Brand new era

By Jamie Kelly

When Jonathan Brand arrived in Iowa the first time, he was coming from one place Cornell College is often confused with—Cornell University—and going to another, Grinnell College. The trip from Ithaca, N.Y., did not bode well.

"It was July 7, 1998, and probably close to 100 degrees. We were in our old Volvo wagon, U-Haul in tow. Our AC had died somewhere between Chicago and Iowa City," he told the Cornell community during his recent introduction in King Chapel. "We had our two children in back—our daughter who was almost three and our son who had just turned one. And in the way back, we had our 70-pound dog, panting frenetically in the heat.

"Rachelle and I had not yet been to Iowa and we could not help but wonder—'what have we done'?"

Web extra — See video clips from our interview with President Brand

It turned out that they'd formed an abiding relationship with liberal arts colleges. Brand spent seven years at Grinnell before becoming President of Doane College in Crete, Neb., in 2005. In October, he was named Cornell College's 15th president. Brand, wife Rachelle LaBarge, and their 13-year-old son Ethan (their daughter Madeleine, 15, attends boarding school in New Hampshire) came to campus in late February to meet students, faculty, staff, and community members, a step in their journey from Doane to Cornell.  

Drawn by a distinguished history

In preparation for his transition to Cornell, Brand read the Heywood, Thomas, and Milhauser history books, and, in his King Chapel speech, he said the books made absolutely clear how Cornell has earned its reputation as a national liberal arts college. That reputation is what convinced him to pursue the presidency.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is a school with the kind of past, the kind of location, the kind of values that really speak to me,'" he said. "That's why I'm coming here. To join an institution that has always been forward-looking and focused on excellence and social improvement above all else."

Brand took his first step toward becoming part of that on stage in King Chapel, introduced by board of trustees chair-elect John McGrane '73. As Ethan and LaBarge sat in the front row—Ethan in a purple sweater, white shirt, and purple tie, LaBarge in a suit with a lavender top—Brand mounted the stage, and told the story of his family's first, fateful road trip to Iowa.

A sense of the historical accomplishments ran through his conversations during his visit. He knows what's been done—the Berry Center, Dimensions, Cornell Fellows, the $105.8 million Extraordinary Opportunities Campaign—in the past decade, what strides Cornell has made to provide each student with a world-class education rooted in the traditional liberal arts but looking toward the future. He said he knows that liberal arts colleges provide invaluable skills, the kind of skills employers want. And he knows that liberal arts colleges, including Cornell, need to do a better job telling the world what they actually do for students. Too often, liberal arts schools are defensive about their education, even though they teach the critical thinking and synthesis skills so in demand by employers.

"Somehow, liberal arts colleges don't get the message across," he said. "At Cornell, we need to be shameless about what is great here. Accurate. Academically focused. But shameless."

And he knows something else, too, he said: That a school like Cornell cannot rest on its laurels. The tradition of the liberal arts is one of innovation with a healthy sense of respect for history. It was that way in 1890, he said, when Cornell's board of trustees expressed a desire for all faculty members to have Ph.D.s, and it was that way just a few years ago when Dimensions, the Berry Center, and other programs were started. And it needs to remain that way in the future, he said, offering expanded opportunities for faculty-student research and more chances for hands-on, applied learning outside the classroom. These experiences exist already, and, Brand said, they need to continue, while people must always bear in mind the historic mission of Cornell and of liberal arts education.

What Brand terms the "beautiful, almost perfect oxymoron" of liberal arts education is that it's firmly rooted in the past, and also has the potential to be cutting edge at the same time. The world keeps changing—he gives the example of computer science, a major most liberal arts colleges wouldn't have offered 25 or 30 years ago, but is now ubiquitous—and colleges need to recognize and respond to those changes. At the same time, the core values of the liberal arts, such as understanding the human condition, synthesizing different topics into a coherent whole, engaging in critical thinking, and communicating powerfully are never and will never be obsolete.

An ability to connect

Brand and LaBarge had a whirlwind nine-hour tour of campus, starting with a photo shoot and an interview for the Cornell Report and the Cornellian, followed by Brand's speech, lunch with the Student Senate Executive Committee, a tour of the college's athletic facilities, an introduction to the facilities management staff, and back-to-back receptions

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