When Robert Frederick Smith ’85 arrived at Cornell more than 35 years ago, he found that the research he’d done on the university – and Ezra Cornell’s hope of founding an institution where “any person can find instruction in any study” – was more than just talk.
“What I didn’t know when I set foot on this campus was that Cornell actually breathed life into those words and had a commitment to maintaining this culture of community and inclusion,” Smith said. “But I discovered that on my visit, and I knew that this was the place for me.”
And through his extraordinary generosity, Smith is helping assure that Cornell continues to be a place that fosters academic inclusion. On Oct. 21 Cornell University formally dedicated one of its engineering schools as the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
The ceremony drew approximately 300 people to the Groos Family Atrium in Klarman Hall. The event, originally scheduled to be held outside the Smith School on Ho Plaza, was moved indoors due to inclement weather.
Many of the attendees were chemical engineering students who donned red T-shirts with a Smith School logo on the front. The students gravitated toward Smith upon his arrival at the event, posing for photos with the billionaire philanthropist, who seemed more than happy to oblige.
Smith is the founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. In January, his personal gift, combined with a gift from Fund II Foundation, together totaled a $50 million commitment to the College of Engineering to support chemical and biomolecular engineering and students traditionally underrepresented in engineering. It also established the Robert Frederick Smith Tech Scholars Program, which will create a pipeline for underrepresented Cornell Engineering graduates to access master's degree programs at the Cornell Tech campus in New York City.
“Thanks to Robert's vision and support, we will create opportunities for promising students from all over the country, particularly African-Americans and women, who excel academically but may not have the means to attain an Ivy League education or who may not realize that their talents are best suited for the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields,” said Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of the College of Engineering.
Interim President Hunter Rawlings, who gave the many engineering students an enthusiastic welcome to the College of Arts and Sciences, called Smith’s generosity and vision “inspiring.”
“It’s meant so much to all of us at Cornell, to have this great gift to help us in achieving what we all try to do – to increase diversity and the appreciation of diversity at Cornell, in engineering and all of our other fields, as well,” Rawlings said.
Smith echoed the central theme of the university’s strategic plan, “One Cornell.”
“President Rawlings, I think about your words: ‘One Cornell,’” Smith told the gathering. “You’ve spoken about working together to take advantage of each other’s strengths, collaborating in new ways to create synergies that go beyond anything we’ve done in the past. To me, that’s what diversity is – ideas, thought, action, coming together and making it happen. And I’m pledging to you that I am here to help you do that.”
Collins opened the event by reminding those in attendance that the dedication of the school marks the first time in Cornell’s 151-year history that a school at the university has been named “in honor of a prominent African-American,” which drew rousing applause. Collins himself made history in 2010, becoming the College of Engineering’s first African-American dean.
Collins also echoed Ezra Cornell’s wish for the university in praising Smith.
“Robert’s commitment to making sure this remains true, 151 years later, is an extraordinary opportunity for both Cornell and for young scholars from all over the world who’ll be given access through his generosity,” Collins said. “So to you, Robert, I say thank you.”
In addition to Rawlings and Collins, others in attendance at the dedication were: Smith’s mother, Sylvia Smith; Linda Wilson, executive director of the Fund II Foundation; Abraham Stroock, director of the Smith School; and Lynden Archer, the James A. Friend Family Distinguished Professor of Engineering and former director of the Smith School, who’s credited with helping start the conversation that resulted in Smith’s gift.