Rawlings reflects on strength of American universities

Hunter Rawlings at SOTU
Jason Koski/University Photography
Interim President Hunter Rawlings delivers the 2016 State of the University address in Bailey Hall.

Calling Reunion 2016 “unprecedented and bittersweet” because “we feel the profound loss of our 13th president, Elizabeth Garrett,” Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees, welcomed Hunter Rawlings back to the university as interim president. Speaking to an audience of about 1,100 who gathered for the State of the University address in Bailey Hall June 11, Harrison called Rawlings “a Cornell treasure.”

Rawlings – relaxed and sitting in an armchair for much of the hour – drew from his recent service as president of the Association of American Universities to outline his thoughts on the role American research universities play in the nation and Cornell’s “remarkable role” as one of the great universities.

U.S. research universities are “by far the best in the world,” Rawlings said, noting students come from all over the world, particularly from China, to attend them. Why?

Unlike many other countries whose educational systems are run by the government, the United States has no single “system” of higher education, Rawlings said. Instead, the U.S. has, “by happy historical accident,” all kinds of colleges and universities, every single sort of institution, from small liberal arts colleges to seminaries, church schools, secular schools, land-grant schools. That diversity is a “huge strength” for American universities, Rawlings said. It also creates competition for faculty and for federal grants and other funding.

In addition, American universities have a high degree of institutional autonomy; colleges and universities determine who teaches, what is taught, how it is taught and who may be admitted to study. “This maintains the integrity of the learning environment,” Rawlings said.

Shared governance is at the heart of American academia, Rawlings said. Cornell has shared governance “in a big way” through the Faculty Senate, the University Assembly, the constituent assemblies for students and staff – they all have a voice, he said.

Most important at Cornell and elsewhere in the U.S. is academic freedom, Rawlings said, or “the freedom of the university faculty to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching and service, without undue constraint.” Citing Cornell historian Carl Becker, Rawlings said with academic freedom comes academic responsibility. Freedom with responsibility is at the core of all great American universities, he said.

Another key to the excellence of U.S. research universities is the role of federal funding of research, which began in earnest after World War II once it was clear that U.S. scientific research contributed to the nation’s winning the war. That federal funding and scientific research fueled the American economy and American research universities postwar. Now, however, federal funding of U.S. research has decreased while competition for it has increased, said Rawlings, and corporations have ceased doing basic scientific research. The challenge ahead is to continue to recruit and retain top faculty as well as secure grants for research.

Rawlings believes Cornell is positioned to continue to do well: “We have top-quality faculty in Ithaca … we have a medical college that is developing research … and we have … Cornell Tech, which is building an intellectual enterprise that’s going to go out and meet the world.”

Rawlings said since returning to Cornell he has had “a lot of fun” talking with faculty about the work they are doing.

For instance, Jon Kleinberg ’93, chair of Information Science, is working on artificial intelligence. In the 1990s Kleinberg had written a seminal paper on how to search the web before Google was invented, then went on to describe how teenagers form groups on the web before Facebook existed. “He is an incredible mind and a great university citizen,” Rawlings said.

Rawlings also highlighted the work of Julia Thom-Levy, associate professor of physics; philologist Ding Xiang Warner, associate professor of Asian studies; Steve Strogatz, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics; Liam McAllister, associate professor of physics; and Jessica Weiss, associate professor of government.

Noting his appreciation for the faculty across the university, Rawlings said, “We don’t generally talk to people in vastly different fields, but when we do, it is amazing, mind-blowing.”

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