A Bright Idea: How the Berry Center shapes tomorrow's leaders

By Blake Rasmussen

Jim McWethy ’65 wants you to know that the Berry Center has nothing to do with blueberries. Scratch that. Jim McWethy wants you to know that the Berry Center wasn’t named as such because of the tiny blue fruit. It was actually named for his grandfather, Lester Berry, who also had nothing to do with blueberries. But that’s jumping ahead.

These days, the Berry Center for Economics, Business, and Public Policy, as it is properly named, actually has quite a bit to do with blueberries. Not particularly by design, as it were, but by luck, circumstance, the timely eye and vision of McWethy himself, and a venture capitalist from Uruguay.

It was through that venture capitalist that seniors Audrey Saunders and Jeff Curran, alongside President Les and Katrina Garner, found themselves ducking the Iowa winter in a blueberry field in South America, questioning local farmers about the fruit business. And it was thanks to the Berry Center that they found themselves talking their way through the agrarian pastures of a coastal paradise.

While the center does such big things well, it’s better defined by the opportunities it affords students on an every day basis. The Berry Center is internships and interdisciplinary study, distinguished visitors and distinguished lectures, student research and job connections, off-campus learning and on-campus reading groups. The Berry Center is all of these things, and a sum greater than its parts.

Like all good ideas

“The idea really came from the president,” said A’amer Farooqi, faculty director of the Berry Center. “He came to us and asked, ‘If you had an initiative, what would you do, given the opportunity, if backed by funding?’ That is what got the ball rolling.”

“Like all good ideas,” said President Les Garner, “it emerged from a consensus of responses from various areas of the college.”

Garner said the consensus arose primarily from the twin inspirations of Larry Dorr ’63 and McWethy. Dorr had come to Garner shortly before with his idea for Dimensions: The Center for the Science and Culture of Healthcare, a health-sciences interdisciplinary center.

McWethy, meanwhile, had “a real interest” in doing something significant with economics and business. The two interests merged and began to develop from there. McWethy liked the idea of a Dimensions-like center and chose to back it.

Shortly thereafter, Garner and McWethy met with Ted Snyder, dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago had developed the Economics Research Center in 2001 and had incorporated a number of other disciplines into the center’s purpose.

“It was in that meeting that we decided we wanted to make this an interdisciplinary center that touched on politics, and public policy and history and the social sciences,” said McWethy. “That was the time I saw it spreading beyond economics. That’s how it happened.”

“It fit,” said Garner. “We wanted the Berry Center to provide premier opportunities for students who could provide leadership, and that involves public policy.”

Bridging the gap

From that idea developed a dynamic interdisciplinary center that has become a centerpiece of a Cornell education in economics, politics, history, and other disciplines. It seeks to “bridge the gap” according to Farooqi, a Cornell professor of economics and business since 1987.

“The Berry Center enables us to offer a high-quality liberal arts program in economics, business, and public policy, and at the same time provide students with experiential learning opportunities that will make them competitive in the workplace,” he said.

It accomplishes this through a variety of opportunities on campus and off. Reading groups, internships, distinguished visitors, and supported classes all line the Berry Center’s own padded resume, and each one holds a unique spot in the menagerie of student opportunities.

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