NEW YORK -- Seven of Cornell's best and brightest scholars delivered their unvarnished opinions and beliefs, and then some, as they tackled topics ranging from global politics and crises in health, food and economics, to Cornell's international and intellectual missions before a large audience of Cornellians in midtown Manhattan on Jan. 25.
Despite the keenly expressed opinions and the good-humored rhetorical clashes, Peter Katzenstein, professor of international studies, declared, "Even with the fighting among us, what unites us is the good fight."
The faculty members provided the intellectual depth and breadth to the "Big Red in the Big Apple" celebration, sponsored by Alumni Affairs and Development and by Far Above ... The Campaign for Cornell.
When the 90-minute panel discussion in the Grand Hyatt ballroom, billed as "A Meeting of the Minds," was over, Peter Meinig '61, chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees, observed, "Only at Cornell." Each panelist, he said, "in his or her own way, exceeded what the other one said."
Cornell Provost Carolyn (Biddy) Martin moderated the discussion among participants Katzenstein; Daniel Huttenlocher, computer science; Fredrik Logevall, history; Susan McCouch, plant breeding and genetics; Ralph Nachman, associate dean of clinical research at Weill Cornell Medical College; Maureen O'Hara, management; and Eswar Prasad, applied economics and management.
Martin began by asking the panelists about urgent challenges in their work.
Nachman stressed "the need for transferring [medical] advances to the population at large and particularly the Third World." He called this "a moral imperative."
McCouch, a rice breeder who previously worked in the Philippines and continues to take her students there, urged caution in considering "cultural and sociological constraints" in transferring agriculture-related technologies to developing areas.
Katzenstein was more skeptical, calling his colleagues "Mr. Fixit and Mrs. Complicated," and then observing, "We are a historically amnesiac, technologically obsessed culture." The German-born Katzenstein said he is "thankful to America," but emphasized that the country's influence is not one-way: "It's not just us kicking elsewhere, it's them kicking back at us."
Huttenlocher addressed differing technology-related privacy concerns in the United States and Europe, adding, "Technology is shrinking the world ... it is bringing together people of different backgrounds who used to be separated by belief and space and time."
"So you're an optimist?" Martin asked.
"I'm always an optimist," the computer scientist replied.
Nachman picked up the thread, relating the speed of information to that of disease. "It doesn't take more than a couple of days for a new organism to travel halfway or all the way around the world," he said.
A more cautious approach came from Logevall, who said that great hopes for mankind also greeted the introduction of the telegraph, railroads and the "Star Wars" nuclear defense system. While the sentiment is admirable, he said, "that same technological optimism that put a man on the moon also helped bring on the Vietnam War."
As the conversation progressed, McCouch noted that the panel, indeed, had "interconnected concerns," after O'Hara, Katzenstein and Prasad addressed contemporary world politics, finance and economics, including China's role as an economic power. The talk also turned from Cornell's global mission to whether today's university can still be considered an "ivory tower."
"We really have to do both," Huttenlocher said. "We have to be citizens of the world and also be contemplative."
An alumnus in the audience mentioned Ezra Cornell's famous motto, "any person ... any study," and said the panel had illustrated that "Cornell is all about access." He asked Martin directly: "When is Cornell going to embrace no-loan financial aid?" She responded that it was a "wonderful" and "timely" question, and said, "We will do more, and it will happen soon."
Martin wrapped up the discussion by asking the panel members: "Why Cornell?"
Logevall, noting that a historian could work anywhere, said that "in my short time, it's been just a marvelous experience intellectually." He praised the opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement and "the superb library that we have."
Prasad, calling Cornell a training ground for influential academics and policy-makers, said, "We can really accomplish a lot in the broader global context by teaching them to, in a sense, do the right thing."
The fact that "Cornell is wired" and being located on the central campus are key to the Johnson School's success, O'Hara said: "We cannot fulfill our mission unless we are able to draw on the university."
Nachman said, "Weill Cornell represents an opportunity and a vision," and he observed that "I'm beginning to see real attempts to shrink the 230 miles or so between Ithaca and New York. It will bring strength to the institution."
"First and foremost, our students," Huttenlocher said. Mentioning his recent role as adviser to the Cornell DARPA Urban Challenge team -- that built a robot, self-driving car -- he praised "the kind of students with the enthusiasm and tenacity to drag you into the impossible."
Given unlimited choice, McCouch said, ultimately "[you] choose an institution because it empowers you and it allows you to empower others."