Interim President Michael I. Kotlikoff

From ‘scholarship kid’ to president, Kotlikoff meets the moment

In the fall of 1999, Mike Kotlikoff was on a nine-seat commuter plane bound for Philadelphia, feeling queasy. He was returning from a visit to Cornell, where he was being recruited to build a new department in biomedical sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine and lead a new, universitywide initiative in mammalian genomics.

“It was all quite seductive,” Kotlikoff said. “I felt a bit nauseous on the plane going home because I knew coming to Cornell meant disrupting my family and leaving colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania.”

At Cornell, Kotlikoff rose steadily in leadership positions: from founding chair of biomedical sciences in 2000, to dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007, to university provost in 2015.

Almost 25 years after that first visit, Kotlikoff is now looking ahead to another career transition. On July 1, he assumes the role of Cornell’s interim president following the retirement of Cornell’s 14th president, Martha E. Pollack. He will serve until 2026.

This change comes at a challenging time – for Kotlikoff and for Cornell.

“Political stress and contention is certain to continue,” he said, citing the presidential election, campus activism, global conflicts and criticism of higher education. “But I am confident that Cornellians will meet that moment, through civil, candid and productive discussions about what we do best as a university: what we are, and what we’re not.”

‘Forever grateful’

Kotlikoff grew up in Pennsauken, New Jersey, just outside of Camden, where his father and two uncles ran a clothing business. Kotlikoff’s parents were not well-to-do, but they saved to send their three children to private Quaker schools, which instilled in Kotlikoff an appreciation for the importance of listening to others and building consensus. At the time, his mother was working as a secretary at the University of Pennsylvania, which meant free tuition for her children.

Kotlikoff meets with student athletes and athletics staff in the Friedman Strength and Conditioning Center in Bartels Hall.

“My brother, my sister and I were staff scholarship kids,” Kotlikoff said. “It is something for which I’m forever grateful.”

Kotlikoff paid his college expenses with part-time jobs: handing out shoes and jockstraps to the football team and working nights at the local steak shop on Spruce Street. During the summers, he worked construction, a “fun” departure from studying comparative literature.

Kotlikoff was an eclectic reader, with a particular fondness for Russian and German literature. His interest in writing led to his being one of eight students in a course taught by novelist Philip Roth.

“We’d meet once a week on Thursdays,” Kotlikoff said. “Roth was sarcastic, hilarious, biting. He tore your stuff apart. But then when he praised your work, it was thrilling. I remember going to him for advice afterwards about next career steps, and he was very gracious.”

After receiving his B.A. in literature in 1973, Kotlikoff wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He spent his first years after graduation working on a factory assembly line in Munich, Germany, to earn enough money to spend several months traveling through France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland.

Back in the United States, he found a job that reflected his growing interest in science and medicine: putting horses on the surgical table and recovering them after surgery at New Bolton Center, the large animal hospital at Penn’s veterinary college.

Kotlikoff, then acting president, at Commencement in 2016.

“Veterinary medicine seemed broader than human medicine,” he said, “with unlimited potential.”

There was only one problem: His literature degree provided few of the course prerequisites he’d need for veterinary school. So Kotlikoff worked his way through the requirements while continuing his vet school job.

By 1979, he was back at Penn as a student of veterinary medicine. He realized he was most interested in biomedical research.

“I met my wife in vet school, and she was becoming a far better vet, with far more patience than I would ever have,” he said. “I realized I could never be that good. Carolyn kind of forced me out of the profession.”

After earning his VMD in 1981 and his Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, in 1984, Kotlikoff returned to Penn as an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Biology. Carolyn ran a successful cat practice in nearby Chestnut Hill. They had no reason to think they’d ever leave.

‘Just don’t pick anybody worse’

It was the mice that did it.

By the late 1990s, Kotlikoff’s lab had made substantial advancements in studying ion channel proteins that control muscle excitability, but he was becoming interested in heart development, cardiovascular biology and mouse genetics. His lab had shown that genetically manipulating mouse models to express purpose-designed fluorescent proteins could provide new ways to understand the biology of complex systems and features such as cell signaling by modifying the mouse genome to place these genetically encoded signaling molecules within specific cells.

Kotlikoff meets with (from left): Lola Brown, assistant professor of research education in anesthesiology; Hugh C. Hemmings Jr., the Joseph F. Artusio Jr. Professor and Chair of Anesthesiology; and John P. Leonard, the Richard T. Silver Distinguished Professor of Hematology and Medical Oncology, all at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“At the time, no one was working on mouse genetics at Cornell, which had no facilities to recruit scientists using the most powerful mammalian model in biomedicine,” Kotlikoff said. “So, in addition to chairing and building a new department, I saw a tremendous opportunity to have a significant impact on the university.”

