University Counsel Madelyn F. Wessel has announced plans to retire from Cornell, effective at the end of June 2021.
The university in the coming weeks will launch a national search to select a successor to Wessel, who in 2017 became the first woman to hold the position that also serves as secretary of the corporation and secretary of the Cornell University Board of Trustees.
“Madelyn has been a trusted adviser to me and to the Board of Trustees on the myriad legal and related issues that large research universities like Cornell handle each day,” President Martha E. Pollack said. “Her counsel has served the institution extremely well, and has been especially invaluable throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. I am glad that we will have her with us through the end of the academic year, which will give us time to undertake a national search for her replacement and ensure a smooth transition.”
Wessel said she looked forward to supporting the university throughout that process and called her tenure, which will extend just over four years, “an incredible opportunity” for which she thanked Pollack and the trustees.
“Madelyn has done an outstanding job as University Counsel,” said Board Chairman Robert S. Harrison ’76. “Throughout her tenure, she has not only provided expert advice and counsel to me, but she has also ensured that all 64 trustees are apprised of relevant legal and governance implications of the many issues on which we deliberate. This can be an especially challenging task for a board the size of Cornell’s, and Madelyn has performed that task brilliantly.”
Wessel said the global coronavirus pandemic, and the profound and disparate impact it has had on racial and ethnic communities throughout the country, had influenced her decision to retire, capping a nearly 40-year legal career. She plans to spend more time with family spread across the U.S. and abroad, to undertake pro bono legal work on civil rights and to engage more fully in community and justice issues.
“When the world is on lockdown and human tragedies are unfolding everywhere, you think about what are the highest, most important priorities that you have in the world, and family and community are really important,” she said. “After working for so many decades, we want to be in a position where we can spend time with our children, other family, and friends, who are just so far away now, and I very much want to have time not possible in my current position to engage more directly in civil rights work.
“In the interim,” she said, “I am completely committed to working around the clock to help Cornell for the next year, and to leading the absolutely wonderful team of attorneys and staff in University Counsel in their committed work for Cornell.”
As university counsel, Wessel supervises and directs all legal services performed on behalf of the university, overseeing a team of about 20 attorneys in Ithaca and at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. She also provides governance advice to the Board of Trustees.
Wessel reorganized the Office of University Counsel and has hired 10 attorneys during her tenure. She has led the university’s handling of complex litigation, regulatory and government enforcement matters; worked to strengthen Cornell’s diversity programs; and overseen its participation in multiple amicus briefs with peer institutions, some filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wessel joined Cornell from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she served as university counsel and senior assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Before that she was associate university counsel at the University of Virginia, where she was also an adjunct professor. She previously served as chief deputy city attorney for the City of Portland, Oregon, and as a section chief and assistant attorney general at the Massachusetts Department of Justice.
She received her J.D. from Boston University and her bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College.
Wessel and her husband plan to return to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they lived for more than 15 years earlier in her career.
“I’ve had an amazing opportunity to be here at Cornell and to work for President Pollack and with many wonderful colleagues,” she said, “and I am delighted that I have the whole next year to continue to support the university.”