President Skorton issues welcome at start of new academic year
Welcome to a new academic year at Cornell. I want especially to welcome the new members of our community to the Cornell family. It's also a pleasure to greet returning students and faculty and staff colleagues. Reflecting on last year's enormous challenges and accomplishments allows me another opportunity to share my joy, pride and gratitude in being your colleague.
As we look forward, we must keep our sights high and far beyond the immediate details of the budget crisis with which so many of us have spent so much time dealing. We need to stay sharply focused on the excellence of our educational, research, and outreach missions. We have much to celebrate. Affirming our commitment to access, we have improved the financial aid packages of students from lower- and middle-income families, and we begin the year with our most diverse freshman class ever - 3,200 strong, selected from 34,000 applicants, our largest applicant pool ever - as well as talented cohorts of transfer, graduate and professional students. Our students continue to compete successfully for major national and international awards related to academics, service and athletics, including this summer a first-place finish in international competition by the Cornell Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Team. Last year five faculty members were elected to prestigious national academies and societies, and this summer two earned Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. For the second year in a row, Cornell earned a place on the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Great Colleges to Work For" listing. And even during these difficult economic times, our alumni and friends continue to be extraordinarily generous. Although, as anticipated, new pledges were down considerably in the last fiscal year, we saw a significant rise in annual fund and cash contributions. We recognize the commitment to Cornell that these gifts represent, and are extremely grateful.
The enormous demand for a Cornell education in Ithaca and New York City, the growing recognition of our faculty excellence, extraordinary external support for our research, scholarship and creative activities, and our hugely successful patient care activities at Weill Cornell Medical College all auger well for this year and the years to come.
At the same time, we must continue our progress toward fiscal equilibrium, to which we are well on the way. Indeed, we have reduced the projected annual deficit from approximately $215 million to roughly $135 million. At Weill Cornell Medical College, budget cuts and reorganizations have dealt with a projected $13 million deficit, and we anticipate a balanced budget for the Medical College this year.
Over 400 of our long-serving staff colleagues left Cornell with the support of a voluntary staff retirement incentive program last year, reducing the number of layoffs; we begin the year with a staff workforce reduced by almost 7 percent. Nonetheless, we've moved forward with some faculty and staff recruitments, although at a much slower pace than normal.
We deferred in excess of $600 million of construction, which will improve our ability to meet our debt obligations and help safeguard our strong credit rating, while advancing important projects, including Paul Milstein Hall for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, the Physical Sciences Building, the addition to the Johnson Art Museum, and the Animal Health Diagnostic Center, in which New York State is a major partner. We are pursuing our sustainability goals and expect to publish next month our comprehensive Climate Action Plan, mapping out how we will meet our pledge to become a climate-neutral campus.
Obviously, many difficult choices still lie ahead, but we will stay the course on our three-year plan to balance the budget and complete the critically important strategic planning effort we have called "Reimagining Cornell." Strategic planning, especially the open, university-wide communication and collective thinking that it implies, will be crucial to our future as one of the world's leading academic institutions.
I am convinced that, with your help, we can use our current challenges to effect changes that will better serve Cornell in the long run. We welcome your participation at several public forums scheduled this fall, the first of which will take place at noon on September 4th in G10 Biotech Building. Please visit http://www.cornell.edu/reimagining/ for the latest information on our efforts and to contribute your suggestions online.
I look forward to seeing you on campus and around town and working together toward a superb year and a bright future.
David J. Skorton