Joanne DeStefano, MBA ’97, executive vice president and chief financial officer, whose leadership kept Cornell on firm financial footing through a recession and a global pandemic, has announced her plans to retire from Cornell, effective June 30, 2023.
In her 14-year tenure as CFO, DeStefano has overseen the university’s financial and administrative services in support of the academic mission, during times of great challenge and great expansion.
Among her accomplishments, she oversaw a series of functional reviews of campus operations in the wake of the pandemic; instituted a diversity and inclusion initiative within her organization that has been ongoing for 15 years; chaired an advisory committee charged with re-envisioning campus public safety; and steered the university back to financial health after the 2008 recession.
“Joanne has been an incredible asset to the university for decades, and has helped our community to thrive in more ways than we could ever count,” said President Martha E. Pollack. “No one has done more than her to ensure that our financial resources are used as wisely and effectively as possible. She’s also a terrific colleague, who never presents a problem without an accompanying range of carefully considered solutions, and who tackles each new challenge with skill, strategic thinking and unfailing good humor.”
“Joanne’s tremendous value to Cornell has consistently been recognized over the years as additional departments and offices were added to her purview,” said Kraig H. Kayser, M.B.A. ’84, chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees. “What is so impressive is not just her expert management of our multicampus university financial processes and controls. It is also her innate understanding of institutional risk management and her holistic, big-picture approach to ensuring that Cornell’s reputation and financial health are protected.”
The university will conduct a national search for DeStefano’s successor.
As EVP and CFO, DeStefano oversees approximately 1,700 staff in a range of departments: asset management, audit, compliance, controller, facilities, investment and public safety (and, with Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff, shared oversight of information technologies and budget and planning).
“One of the things that I always wanted was to leave the university better than when I took over,” DeStefano said. “And when I think about when I started as a CFO during the great recession and where we are fiscally today, that’s probably one of my proudest accomplishments.”
DeStefano first came to Cornell in 1990 as the general accounting manager for the contract colleges after a decade in the corporate sector. By 2001, she was vice president of financial affairs and university controller.
“So much has changed since those original days. We consolidated all of the endowed and contract business functions since then,” DeStefano said. “Now we’re looking more institutionally at ways we can leverage resources from Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell Tech. We’re just continuing to become more efficient.”
DeStefano became vice president and chief financial officer in 2008, just as the global financial crisis was taking shape. She created a five-year fiscal strategy to bring the university back to financial health, implementing new capital spending policies and cash management practices and rebalancing the university’s debt portfolio to reduce risk.
As the university emerged from the great recession, it entered a period of new growth, with the 2012 launch of Cornell Tech in New York City. DeStefano was part of the negotiation team for Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus, and she developed a strategy to minimize the financial impact of the campus’s construction.
She was promoted to executive vice president and chief financial officer in 2015. In 2019, she oversaw the launch of a compliance office to help units and programs across the university navigate a crowded field of federal and state regulatory requirements.
Thanks to her financial stewardship, when the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, the university was prepared.
“We learned a lot through the great recession,” DeStefano said. “We’ve put so many financial policies in place that when we went through the pandemic and the start of the economic downturn, where the medical college had no clinical revenue for three months, the disciplines that we put in place the decade earlier significantly helped the university.”
Working with other vice presidents and college deans, DeStefano oversaw a series of functional reviews to identify potential cost savings across the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses to offset the financial toll of the pandemic and ensure the university’s long-term financial stability.
In addition, as she introduced a diversity and inclusion summer intern initiative that after 15 years is still running strong. In 2020, she was tapped by President Pollack to chair the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) and ensure that PSAC’s recommendations and new initiatives for promoting racial justice were successfully implemented – work that is informing the university’s development of an alternative public safety and response model, including a new Division of Public Safety.
Outside of her role at Cornell, DeStefano has served as a member on the Cayuga Medical Center board of directors and executive committees and chaired CMC’s patient and quality safety committee, and the Cornell 2008 United Way campaign.
“It’s been a privilege working with Joanne, and the university has benefitted greatly from her financial leadership,” said Douglas L. Braunstein ’83, co-vice chair of the Cornell Board of Trustees. “Her strategic decisions and leadership have helped to strengthen the university’s financial resources to better fulfill its academic mission as a leading global research institution. I’m grateful for all she has done, and for her commitment to Cornell.”
DeStefano earned a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in 1978 and received a master of business administration in finance from the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management in 1997.
In her retirement, she said she looks forward to spending time with her grandchildren, vacationing in Maine and snowshoeing with her husband, Peter, who retired from Cornell as director of player personnel, alumni, community and career programs for the varsity football program in 2020.
“I’ve had a fantastic career. It was a dream job,” DeStefano said. “I’ve had opportunities for promotion without having to relocate. I’ve had so many different positions at Cornell that it’s kept me motivated and kept me here for my career. I was never bored. Who could ask for anything more?”