Olin Lecture reflects on philanthropy of Chuck Feeney '56

Christopher G. Oechsli, foreground, speaks with President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes, center, and interim President Hunter Rawlings during the 2016 Olin Lecture in Bailey Hall.

In the Olin Lecture – a Reunion weekend highlight – Christopher G. Oechsli, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, joined interim President Hunter Rawlings and President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes to discuss the impact Charles F. Feeney ’56 has had at Cornell and around the world.

At the June 10 program in Bailey Hall, Oechsli discussed Feeney’s vision in establishing The Atlantic Philanthropies in 1982 and the foundation’s nearly $8 billion in investments to support higher education, medical research, human rights and justice.  Atlantic will conclude its grant-making this year and disburse its remaining funds by 2020, staying true to Feeney’s philosophy of “Giving While Living.” Feeney gathered his wealth by co-founding Duty Free Shoppers with another Cornell alumnus, Robert W. Miller ’55.

Atlantic has invested nearly $1 billion at Cornell. At the start of the lecture, Rawlings announced three new grants for the university totaling $16.25 million: $10 million for the Center for the Study of Inequality, based in the College of Arts and Sciences; $3.25 million for Cornell Law School’s International Center on Capital Punishment; and $3 million as a challenge grant to support the creation of a university welcome center.

Oechsli said that Feeney demonstrates philanthropic values he learned at Cornell, noting a “continuity of certain core characteristics of the Cornell community – not only its dedication to rigor, discipline and excellence – but in its underlying character of modesty and humaneness. Chuck Feeney lives those values.”

In a question-and-answer session, Rhodes asked Oechsli how Atlantic balanced its priorities and projects. “That may be for history to judge how well we’ve done, but it’s a challenge and a fluid environment,” said Oechsli. “The balance between opportunities that require significant funds – that may appear without a plan – against an intentional, purposeful investment in order to achieve certain outcomes. That’s an ongoing balancing act.”

Oechsli discussed one of Cornell’s historic opportunities, the Cornell Tech campus in New York City, for which Atlantic has provided $350 million. “We had the funds, and Chuck was ready to act. The New York City government was behind the opportunity,” Oechsli said. “We were going with the wave, helping to build the wave, we weren’t fighting opposition. … With Chuck’s courage and [willingness] to go big, it really combined at the right time, to do the right thing.”

Oechsli said Atlantic’s giving strategies evolved over time. “It starts with Chuck Feeney and his North Star,” he said. “Chuck always thought that his wealth should be put to good use to help people. Chuck – and I think this is something he learned at Cornell – is a learner, an observer, a student of his environment, his context, his people – it’s what created his entrepreneurial skill set.”

Explaining how Atlantic shifted its strategic framework and focus once it was determined that it would be a limited-life foundation, Oechsli quoted Rhodes, who had paraphrased Samuel Johnson: “There’s nothing like an imminent hanging to concentrate the mind.”

Rhodes has known Feeney for more than 30 years and served on the board of Atlantic from 1995 to 2008, for eight years as its chair. He reminded the audience that Feeney shuns the spotlight, giving grants anonymously for most of the life of the foundation. Notably, the philanthropist helped to facilitate peace in Northern Ireland, and he invested in education in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In 2012 he was awarded concurrent honorary degrees by all of the Irish universities.

“Cornell does not give honorary degrees,” Rhodes said. “But just as Ezra Cornell was the builder of our university, so too is Chuck Feeney the builder of the new Cornell.”

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