The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation established by entrepreneur Charles F. Feeney ’56, has made a $7 million grant to The Cornell Tradition, a fellowship program offering distinctive service, work and scholarship opportunities to some of the university’s most civically minded undergraduates.
The award marks the completion of Atlantic’s grant-making, totaling $8 billion over 35 years, nearly $1 billion of which has benefited Cornell. Atlantic’s board decided in 2002 to disburse the foundation’s assets by the end of 2016 and cease operations by 2020, a decision inspired by Feeney’s belief that people of great means should put their wealth to the service of humanity during their lifetimes, a philosophy he describes as “giving while living.”
Atlantic’s final investment will create the Frank H.T. Rhodes Fund for The Cornell Tradition and expand the foundation’s support for the program to more than $40 million. Cornell President Emeritus Rhodes, together with Feeney, originated The Cornell Tradition in 1982, when Atlantic made its very first grant – also for $7 million – to create the program. Rhodes served Atlantic as a trustee from 1995-2000 and board chair from 2000-08.
“I am deeply honored and grateful that The Atlantic Philanthropies – a foundation that has done so much good around the world – has directed a new grant toward The Cornell Tradition,” said Rhodes. “Working with Chuck Feeney to found the Tradition was one of the great pleasures of my life. I am delighted that the program will continue to serve Cornell students while nurturing in them the commitment to excellence, hard work and service that both Cornell’s founders and Chuck Feeney exemplify.”
Atlantic’s directors approved the grant last month at a meeting Feeney attended by videoconference. He told the group: “This is a rewarding day for me – a special moment I have been anticipating for many, many years. The final grant to Cornell, which mirrors my first ever grant, is especially satisfying.”
“It is fitting that Chuck Feeney’s and Atlantic’s first and last grants have been for The Cornell Tradition, investing in emerging leaders’ commitment to service, learning and social change,” said Christopher G. Oechsli, Atlantic’s president and CEO. “Chuck’s experience at Cornell launched him on his career as an entrepreneur and fostered the values and ethos Chuck embodies as one of the world’s leading philanthropists, of this or any age. As Warren Buffett recently said of Chuck, ‘He’s my hero and should be everyone’s hero.’”
Up to 500 of Cornell’s 14,000 undergraduates are recognized each year as Cornell Tradition fellows based on their commitment to combining paid work and service to others with their academic studies. Fellows receive up to $4,000 per year in need-based student loan replacement grants, $3,500 over the course of their baccalaureate study to support internships or service-related activities and membership in a unique community of service-oriented scholars.
Funding from The Atlantic Philanthropies, together with gifts from other alumni, parents and friends, have made it possible for The Cornell Tradition to provide more than $41 million in loan relief to over 5,500 fellows since its founding nearly 35 years ago. Collectively, fellows have performed 2.8 million hours of work and service on behalf of the Cornell, Tompkins County and national and global communities.
“This generous grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies ensures the sustainability of The Cornell Tradition, a transformative program for so many Cornellians," said Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life. “It is especially fitting that the grant honors one of the university’s greatest leaders, President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes, who played such a formative role in conceiving the Tradition.”
According to Lombardi, the Rhodes Fund will support the Tradition’s core operations, including staffing and student programs. A portion of the endowment has also been set aside for use at the director’s discretion to supplement the support accounts of students with financial need who wish to pursue international service experiences.
“It is an honor for The Cornell Tradition to receive this investment from The Atlantic Philanthropies,” said Kristine M. DeLuca, director of the Cornell Commitment, of which The Cornell Tradition is part. “Atlantic’s generosity will ensure that the Tradition provides support and financial assistance to dedicated, diverse, service-minded students in perpetuity, for the benefit of the world community. The fact that it honors Frank Rhodes makes it all the sweeter. President Rhodes has been one of Cornell’s greatest champions of the good work done by our students each and every day.”
The Cornell Tradition provides an innovative and enduring model for educational institutions interested in fostering service, work and scholarship. Feeney gave the program its name after being inspired by Rhodes’ 1980 essay “The Spirit of Cornell.” Rhodes noted that university founders Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White were committed from the start to making the university accessible by creating opportunities for paid student work.
In the early 1980s Feeney was concerned with rising levels of student loan debt and wanted to help students help themselves, as well as others, through work and service. He also hoped to encourage a tradition of generosity among Cornellians in giving back to their communities and to the university.
Feeney’s support has inspired others to give of their time and treasure. Many Cornell Tradition alumni serve or have served in volunteer leadership positions for the university. In addition, Cornell alumni and friends have endowed 308 Tradition fellowships since the program’s founding, helping to defray the costs of students’ need-based loan replacement grants.
The Atlantic Philanthropies’ lifetime giving to Cornell has provided transformational support for Cornell Tech, North and West Campuses, other capital projects, scholarships and academic initiatives. The foundation’s global philanthropy has changed the lives and livelihoods of people around the world through targeted, game-changing support for education, health care, human rights, and programs that benefit children and the elderly.
The foundation’s papers and actively curated website, documenting Feeney’s extraordinary impact around the globe, will be housed permanently at the Cornell University Library and provide an ongoing resource and inspiration for historians and philanthropists.
Diane Lebo Wallace is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.