In an interview with the Cornell Chronicle, Hunter R. Rawlings III, Cornell president emeritus and professor emeritus of classics, discussed “pinch-hitting” as Cornell’s interim president, taking on this leadership role April 25 in the stead of the late President Elizabeth Garrett, who died of colon cancer March 6. He also outlined some of the challenges ahead for Cornell and higher education.
Last year you announced you would retire from the presidency of the Association of American Universities (AAU). What motivated you to return to Cornell as interim president?
When the board chairman calls and says “we have a real emergency,” you say “yes” – for me, that’s a no-doubter, because Cornell had a tragedy with Beth’s death. My wife, Elizabeth, and I felt that if we could help by pinch-hitting, we would like to do that.
We like Cornell enormously. We keep coming back, and we have a lot of friends here and an extremely high regard for Cornell. My colleagues in the Classics Department are great scholars and teachers. I enjoy being in their midst and collaborating with them. For me, professionally in the Classics, this is heaven.
As president of the AAU you dealt with issues from a national perspective. How will that benefit Cornell? What are the top issues facing higher education?
I spent the past five years working quite closely with the presidents and chancellors of all 62 AAU universities. Two AAU members are Canadian, 60 are American, and of those 60, 35 are public universities and 25 are private. They are the strongest research universities in the U.S. and, to great extent, in the world.
AAU focuses on the research environment – federal funding for research, research policy, all of the compliance issues in the realm of research regulations; it works very closely with federal agencies, with the Obama administration, with Congress.
In addition, it focuses on graduate education, and in my five years we also put a lot of attention on undergraduate education in the sciences and math.
A lot of national attention has focused on the problems faced by public universities, with the withdrawal of state support. That, in turn, often leads to tuition increases to try to make up the gap, and that then brings public attention to student debt and default on loans.
All these issues are front and center here. Cornell is one of the top research universities, and it has its private aspects and its public aspects as the land-grant university of New York state.
What at Cornell has most changed since you arrived in 1995 as its 10th president?
I am not so much struck by change as by continuity. I think of Cornell as having immensely strong faculty, a great student body, very devoted staff and an amazingly loyal alumni body. All of that is unchanged.
Certainly one of the new things is Cornell Tech. I’ll be leaving for New York City in the next few days, and I’m very much interested in seeing the development of that new campus on Roosevelt Island.
You have said you plan to continue with priorities President Garrett laid out. How will you advance them in your interim role?
In terms of the student learning and living environment, North Campus and West Campus – which were newly developed in my day – are now mature. It is quite interesting to me to see how well they are doing. North Campus is a place where freshmen now feel at home. On West Campus, there is tremendous success. Students vote with their feet, and it is pretty clear that they like to stay on campus. We’ve had terrific faculty leadership on West Campus; the house deans have been extraordinary in the ways they’ve built programming for their students. It will be fun for me to try to help continue that momentum.
Certainly the biological sciences in Ithaca have developed a lot since my day. There are more ties now with Weill Cornell Medicine, and there will be strong ties within the departments here in Ithaca and on the Cornell Tech campus. I want to learn more about that.
Are there initiatives of your own you would like to champion?
I am a pinch hitter; it is my job to try to provide a little stability before the new president comes in. I don’t see this as a time for many new initiatives, but I do want to address some broader public issues.
I am a strong believer in the value of the humanities. I want to talk with a lot of humanists here and talk publicly about the humanities.
I think today there is so much emphasis across the country on careerism and on seeing a university education from a purely utilitarian point of view, an instrumentalist point of view – that college is simply about getting a job. I want to try to balance that inclination with the idea that, yes, college will help you get a job – many jobs and very good ones – but college is also a time when you want to develop yourself as a person. And you want to become, frankly, a critical thinking, independent citizen.
If you want to look forward to a whole career, in which you’re likely to have different kinds of jobs, then the liberal arts education is best. I really am serious about saying that we need citizens who can think through the complex issues that we confront in an open democracy, an educated citizenry who can think for themselves and make good judgments.
In the short time she led Cornell, Elizabeth Garrett began a strategic planning process and formed the College of Business. How will you move those initiatives forward?
I have a whole lot to learn about both of those. Those are clearly on the front burner, and I’ll be working with Provost Mike Kotlikoff in particular. He is a terrific partner in this because he is well-informed and so experienced; he knows Cornell well. He was doing two arduous jobs for a few months, and he knows a ton as a result.
You traveled to China as interim president in 2005-06. Can you talk about the academic relationship between Cornell and China since then and about the future of Cornell’s international reach?
Start with the number of Chinese students now coming to American universities as undergraduates. That never happened before. We had graduate students, but now we have 300,000 Chinese students at American colleges and universities. It just started to explode in 2007. We also have a large number of South Korean students, students from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan.
And then you have American universities going overseas, not just to China but to Europe, the Middle East, Africa. We have a large international dimension, a land-grant mission writ large.
What’s on the immediate horizon?
In the next few weeks I want to inform myself about a number of matters on the front burner: budget issues affecting faculty retention and hiring; research regulations sapping faculty time and energy; student concerns about financial aid policies; the search for a new dean of Weill Cornell Medicine; the development of the Cornell Tech campus. But, to be candid, I will also spend a good deal of time talking with individual faculty members whose scholarship and research interest me. I had a breakfast meeting with a group of faculty members from different colleges a couple of days ago and discovered some remarkable projects on the frontiers of knowledge. Nothing is more instructive or more fun than that at Cornell. This place brims with brainpower.