Office of the President


2008 Local Leaders Brunch Remarks

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
November 8, 2008

Good morning and welcome. We are pleased that all of you could join us for this annual brunch. Even in these difficult economic times—especially in these difficult economic times—I want to recognize and thank you for all that you do for the greater Tompkins County area and for our individual communities through your leadership and service every day. Despite the financial problems all of us are facing, Cornell is and will remain a good neighbor and partner with you as we move forward together.

Yesterday's economic news heightened the anxiety that many are feeling about the American economy. The unemployment rate is now 6.5 percent, the highest level since 1994. The economy lost another 240,000 jobs in October, marking the 10th straight month of job decline. Since August some 651,000 jobs have been lost-far more than the government originally estimated.

Cornell is financially sound, and as the largest employer in Central New York, we feel a strong responsibility to maintain the workforce of the university—for the welfare of the university and the health of the Upstate New York economy. Even so, the condition of the national economy and the New York State budget will mean a decline of uncertain duration in several of the revenue streams that we depend upon. We cannot be certain of the depth or duration of these difficult conditions, but we are adjusting our operations and budget in preparation.

At the end of October, I announced a four-point plan, effective last Monday, to guide our efforts over the next few months and to establish a framework that will enable us to meet the current economic challenges while preserving Cornell's strength for the longer term. Very briefly, here is what we are doing:

First, we have instituted a hiring pause, through March 31, 2009, on non-faculty hiring from outside the university. The pause will preserve opportunities for current employees who might be dislocated in the near term, and it allows for the possibility of eliminating some positions through attrition. Second, we initiated a 90-day construction pause to allow us to reassess our capital budget and reprioritize our infrastructure priorities in view of the changed economic environment. Third, we are undertaking a rigorous 45-day review of institutional effectiveness, financial policies and procedures in order to identify both near and longer term opportunities for cost savings and for streamlining operations, the results of which will be incorporated into the next several years' operating budgets. Fourth, this past week we held two public forums to discuss the current financial environment and its impact on the Cornell community and to engage faculty, students, staff and alumni in helping us think about how best to meet the economic challenges confronting the university. In the days ahead, I will be meeting with the university's senior staff and deans to discuss the comments and ideas presented there and determine how best to incorporate them into our future plans. We have also set up an electronic suggestion box through which people can submit ideas for cost-savings or organizational efficiencies, because we are confident that people in units throughout the university know how improvements can best be made.

As we pause construction over the next three months, some of the Cornell-related workforce housing, transportation management programs, and related infrastructure improvements may be delayed. These are improvements that will benefit Cornell faculty/staff/students and the local community. I want to assure you that we will fulfill these commitments, despite the current economic turmoil, although perhaps over a longer time horizon. Should this be necessary we will consult with community leaders. I want to thank the many people here today who have worked, and continue to work, on these important opportunities and to express my confidence that better local housing and transportation will become a reality, even if not as rapidly as we had hoped.

As we move forward, Cornell will remain focused on the need to attract and retain the best and brightest students, faculty and staff. To that end, we will work to:

  • strengthen financial aid,
  • sustain competitive market-based salaries for faculty and staff,
  • make essential and cost-effective investments in infrastructure,
  • support our land-grant mission for the State of New York,
  • be a good neighbor in the Tompkins County area.

We have enjoyed an outstanding level of town-gown cooperation in the past year, and I know we can continue in that spirit. A great deal has already been accomplished, and in challenging times it is good to remember how far-together-we have already come.

Let me give just a few examples of some of the strong town-gown partnerships that have been important this year and that we need to continue:

The Sustainability Hub and many other community organizations have worked tirelessly with our sustainability coordinators, Dean Koyanagi and Dan Roth, to help all of us be better stewards of our environment and to live sustainably.

The Tompkins County Water Resources Council has coordinated discussions among Cornell scientists and engineers and many other Cayuga Lake stakeholders, with the goal of better monitoring of the lake and its tributaries.

We've worked together to address issues related to race, class and equity. Last January's candid discussions of these issues, organized by the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce and involving more than 120 people from 70 businesses and organizations, resulted in several new initiatives-including a series of public service announcements that won a state Broadcasters Association award and a weekly radio show, All Things Equal, on WHCU sponsored by six large employers: Borg Warner, Cayuga Medical Center, Cornell, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, and Wegmans.

We've been and continue to be partners in planning for the future of the campus, the city, the Town of Ithaca, and Collegetown, which is so important to the local economy and as a gateway to the campus.

During this year's "Into the Streets" day of service, a record 1,100 Cornell students and 130 teams of Cornell volunteers helped more than 50 nonprofit and public organizations throughout Tompkins County.

Our students have raised thousands of dollars for the United Way of Tompkins County through innovative fund-raisers—from breaking a world record for the number of people in a continuous relay to creating the Steven Garner Summers of Service Scholarship Fund to support three seniors from area high schools who work for a United Way agency over the summer. They have joined city and campus officials to strategize about making our beautiful gorges safer. And fraternity and sorority members now meet every Sunday afternoon in Collegetown to clean up the streets and have proposed a plan that would have students buy and maintain extra trash cans for the neighborhood. All these initiatives, and many others, are part of being a good neighbor.

Obviously, local governments and businesses as well as the university must plan carefully and act judiciously to remain strong in the midst of the economic challenges confronting our state, nation and the world. But I pledge to you this morning that Cornell will be a good neighbor and a solid partner in the community.

One of the more obscure meanings of the word "partner" refers to the heavy timber that strengthens a ship's deck to support a mast. I like to think that the myriad partnerships that play out every day in Tompkins County are like those timbers strengthening our collective deck, so that we can sail confidently together through familiar waters and those uncharted-and continue to make our university and our community a magnet for talented students and staff and distinguished scholars from throughout the world.

We are fortunate to have one of those distinguished international scholars at Cornell this year and with us, as guest speaker, today: The Honorable Raid Juhi Al Saedi. Judge Raid, as he is known here, is the Clark Middle East Fellow at Cornell University's Law School. He was formerly the chief investigative judge of the Iraqi High Tribunal, the court that investigated and tried Saddam Hussein and other former regime leaders of Iraq for genocide war crimes and crimes against humanity. He also led the effort to draft the Iraqi High Tribunal's Rules of Evidence and Procedure, which were enacted into law by the Iraqi National Assembly.

Judge Raid will speak to us today on the future of Iraq. Please join me in welcoming the Honorable Raid Juhi Al Saedi.