement of the gift was ‘oh God, we got bought out,” Gambrel said. “Harrison is using his money to tell us what he thinks we could benefit from, but this is an individualized program where students have the autonomy to govern our own study. The ‘happy suggestions’ to visit the Met in New York City, for example, would detract me from my plans for my own individualized study and learning.”
Gambrel also questioned the sudden renaming of the program.
“I do not know who Harrison is or what his opinions are, so when his name is put before our program, it gets complicated when every College Scholar student is automatically associated with him,” Gambrel said.
However, students supported the idea of allocating a portion of the gift toward student outreach.
“I was really excited when I heard about the donation,” said Vanessa Olguin ’22. “Hopefully this means a lot more students will be able to participate in the program because it is currently underlooked.”
Gambrel also advocated for the placement of the College Scholar program on the Common Application.
“Cornell sometimes falls into a pit trap of just having ethnic diversity among wealthy families,” Gambrel said. “If high school students are required to write supplemental essays for College Scholar that are about diversity, a lot of students from a particular background or income would not complete or succeed with the application because they would not know how to answer the questions genuinely.”
Ultimately, Harrison’s gift to the College Scholar program marks the start of new developments within the program.
“The College Scholar program allows independent thinkers to chart their own path of learning,” Goldstein said. “We are very thankful for [Harrison’s] generosity, and we look forward to the program’s new era.”
Correction, May 10, 3:44 p.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that the College Scholar program does not have its own private funding, however, it does have an endowment fund. This error has been corrected.