Cornell Builds on Eastern Iowa Strengths
Jonathan Brand, President, Cornell College
Original version published in The Gazette on July 14, 2012
This slightly longer version published in the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun on July 19, 2012
Over the last few months, as a way to get to know my environs, I have been asking colleagues and friends to identify eastern Iowa’s greatest strengths. I am, after all, just now completing my first year as president of Cornell College and knowing more about our region’s strengths and how Cornell can advance them is essential. The responses, though varied in their nuances, were strikingly consistent in their themes. The warmth and hospitality of Iowans and our commitment to education—at all levels—are valued strengths, and those whom I asked uniformly (and quickly) identified them as being at the top of the list. Many also mentioned eastern Iowa’s focus on literature and agriculture.
It came as no surprise to me that I place those very same attributes at the top of the list for Cornell College. Like Iowa, Cornell’s community has been fueled for years by an unjaded generosity, thoughtfulness, and enterprising “stick-to-itiveness,” all focused on academic excellence. This explains why the construction of our College Hall, an 1857 federal-style building with such personality, was a project undertaken entirely by the college community, from start to finish, without architects or contractors. It also explains why Cornell has hosted now Relay For Life for over a decade, raising awareness and hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research. Having such a community is vitally important for our future because an organization is only as good as the culture its members embrace. In this respect, Cornell is fortunate to be in Iowa as we draw from and also support these essential Iowa cultural qualities.
At Cornell, we are engaged in strategic planning to ensure that we are meeting the changing needs of our students and the communities they serve (and will serve)—a commitment rendered more urgent during this recession. At the heart of our vision for the future, we will reimagine the liberal arts experience, ensuring that a Cornell education remains profoundly relevant. We are very enthused about this vision—not only for Cornell students but also for higher education in general.
What has only now become clear to me is that our emerging strategic plan plays to the strengths of eastern Iowa. For example, eastern Iowa is particularly known for its culture around writing and literature, in large part thanks to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Cornell itself has a proud tradition of literary excellence. Cornell faculty have edited several literary journals, including the North American Review, and hosted notable writers such as Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow, Robert Frost, and W. H. Auden. Professor Emeritus R.P. Dana was Iowa’s Poet Laureate. It is only fitting then that Cornell should officially launch its Center for the Literary Arts this fall, tying a historic Cornell strength with an internationally-recognized Iowa one.*
As with many other colleges whose founders meticulously selected specific locations for those institutions based on one or more perceived strategic advantages, Cornell’s founder, George Bowman, selected Mount Vernon because of its unique strengths. Mount Vernon was an optimal point along an important trade route—Military Road—between Dubuque and Iowa City with a spectacular hilltop offering stunning vistas in all directions. Cornell and Mount Vernon were, in reality, inextricably linked together from the beginning in 1853, when somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of all households in Mount Vernon housed at least one Cornell student. At Cornell, we know that our location—not just in Mount Vernon but also in eastern Iowa-- remains a central pillar of who we are. The importance of enhancing Mount Vernon is a regular part of our internal conversations.
With acres of stunning countryside surrounding us, Cornell seeks to make the most of our location. Each fall, many new Cornell students have the opportunity to engage in community service on an Iowa farm. We also recently hired Bon Appétit—a dining service provider with a stellar reputation for its commitment to the specific regions in which their clients are located. Bon Appétit has a goal that, at least, 20 percent of its food will come from within 150 miles of Mount Vernon. We are so pleased that our students, faculty, staff, and guests will be able to enjoy seasonal and fresh foods from our area.