Seventeen years after Pan American flight 103 exploded in the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, a $3.8 million settlement paid by the Libyan government is funding a professorship named for a Cornell University student who died in the bombing.
The student, Kenneth J. Bissett, a member of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Class of 1989, was returning from a semester with the Syracuse-in-London Program when he was killed, along with 258 others, on Dec. 21, 1988, when a Libyan bomb hidden in a suitcase destroyed the Boeing 747 airliner over Lockerbie, killing another 11 people on the ground. He died two days after his 21st birthday.
The new chair, the Kenneth J. Bissett '89 Senior Professorship in Communication, was created from the estate of his mother, Florence Bissett, who directed that any proceeds from the settlement pass to CALS. She died in December 2002, and Cornell received the first of the funds this year. The first holder of the chair will be Geri Gay, chair of the Department of Communication and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Group at Cornell.
"This gift obviously holds very special meaning for us," said Susan A. Henry, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "Florence Bissett transcended unspeakable loss to make the ultimate expression of belief in the path her son had chosen. This legacy offers us a tremendous opportunity to further enhance our program in communication, and we will do everything possible to honor her desire to have her son's aspirations realized through others."
After Lockerbie, Florence Bissett and her husband, John, who has since died, split the proceeds from their son's life insurance policy between Syracuse University and Cornell. Their gift to Cornell established the Kenneth J. Bissett Communication Award, which annually gives $1,000 to a worthy junior or senior in the Department of Communication, and the Kenneth J. Bissett Memorial Jazz Fund, which underwrites a yearly jazz concert presented by the music department.
According to senior lecturer Brian Earle, who was Kenneth Bissett's academic adviser in the Department of Communication and later organized his memorial service at Cornell, the student was a jazz fan, a poet and an artist who spent his first two years at Cornell studying engineering. He had transferred into CALS only one semester before leaving for London. Bissett graduated from Iona Preparatory School, New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1985.
Florence Bissett died four months before the Libyan government accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and set up a fund to pay as much as $2.7 billion to the victims' survivors. Still, Earle believes that she lived long enough to be assured that the money would one day come to Cornell. "Florence signed the papers for the settlement in early December and then died literally weeks later," he said. "I think she hung on until she was confident that the settlement would go through.
"She was working well into her 70s, as a clerk, to make ends meet," Earle said. "For her to not think about herself, to want to give it all away, was an incredibly selfless act."
Kenneth Bissett's interest in computing and in the uses of technology in communication would have made him a good fit for the current department, said Gay. "I actually think this department is closer now to what Ken Bissett would have liked to see, with our concentration in computer and information technology where it is today," she said. "He had interdisciplinary interests and didn't want to be just an engineer or just a social scientist. Our emphasis on understanding computing in its social and legal contexts would have been a perfect match for him."
Henry said, "Under the leadership of Geri Gay, the faculty in the Department of Communication have been expanding the definition of communication studies at Cornell to integrate human-computer interactions, information science, psychology and law. Communication and information technology are essential to every facet of our academic mission, and Professor Gay has helped open the department to entirely new areas of exploration and collaboration that would have aligned especially well with Ken Bissett's interests."
In addition to establishing the Bissett Professorship, CALS has incorporated designs for a community center into the renovation plans for Mann Library. The center, to be named for Kenneth Bissett, will include a high-tech collaborative workspace and exhibit area for student projects and provide expanded communications infrastructure, bringing 24-hour access to news broadcasts to the library and to the David L. Call Alumni Auditorium, Trillium restaurant and several classrooms around the Ag Quad.