Portrait of a presidency (page 3)

"A president doesn’t have to have a lot of good ideas, but needs to be able to recognize them.”

– Les Garner

An educator at heart, some of Garner’s most fulfilling work has been developments in the academic programs. A cascade of new programs began when Larry Dorr ’63 first approached Garner with the idea for Dimensions: The Center for the Science and Culture of Healthcare, a unique interdisciplinary program whose primary purpose was to provide a liberal arts and OCAAT-worthy preparation for students looking to go into various medical fields.

“A president doesn’t have to have a lot of good ideas, but needs to be able to recognize them,” said Garner.

And recognize them he did. Shortly after Dimensions was founded by Dorr, Jim McWethy ’65 expressed interest in a business, economics, and public policy center in the same vein. With McWethy’s money to back it, the Berry Center for Economics, Business, and Public Policy was realized.

Faculty were involved in the process as well.

“He was not just off on his own. He did it in a way that faculty considered that they felt involved and listened to,” said Chris Carlson, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college, and also a sociology professor at Cornell for nearly 30 years.

His responsiveness to faculty concerns has also resulted in a growing environmental studies program bolstered by almost $1 million in funding over the past year, a Center for Teaching and Learning with writing, qualitative reasoning, and academic media studios, a Creative Writing Center in the planning stages, and an expansion of the faculty he believes will continue as the college continues to grow. The recent economic downturn has slowed the hiring of new faculty somewhat, but new positions in the last few years were added to art history, psychology, classics, theatre, biochemistry and molecular biology, and politics.

"It’s important for a college president to have a good community profile. Service is part of the college’s mission and the president needs to lead by example.”

– Les Garner

In the summer of 2008 Cedar Rapids and Iowa City experienced the worst floods in their history, displacing thousands and causing billions of dollars in damage. The Hilltop was unaffected and was able to house displaced women and families, provide beds for Red Cross volunteers, and gather donations for flood victims.

Harp said that when the first group contacted the college about a place to stay, he knew others would follow. So, he turned to Garner for guidance.

“He just said very simply, ‘Do all you can with everything we have,’” said Harp. “That’s the mantra I used.”

When Garner eventually departs Cornell one of his great legacies may be the services he provided and the sense of volunteerism that he brought to the college.

During his first several years Garner took on a number of civic responsibilities in the area—including serving on the boards of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Cedar Rapids Symphony—and became very well known for it, according to Moore. Every year on service day, when new students and many Cornell staff do volunteer work throughout the community, Les and Katrina spend the day building, gutting, and digging along with everyone else.

“Les doesn’t do it for the accolades; he does it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Wilch.

“Part of it was that when I was in North Carolina, civic leadership was important,” said Garner. “Also I happen to like doing it.”

It has also been the right thing for the college. As Garner has gained seniority as a sitting president among peer colleges, he has been named to serve as the chair or president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Iowa College Foundation, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, and the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges. His service has led to a higher visibility for Cornell.

"People will look at Les Garner and say that was one of the great times in Cornell’s history.”– Peter Wilch

Garner has no plans to leave Cornell. Elbow deep in efforts to renovate The Commons, King Chapel, and West Science, and intently focused on raising enrollment above 1,200, not to mention the effects of a recession, Garner has plenty to keep him busy in the coming years. His vision is to secure Cornell’s standing through growth, a distinctive position in the market, and active student engagement. With 15 years and the momentum of the college carrying his vision forward, his many goals seem more attainable than ever.

“I said upon my retirement that Cornell had probably never had a better president and never would. I thought that Les was as good as it gets,” said Moore.

“This is the story of Les Garner’s presidency at Cornell College,” he added, recalling the gift he received for his 10th year. “The clock he made was his wonderful gift to me; the Cornell College he has been making—which will, of course, need its own version of winding in the future—will be his wonderful gift to all of us.”

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