Madelyn F. Wessel, university counsel at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been named university counsel and secretary of the corporation for Cornell University. Her appointment was approved Jan. 27 by the Executive Committee of the Cornell University Board of Trustees. The first woman to hold the position, Wessel will start May 8.
As university counsel, Wessel will serve as the chief legal officer for the university, representing and advising all Cornell boards, senior officers and other officials and units. She will oversee offices in Ithaca and New York City, leading 16 attorneys and other staff who provide in-house legal services, as well as selecting and overseeing all outside legal counsel retained to represent the university. As secretary of the corporation, Wessel will serve as chief governance officer and adviser to the Cornell University Board of Trustees.
“Madelyn brings a wealth of university, legal and scholarly experience, making her an excellent fit for this position,” said Martha E. Pollack, who will become Cornell’s 14th president April 17. “She already has navigated many of the varied and challenging legal issues – research, health and medical, regulatory and international – that arise at large higher education research institutions, and she is a recognized leader in issues related to intellectual property and to civil rights.”
Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the board of trustees, said: “I look forward to working with Madelyn on the opportunities and challenges before us as we move forward in Ithaca, at Weill Cornell Medicine and at Cornell Tech. I believe Madelyn is particularly qualified to guide us through the complexities inherent across Cornell’s campuses and within a changing legal and regulatory environment.”
Since 2014 Wessel has been in charge of legal affairs at VCU, Virginia’s largest urban public research institution, with 30,000 students and 13 schools, including five health sciences schools affiliated with the VCU Health System, and a School for the Arts in Doha, Qatar. She revamped VCU’s Title IX and Equal Employment Opportunity programs, and helped to lead other institutional reform projects, including an in-process transformation of the university’s personnel systems and the development of VCU’s new private investment company that manages funds from both the university, affiliated foundations and its health system.
“I am excited and eager to join what is obviously an incredibly strong team at the University Counsel’s Office at Cornell,” Wessel said. “I am looking forward to working with the president and board of trustees and representing Cornell’s legal interests across its numerous campuses and advancing its academic and public missions, and truly honored to have been selected for this role.”
Before joining VCU, Wessel served in various legal leadership capacities for the University of Virginia from 2001-14, including as associate general counsel, and special adviser and liaison to the general counsel for the university library system and for the vice president for student affairs. At UVA her practice areas included intellectual property, internet law, research, faculty affairs, civil rights and more. She also was an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and the Curry Graduate School of Education.
Prior to launching her career in higher education, Wessel served as chief deputy city attorney in the Portland, Oregon, city attorney’s office, focusing on constitutional, civil rights, affirmative action, employment, public contracting, fair housing and general government law.
She earned her J.D. in 1982 from the Boston University School of Law and a B.A. in 1976 with honors in history and philosophy from Swarthmore College.
A frequent lecturer at national conferences, Wessel has been active in the National Association of College and University Attorneys, including serving a three-year term on the board of directors. She received the association’s First Decade Award in 2012. While living in Oregon, she received several awards for her work promoting women and minorities in the legal profession and her work in civil rights and affirmative action.
Wessel succeeds James Mingle, who served Cornell for more than 20 years.
“I want to thank Jim Mingle for his long, dedicated and excellent service to Cornell for so many years – even staying on this past year at the university’s request,” said Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III. “Madelyn Wessel is a fitting choice to become Cornell’s next chief legal officer. I am confident that she will serve Cornell’s many diverse legal interests extremely well.”