Of Cornell and Liberal Arts in Action
An Inaugural Address by Cornell President Jonathan M. Brand
NOTE: Jonathan Brand’s inaugural address began with an introduction thanking the Inauguration Committee; previous Cornell presidents; the Board of Trustees who hired him; alumni, faculty, staff and students; former colleagues; and family and friends, including his parents, children, and his wife, Rachelle LaBarge.
One evening, just for fun, I asked my children, what do you think I do?
My son, who is 14, said: “Well, you write a lot of thank you notes.” My daughter, 16, quickly added: “You ask people for money.” Later that evening, my wife could not leave well enough alone and chimed in: “You know, whenever you can, you do also run with the cross-country team. And you bake granola for our friends.” And, there you have it. According to my family, I have a very simple job and, basically, it seems I get to do whatever I want. It is nice work, if you can get it. After all, it appears that what I do is meet and greet, ask for money, and say thank you, sometimes with granola. In reality, my family and I are acutely aware that Cornell demands a whole lot more of its president.
Residential liberal arts colleges share a deep commitment to undergraduate student learning—a broad education across many subjects and an exploration more deeply into at least one; co-curricular and residential experiences that transform students; and the sense of community which supports them. In this respect, colleges and universities may seem quite similar. Yet, the attributes of each institution are unique, including Cornell. Cornell’s campus—which in its entirety is on the National Register of Historic Places—and is in Mount Vernon, Iowa—helps define the Cornell experience. No two campuses have the same history or bodies of faculty, students, and staff. It is not simple trying to characterize such a rich association of individuals.
If there is one word that sets Cornell apart it is its extraordinary HUMANITY. Why Humanity? Humanity, of course, captures a fundamental goal of a Cornell education—that Cornellians understand what it means to be human—the highs and the lows as well as the simple truths and the subtleties surrounding them. “Humanitas,” the Latin, as it appears in our seal connotes “liberal education, humane and gentle conduct toward others, philanthropy, and elegance of manner and language,” a personal motto of President William Fletcher King, for whom this Chapel is named. And, while we are not always perfect on this campus and it is not always easy—we work hard at being good to each other. Nice matters. Thoughtful matters. Generous matters. Cornell’s humanity comprises three distinct elements.
First, compassion and dedication are Cornell’s currency. Cornell has never had deep pockets, and perhaps this has summoned the best that is in us. As our Chaplain Catherine Quehl-Engel once told me: “Cornell faculty and staff regularly draw from their inner resources amid their work with students—and this has been true from 1853 to today.”
The construction of College Hall, a classical federal-style building dedicated in 1857, reveals the historic devotion of Cornell’s faculty, staff, and students. You see, College Hall was a project undertaken by the college community, from start to finish. As Charles Milhauser wrote in his book, Cornell College: 150 Years from A to Z, “Trustees, professors, students, and local craftsmen joined forces: ‘We measured the dimensions, dug the foundations, put them in, and then planned and built a story at a time….’” Cornell never even retained an architect or a contractor for the project.
This compassion and dedication also shows in the length of our faculty’s and staff’s service. Earlier, you heard the charge from Carol Brokel, who has been at Cornell for over 50 years. Last week, we celebrated the 50-year tenure of Professor Addison Ault. Please join me in congratulating Carol Brokel and Professor Ault.
In 1993, in the middle of a $60 million capital campaign, launched with a $20 million leadership gift from Cornell patriarch and matriarch, Dick and Norma Small, the faculty (and I am pleased that all college and university presidents are already seated for this one) committed $1.5 million toward that campaign. Can you imagine that dedication and commitment, which anchors Cornell?
Second, it is okay to be serious and silly. A few weeks ago, I met with one of Cornell’s social groups—a fraternity that identifies itself as the group of guys who, paradoxically, said that they would never join a fraternity. During our conversations, one student—Royce Hufford, a senior theatre major—stated that Cornell students definitely take their studies seriously. BUT, he also very matter-of-factly stated: “We take our silliness very seriously too.” It was a crystallizing moment for me. Now I understood why I had seen colorful handmade crocheted flowers around campus one winter morning. And why, during the annual Cornell-Coe men’s basketball game, the gym is showered with toilet paper when our Men’s Team scores its first point. It always results in a technical foul against Cornell (and anxiety throughout the entire game that we might lose by a point), but our head coach accepts this serious silliness as a sign of spirit. It also explains why Cornell students dress up in playful Halloween costumes and offer a steel drum concert to local public school students.