At Cornell, Kotlikoff expanded his lab’s portfolio of breakthroughs to include mice with heart cells expressing optogenetic molecules, ways to use cell therapy to treat cardiac arrhythmias and an understanding of how stem cells create new heart cells in baby mice but not adults. Kotlikoff also launched and led the university’s Mammalian Genomics Life Science Initiative and in seven years built CVM’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. When the college dean’s term concluded in 2007, Kotlikoff was asked to replace him.

Reluctant to take time away from his lab, Kotlikoff told the search committee, “If you pick somebody better, I’ll be the happiest person in the room. Just don’t pick anybody worse.”

Within a year, Kotlikoff was stewarding the college through the 2008 global financial crisis. He asked then-Provost Kent Fuchs to create a committee to look at the university’s budget model – and appoint him to it. The committee’s final report provided the university with a roadmap for restabilizing its finances, and Kotlikoff became more interested in – and adept at addressing – universitywide issues.

In 2015, newly arrived president Elizabeth Garrett selected Kotlikoff to serve as university provost. He asked to be named chief budget officer in addition to chief academic officer.

Kotlikoff meets with Ben Sandkam, assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, and Nexus Scholars Program students working with him this summer, in Corson-Mudd Hall.

“People think, ‘Oh, if the provost is in charge of the budget, it’ll just be giving money to colleges and to faculty,’” he said. “But really the provost has to make sure the academic and the administrative parts of the academy are in balance.”

In his nine years as provost, Kotlikoff worked with colleagues on a host of massive projects, including the creation of the SC Johnson College of Business and the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy; the Radical Collaboration initiative; and the North Campus Residential Expansion. He also helped guide the university’s COVID-19 response, ensuring that academic operations remained on track and safe.

‘I never planned an administrative career’

Last semester, President Pollack asked Kotlikoff to step into her office, closed the door and told him she had decided to retire.

“And then she told me that Kraig wanted to talk to me in 15 minutes,” he said.

Kraig H. Kayser, MBA ’84, chair of the Cornell Board of Trustees, asked Kotlikoff to serve as interim president. A search for a new provost is already underway; once Cornell’s 15th president is named, Kotlikoff plans to retire.

The new role brings new challenges. His purview will now include Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. He will also be stepping onto a larger stage.

“I’ve been much more operational and focused on academic and administrative initiatives, as well as budgetary challenges,” he said. “The presidential role puts a premium on representing Cornell formally to the community, and to the rest of the world.”

Kotlikoff speaks with student veterans in Veterans House on West Campus.

In a sense, Kotlikoff has been preparing for this role his whole academic career.

“I think I know what makes a great university work and the core principles that underlie that work,” he said. “It helps you in leading the university, both internally and externally, that you are an academic knowledgeable about the university you are leading and its many and varied ‘constituencies.’ Cornell’s culture is fundamentally collaborative, a trait that comes from our founding ideals, our history and our environment, our small-town character and the closeness of our communities. I always felt that as provost, the fact that I was still running a lab, teaching and doing regular faculty work was a great advantage.”

In 2021, after 36 years of continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health and 152 published papers (the last two of which were published this year), Kotlikoff closed his lab. It was not an easy decision, and he misses the research, the stints in the lab every Friday and, most of all, being a regular faculty member collaborating with colleagues.

“I know the faculty very well,” Kotlikoff said. “And I plan to be very accessible and as much a colleague as possible, even in the presidential role.”

Kotlikoff at the Charter Day Ceremony in 2015 with his wife, Carolyn McDaniel, professor of practice in CVM.

Kotlikoff is already planning open houses and receptions to foster connection and dialogue. After a year of political crossfire and campus protests, Kotlikoff intends to speak only on issues that directly impact the university and to highlight the unique attributes of Cornell – including its history and its ethos.

“Carl Becker’s ‘Freedom and Responsibility’ is a great introduction to Cornell’s culture. It challenges all of us to temper passions with reasoned discourse and civil engagement and to remember what we owe each other in this precious community,” Kotlikoff said. “I want to intensely engage students, staff and alumni, as well as faculty, socially and in listening sessions and committees.”

Unable to hunker down in his lab anymore, Kotlikoff anticipates spending time in the great outdoors. He and Carolyn live on 50 wooded acres with their two dogs; Carolyn has bees and chickens, and donkeys will soon join the menagerie.

“I like getting on my tractor at the end of the day,” Kotlikoff  said. “There’s always something to do. I like activities where you can just focus on mowing a field or making a trail through the woods.”

He and Carolyn have two children. Their daughter, Phoebe, a submarine officer with the U.S. Navy who married a fellow submarine officer, recently left the service and graduated from Harvard Law School. Their son, Emmett ’16, graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and currently works for Google.

When not hiking, putting up firewood, reading history, cooking with Carolyn or attending Big Red sporting events – activities he loves – Kotlikoff will be running a university, which he also loves.

“I never planned an administrative career,” he said. “I never thought about becoming a provost or a university president. For me, being a faculty member was the kind of enough that was ‘as good as a feast.’ But when opportunities arose, I said yes, because I would – and I will – do anything for Cornell.”

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Lindsey Knewstub