At Final State of University Address, Skorton Talks Cornell’s Challenges

President Skorton reflected "... the very first places we should seek to sustain a more sustainable future is right on our own campuses...”

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By Annie Bui, via the Cornell Daily Sun, 10/20/14

President David Skorton delivers his final State of the University address in Statler Hall Friday. (Kelly Yang / Sun News Photography Editor)
President David Skorton delivers his final State of the University address in Statler Hall Friday. (Kelly Yang / Sun News Photography Editor)

At his final State of the University address Friday morning, President David Skorton reflected on areas that Cornell has showed strength in since its founding, as well as issues that the University faces moving into the future.

Skorton said that Cornell has “remained true” to its founding ideals, being able to adapt to the growing needs of students and the greater society surrounding them. “One-hundred and fifty years ago, we took what was best in the established colleges and augmented it with an approach that would address the needs of post-Civil War America at the start of what has been called the Second Industrial Revolution,” he said. “We aspired to welcome students — women as well as men — from all races and religious beliefs from the United States and other countries and from all economic circumstances.”

Transitioning into the present, Skorton outlined areas in which he said the University already excels and where there are opportunities to further contribute to the campus and “general good.”

One of these areas — sustainability — has been a strength of the University due in part to Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, according to Skorton. The center brings together more than 400 faculty members with expertise in the areas of energy and the environment as well as economic development.

“Among the very first places we should seek to sustain a more sustainable future is right on our own campuses,” Skorton said. “Last February … I committed Cornell to creating a plan to accelerate our efforts to achieve carbon neutrality on this campus by 2035 — a full 15 years sooner than originally planned and committed.”

Another area that will become increasingly central to the University’s identity, according to Skorton, is public engagement.

“Public engagement already enriches the intellectual, social and professional lives of our students, faculty and staff,” he said. “Just last week, we announced a new initiative, Engaged Cornell, that proposes to dramatically scale up our efforts in the next 10 years.”

The $150 million plan, partially funded by a $50 million gift from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, will require all undergraduate students to participate in community-engaged coursework by 2025, The Sun previously reported.

Skorton also outlined some of the “continuing” and “increasing” challenges that Cornell, as well as other institutions of higher education, face. These topics ranged from the cost and affordability of a college education to issues of campus diversity and faculty tenure.

“In addition to continuing our robust program of need-based financial aid, we need to work to attenuate the rate of rise of tuition by controlling the costs of operating this university,” he said.

Besides stressing the affordability of education, Skorton said he believes all members of the Cornell community benefit when people of “many backgrounds and differing perspectives” are welcomed at Cornell.

“As of last fall, underrepresented minorities only accounted for about 7 percent of faculty, 5 percent of other academic employees and 6 percent of non-academic staff,” he said. “In attracting and selecting students, faculty and staff, we must seek out excellence from as broad a pool as possible.”

He also said it was important to defend the “institution of tenure,” though it must be coupled with “more robust faculty-directed, post-tenure review.”

“Tenure is very important in my estimation to recruiting and retaining the best faculty and by extension, institutional excellence,” Skorton said. Looking forward, Skorton said the University must reach out to serve the wider society on a more expansive scale.

“By taking a hard look at the issues I’ve mentioned and many others that surely will arise in finding the right balance, I know we can continue to contribute to societal progress and individual success,” he said.

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