I recently asked students to fill in the blanks on a range of questions about Cornell. Their answers were insightful. On the contemplative side, one student wrote: “Before I came to Cornell, I thought that being liberally educated meant learning a little bit of everything. Now, I think that it means learning how everything fits together.” Or, “Before I came to Cornell, I was unsure about my future. And now, I am still unsure about my future but confident that I have the ability to shape it for myself.” And, jokingly: “When I leave Cornell, I will miss living in dorms, participating in student groups, and doing laundry for free.”
This student characteristic has even inspired faculty and staff who now perform in the annual “No-Talent Talent Show,” while raising awareness and money for Alternative Spring Break trips. Serious silliness also explains why Rachelle and I celebrate Cornell by wearing purple Chuck Taylors to all athletic events.
Third, Cornell thrives on critical and creative thinking. Cornell is defined to some extent by our One Course At A Time educational model—OCAAT, as we call it (no self-respecting Cornell inaugural address would fail to mention OCAAT). This dramatic initiative was made in response to another period of institutional stress—in the late Seventies, in the face of enrollment declines and financial pressures. The college had a decision to make: keep the curriculum as it was, OR take a risk and see what comes of it. Thirty-four years later, our students and faculty can declare our experiment a success—a courageous step that has helped us to rethink the contours of liberal education.
This year we are in the middle of a strategic planning process. During a committee meeting a few months ago, we began a conversation about Cornell’s vision—an overarching statement that is intended to express our dream for Cornell College. Vision statements are actually very difficult to write, and, we wanted our statement to set us apart and be clearly understood.
We threw around ideas but nothing really resonated. There were prolonged moments of silence. Then, it happened. Kalissa Holdcraft—our new student body president—spoke up. She said: “I know what my vision is for Cornell. My dream is that we are the school that SAVED the liberal arts.” This was breathtaking. She said it. Save the liberal arts from external threats.
Though employers nationwide tell us that they prefer to hire liberal arts college graduates above all others, the facts show clearly that residential liberal art colleges are less in demand than they were 30–40–50 years ago. Despite the significant growth in college enrollment, as a sector, we are graduating fewer students today than 30 years ago. The public perception about us as a sector is that we are expensive, and we graduate pie-in-the-sky dreamers who have no practical skills or abilities. Maybe Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers of Car Talk, summarize perfectly the challenges of the liberal arts. Anytime someone asks them a question that they consider nonsensical, their automatic response: “Let me guess. You’re an art history major.” But Click and Clack misunderstand the liberal arts. We, however, understand that the extraordinary opportunities we offer students, such as learning in very personalized settings with professors, engaging in research with professors, and undertaking off-campus study with professors, all develop our students’ abilities to think for themselves. Despite all that we offer, though, we recognize that we cannot only look to the past to determine our vision for the future.
Our draft vision statement that is being considered by the campus community—to reimagine the liberal arts—necessarily protects what is timeless about the liberal arts. It also requires that we pay attention to what the “outside world” seeks in college graduates—ensuring that a Cornell education remains profoundly relevant, thus helping to close the gap on public perception. Cornell is in a unique position to re-examine and re-energize the liberal arts, because we have a history of taking appropriate and courageous steps. A vision, even a modest one, does not guarantee success. It has to be more than an invitation. It has to be more than an overture. We must have the courage to make hard choices to reimagine what we do here on the Hilltop, taking us to leadership in the liberal arts. Our vision also requires us to champion Cornell College and its distinctiveness, nationally and internationally, and energize our thousands of alumni to help us achieve our ambitions.
Through all of this, we must not forget what defines us. We are a community of individuals who have chosen to be here rather than elsewhere. At Cornell, we all share a passion for learning, and beauty, and creativity, and problem-solving, and dialogue. This is why, over this weekend, we will have celebrated student research, our student organizations, athletics, music, and art, as examples. We also share a passion for playfulness. We will continue to have steel drum concerts in costume, no-talent talent shows, crocheted flowers that bloom magically in winter, and a president who plays Santa in December while wearing purple Chucks. With these rich qualities, Cornellians create and endow our humanity.