End of year message

Dear Cornell Community,

As we begin the last week of classes on the Ithaca campus and my time as Cornell's president draws to a close, I take this opportunity to thank faculty, staff, and students on all our campuses for your many and varied contributions to our university and for our work together over these nine years.

Robin and I were deeply touched by the "Bowties and Goodbyes" event in Barton Hall last Friday, and we cherish our friendships with so many, not only on the Ithaca campus but also on Cornell's campuses in New York City, Geneva and Doha, and elsewhere.

I am also grateful for the roles that so many of you played in the recent Charter Day Weekend as volunteers, participants and presenters. The weekend was a time to celebrate our university's accomplishments since its founding, to reflect on our enduring values, and to look toward the future. The weekend's events reminded me yet again of what a special place our university is.

Of course, Cornell has had its share of challenges over the past 150 years — from financial uncertainties, to student unrest, to other engagement in societal controversies. Universities, like people, are works in progress, and higher education changes along with the broader world. I have no doubt that Cornell will continue to lead and to change as we find a path through some of the challenges of today:

Affordability and value of college: At least partly because of our strong commitment to undergraduate financial aid, Cornell's student body is more representative of America — and the world — than ever before. Still, finding ways to balance our commitment to access with the financial realities we face will be a continuing challenge at Cornell and elsewhere. I fervently hope and believe that, no matter the challenges, the university in the future will stay the course with substantial need-based financial aid for undergraduates. As the campus further diversifies, we need to put increased emphasis on the support of students from a broadening range of backgrounds.

Given the national climate of skepticism about the value of higher education — and whether the benefits are worth the cost to families and society — there will be increasing pressure to demonstrate what students have gained from their college careers, including from the broadly applicable skills and insights gained through a liberal arts education. Our faculty and others responsible for the student experience will need to develop more robust measures of student learning rather than assume that the value of a Cornell education is self-evident.

Health and safety on campus: During my time here, we have worked to improve student well-being with increased attention to the mental and physical health of our students, revised procedures by which fraternities and sororities recruit and develop new members, the installation of means restriction on local bridges, and a strong emphasis on the responsibilities we all have as part of a caring community. The much-needed expansion of Gannett Health Services on the Ithaca campus will enable us to meet health care and related needs of our students even more effectively. But we also will need to continue our efforts to prevent sexual violence, hazing, and other behaviors that undermine the culture of respect at Cornell. The fact that not all of our students feel safe on our Ithaca campus is motivation enough to redouble our efforts here.

Our growing presence in New York City: The expansion and refinement of Weill Cornell Medical College's outstanding programs of research, medical education and clinical care and the development of Cornell Tech as a new center for graduate programs that combine applied sciences, technology and entrepreneurship have raised concerns about whether Cornell's center of gravity is moving too much toward New York City. I believe we need to embrace the fact that Cornell is a university with major activities in both Ithaca and New York City, and we need to continue to increase and improve communication and collaboration among faculty, staff and students at all three campuses. Our growing presence and activities in New York City strengthen and benefit the Ithaca campus and vice versa and are helping us become a leading institution within the city as well as across New York State and far beyond.

Finally, we need to find more ways for members of the community to make their views known and to be heard by senior leadership, while also engaging in a continuing conversation about how we interact with and treat each other. During my time as president I have met regularly with our shared governance groups and found many additional ways to learn directly from faculty, staff and students. Yet, as has become clear over the last several months, there is a need for greater transparency on issues ranging from the university's financial situation to the creation of new academic programs. While activism and protest are important forms of expression in a university community, as they are in the larger society, some protests, in my view, have not been carried out in ways that move the discussion forward or allow opposing viewpoints to be heard. However, activism and protest remain important aspects of the ethos and traditions of Cornell. In addition, effective communication, education and engagement through the shared governance groups and other means are continuing needs.

Looking back on my nine years as Cornell's president, I consider myself tremendously fortunate to have met and worked with so many of you. Your partnership and friendship are among the things I will remember and continue to treasure when Robin and I move to Washington, D.C. I look forward to keeping in touch, and I know you will be as welcoming to President-elect Elizabeth Garrett as you have been to me. Thank you for all you have done and continue to do for Cornell.

Best regards,

David J. Skorton