"Men and women of Cornell, sons and daughters, all, of Ezra Cornell, welcome to the unfinished business."
The surge of applause and ovations that pursued Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes' Library Associate's address in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, June 7, during Cornell Reunion bode well not only for the speaker's legendary skills as an orator, but perhaps for the future of the university as well.
The story didn't start out that way.
Rhodes spent much of his Reunion Weekend talk, "Ezra Cornell's Unreasonable Vision," exposing the personal and historical sinew of the founder's life and radical philanthropic dream of comprehensive higher education for all. The topic, albeit familiar, was in the hands of a master storyteller, and Rhodes took the stuff of myth and legend and brought it to life: Ezra and his vision were born again.
Then Rhodes did himself one better. In candid terms he made real the "unreasonable vision" of Ezra Cornell, and in his summation drove home the point that more than ever that vision must be reinvigorated, cultivated and sustained.
Of higher education, he said: "This isn't a perfect model -- no of course it's not … it has its flaws. The curriculum is fragmented; there is departmental territorialism; structural reform remains elusive; the public schools languish. Our international rankings of students who graduate from college have slipped from first place to seventh place. In science and engineering the number of our graduates is far too small. Half our students (in America, not Cornell) do not graduate."
Rhodes continued his sobering litany, citing H.G. Wells: "Human history is more and more, a race between education and catastrophe."
Rhodes added, "But all the problems we face, not simply of poverty, not simply of hunger, not simply of inequality, but also of hatred and (schism) -- all these problems, in the end, are influenced by education, by higher education. So the question for us, then, is how do we share this unreasonable vision that more than a century ago was so effectively powerful with the larger world? I have no answer to that solution, but it is one that you and I must address."
He then referred to Cornell President David J. Skorton's recent Commencement address and his plea to graduates to start a movement to develop a new Marshall Plan in education.
"That's the kind of seed from which efforts such as the renewal of Ezra Cornell's vision must grow. … In a real sense we are also part of that [Ezra Cornell's] remarkable lineage. And it is the extension of that unreasonable vision to which we are called," Rhodes said.
He asked the audience to join him in "re-imagining, reformulating and reapplying" that vision on a global scale for the future of a world rife with suffering and threatened with environmental collapse.
"You who are class leaders. You who are campaign contributors. You who are Cornell benefactors. You who are Big Red supporters. You who are concerned citizens. How will you and I reinvent this vision on the larger canvas? Because it is your commitment and creativity and virtue and help that can make Ezra's unreasonable vision refocused and renewed and reformed," he said, adding that there is need to bring hope to a divided world.
Many alumni lingered long after the talk as if to bask in the inspired presence of the man who led Cornell's most successful fund-raising campaign to date and who remains an icon of scholarly accomplishment and humanitarian spirit.