Portrait of a presidency (page 2)

"A successful presidency is all about building relationships.”

– Les Garner

According to Jim Brown, special assistant to the president since 2005, one of Garner’s first goals was to improve Cornell’s financial situation. Though the college had just completed a successful $60 million campaign, Garner saw that if he wanted to make certain improvements to the look of the campus, academic programs, or the quality of the student experience, he would have to find even more money.

He started with the alumni. Cornell had benefitted over the years from the generosity of Richard Small ’50 and his wife, honorary alumna Norma Small, but Garner wanted to broaden the donor base and add new members to the Board of Trustees.

The hiring of Gibson was the first major step, as he was able to fill the gap in one of the few deficiencies on Garner’s resume: access to the untapped network of Cornell alumni. Over the next few years, Gibson and Garner traveled extensively, meeting with and recruiting alumni across the country. Slowly but surely, Garner shaped the Board of Trustees that today is so instrumental to Cornell’s success.

“Les’ biggest contribution is the Board of Trustees,” said Gibson. “Everybody’s involved.”

He added that, since Garner arrived, trustee giving has “exploded.”

“That’s his legacy, paying attention to the quality of the board,” added Glenn Dodd, former vice president of business affairs and treasurer of the college.

It wasn’t just the trustees who responded to Garner. Giving among all alumni has gone up during his tenure.

“He’s awoken a younger generation of alumni,” said Peter Wilch ’94, the current vice president for alumni and college advancement.

The result is that the largest and most ambitious campaign in the college’s history, the $92 million Extraordinary Opportunities Campaign, surpassed its goal with months to go. The campaign will conclude in June 2010, but has already raised more than $94 million.

"Even then when things were tough, there was a real sense of purpose, of direction.”

– Peter Wilch ’94

From the mid-1980s till the late ’90s, Cornell experienced a surge in enrollment, topping 1,000 students for the first time in its history, and remaining steadily above 1,100 for much of that time. Enrollment looked to be a strong point of the college during that time. Until the bottom fell out.

"I certainly had no notion that admissions would be a problem,” said Garner. “We had been blessed with extraordinary leadership in admissions.”

Peter Bryant had directed the boom of the mid-1980s, but his departure created stagnation in recruiting techniques.

“We learned that their extraordinary leadership had propelled us forward,” said Garner. “We were underinvested in admissions.”

To make matters worse, attrition rates were near 30 percent, nearly twice that of other Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) institutions. As a result, enrollment dropped from 1,105 in 1996–97 to 965 by 1999–2000, the lowest the college had enrolled since the early ’80s.

“We had no margin for error,” said Garner. “To have an effective program, you have to have a little insurance. You can’t work at the margins.”

Working first with Claar and later with current Vice President for Student Affairs John Harp, Garner made it a point, starting with his 1996 Statement of Strategic Intent, to enhance student retention. The effect was immediate, as attrition dropped to less than 20 percent for first-year students in 1997–98. In 2006–07, attrition was as low as 15 percent. New student programs, a better sense of community, enhanced career engagement, and improved residence halls all impacted the rate at which students returned to Cornell.

Furthermore, the hiring of Stroud in 2002 gave admissions the direction it needed to increase both applications and incoming classes. In 2003, enrollment

crossed 1,100 again, and, despite a recession and dropping enrollment around the country, Cornell actually increased its student body population this year, up to 1,133. With a small graduating class, there is a real possibility that, in Garner’s 16th year, Cornell will cross the 1,200 threshold for the first time.

“We have a real chance at 12–1300,” said Garner. “Then we face other constraints like classroom and residence halls.”

“Those are nice problems to have to solve.”

"I would think it’s unprecedented. Show me another 15-year period where this much happened.”

– John Harp

When Garner does retire eventually, he will leave one of the most significant physical footprints of any Cornell president. Numerous buildings and physical improvements, many important renovations, and quite a bit of landscaping will mark the Garner campus map. And it all starts with picking up trash.

According to Katrina, the physical appearance of the campus is very important to Garner. Every morning the two walk across campus and back, no matter what the weather, and during those walks Garner checks out the flowerbeds and picks up whatever trash he sees. “It’s a point of honor that we do this every morning,” said Katrina.

And every morning they walk past building after building Garner had a hand in making possible. His first major project was the renovation of Law Hall into a technology center. According to Garner, it was abundantly clear that technology would play an important role in higher education and that Cornell’s was nowhere near adequate.

And every morning they walk past building after building Garner had a hand in making possible. His first major project was the renovation of Law Hall into a technology center. According to Garner, it was abundantly clear that technology would play an important role in higher education and that Cornell’s was nowhere near adequate.

Thus, Garner set out to have Law Hall renovated and a campus-wide network created. In 1996 he created the office of computing services and established a new Information Technology Advisory Committee. In 2000 Law Hall was transformed into the Law Technology Center.

After upgrading Law Hall, Garner moved on to the fine arts, dedicating McWethy Hall in October 2002, and Youngker Hall and Kimmel Theatre in April 2003.

“You start, you build some momentum, and ideas come along,” said Garner.

And come they did. Merner Hall was renovated and reopened for the 2001–02 school year and New Hall and Clock Tower residence halls were opened in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Pfeiffer Hall renovation was completed in 2009, fulfilling Garner’s promise to improve the student experience through better residence halls. In the last 15 years, half of the bed spaces are new or newly renovated.

The changes were numerous in other areas of campus as well. The Marie Fletcher Carter Pedestrian Mall opened up the central avenue of campus starting in 2002. Improvements were made to The Commons along the way, including a new lounge outside the Ratt and a fitness center. Wade House became the Peter Paul Luce Admission Center, and Rood House became the Paul K. Scott Alumni Center after extensive renovations.

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