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Section II

Cornell's Enduring Commitments

Cornell is an unusually complex institution and that complexity can be traced to the founding vision of Ezra Cornell. To incorporate practical and vocational education into an institution of higher learning was unprecedented, as was the idea of opening up classical education to the masses of American society. Today Cornell remains unique among institutions of higher education, as a distinguished private Ivy League institution that also is the land grant university of New York State. To provide context for this strategic plan, this section presents the mission of the institution and makes explicit the core values and enduring commitments of Cornell University.

University Mission

The official mission statement is as follows:

Cornell is a private, Ivy League university and the land grant university for New York State. Cornell's mission is to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge; produce creative work; and promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community. Cornell also aims, through public service, to enhance the lives and livelihoods of our students, the people of New York, and others around the world. [Strategic Plan 2008]

This mission statement follows a standard form for research universities, capturing in general terms the nature of Cornell University. This strategic plan draws on the mission in two respects. First, the three dimensions of the mission (knowledge creation, education of students, and public service or outreach) are umbrella goal areas within which this strategic plan develops more specific objectives and actions. Second, becoming a model university for interweaving fundamental and practical knowledge is an important component of the aspiration for Cornell proposed by the plan.

The university also has a statement of vision, used in some communications, as follows:

Cornell aspires to be the exemplary comprehensive research university for the 21st century on the basis of our distinctive status as a private university with a formal public mission. Faculty, staff, and students will thrive at Cornell because of its unparalleled combination of quality and breadth; its high standards; its open, collaborative, and innovative culture; the opportunities provided by beautiful, vibrant rural and urban campuses; and programs that extend throughout the state of New York and across the globe.[Strategic Plan 2008]

In this vision there are noteworthy references to Cornell's exemplary breadth and quality as well as its collaborative and open culture. The plan assumes and builds on these qualities.

Core Values

Core values are defined as inviolable commitments that express "who we are as an institution" and what principles or qualities should infuse all practices and activities within the institution. The nature and implicit values of Cornell University were the theme of President Skorton's "State of the University" address on October 23, 2009. He argued that Cornell University is supported by four fundamental pillars:

  1. Classical and contemporary inquiry, "shaped by the founder's commitment to liberal and practical education." In other words, Cornell values the arts and humanities as well as advanced scientific and technological research; in broader terms, the university is committed to the interweaving of fundamental knowledge and practical education. The strategic plan builds on this unique combination.
  2. "Thinking otherwise" Cornell's faculty members have a history of being intellectually diverse and entrepreneurial and as Carl Becker indicated, "thinking otherwise." This reflects a deep commitment to academic freedom and a belief that such freedom is essential to creativity and innovation. The One Cornell theme of this plan stresses the value of creative collaborations that emerge from the "bottom up" rather than from the "top down."
  3. Student access , which expresses a central principle of Ezra Cornell's original vision, namely a university open and accessible to all who merit entrance ("any person"). The longstanding and recently reaffirmed commitment to need-blind admissions reflects this value, as does the commitment of the university to diversity and inclusion and the notion that diversity and excellence are interrelated (see Appendix B). The university's commitment to student access has been tested in recent years, given significant competition with peer institutions, and Cornell has addressed this challenge successfully with a program to reduce the costs of a Cornell education for students from families in lower income quintiles.
  4. Public engagement , which expresses the university's commitment to search for knowledge-based solutions to societal and world problems. Public engagement is an interpretation of the university's outreach mission that emphasizes being proactive (actively engaged) and having a public impact. It implies a broadening of the historic land grant mission of the university. This strategic plan adopts and develops this concept of the university's outreach mission.

These four pillars of Cornell imply a set of core values that stand at the center of Cornell as an institution. At the beginning of the strategic planning process, the Strategic Planning Advisory Council asked: What are the core values of Cornell? They developed an initial list and then solicited feedback from university leaders and members of the community.

The resulting set of core values is as follows:

  • Seek knowledge
  • Support free and open intellectual inquiry and expression
  • Sustain excellence in teaching, research, and public engagement
  • Use knowledge to enlighten ourselves and benefit the world
  • Reward and recognize merit, creativity, and innovation
  • Treat all individuals with dignity, respect, and fairness
  • Embrace difference and diversity
  • Promote cross-cultural and cross-national understanding
  • Be a collaborative, collegial, and caring community
  • Be accessible and affordable to all who meet high academic standards

Themes in the values, echoed throughout this plan, include excellence; diversity and inclusion; openness; and collaboration.

Umbrella University Goals

Cornell University has broad, overarching goals that are timeless and enduring. All universities have such goals, whether they state them or not, and when stated, they express long-term commitments within which planning tends to occur-hence the term "umbrella goals." The Strategic Planning Advisory Council developed the set of umbrella goals below, based on widespread consultation with members of the university community.

  1. Enroll, educate, and graduate the most deserving, promising, and diverse student body possible. Provide all students (undergraduate, graduate, professional) with an education that is innovative, distinctive, and of the highest quality, and that inspires in them a zest for learning.
  2. Maintain and enhance world leadership in research, scholarship, and creativity.
  3. Maintain and enhance efforts to recruit, nurture, and retain a diverse faculty who are outstanding scholars and teachers and an excellent, diverse staff who provide outstanding support to faculty and students.
  4. Strengthen the public engagement of the university's education, research, and clinical programs with local, national, and international communities, consonant with its stature as an academically distinguished private university with a public mission.
  5. Establish and maintain organizational structures and processes that promote and support academic excellence.

These five goals represent general areas within which this plan develops objectives (ends) and actions (means) to achieve them. These goals are similar to those of other research universities, but there are signature ideas about Cornell here: a distinctive education, world leadership, outstanding scholars and teachers, public engagement. These are guiding principles for the subsequent sections of this planning document.

University Aspiration

Having an overarching aspiration for the university is consistent with the One Cornell concept. Many of Cornell's departments or schools are in the top five or ten of their fields and some are of unequaled stature (#1). For the university as a whole, we suggest the following: 8

Cornell University will be widely recognized as a top-ten research university in the world, and a model university for the interweaving of liberal education and fundamental knowledge with practical education and impact on societal and world problems.

The first phrase of the aspiration, being among the top ten research universities, is an important and worthy longer-term goal. The second phrase in the aspiration communicates the importance of pursuing the top-ten aspiration in part by taking further advantage of Cornell's special qualities.

The aspiration articulates the centrality of research, scholarship, and creativity (Goal 2 above) to a research university, yet implies the importance of the interconnections between the creation of fundamental knowledge and use of that knowledge to have a positive impact on the world. In no way does this aspiration diminish the centrality of teaching and education at Cornell. The Strategic Planning Advisory Council accepts no trade-offs between the research or application emphasis of this aspiration, and excellence in undergraduate, graduate, and professional education.

This aspiration should be pursued through a strategy of greater focus and connectivity within and across basic academic areas: humanities and the arts; life sciences and agricultural sciences; social sciences; physical sciences and engineering; and Cornell's professional schools and colleges. Cornell has consistently had humanities and science disciplines ranked in the top ten or even higher among peers in addition to contract and specialized colleges of very high or unequaled stature in their respective fields. Life sciences is a critical area of emerging and growing strength, and the social sciences have a realistic prospect of growing significantly in strength and stature over the next ten years.

A diverse mix of academic areas, and distinctive professional schools and programs, are essential sources of Cornell's special character and eminence among research universities. This combination needs to be nurtured. However, the university does not need to be strong in every discipline or field within these broad academic areas, or necessarily even retain all of the subfields within these areas as currently represented on campus. The proposed strategy of focus and connectivity suggests that, in pursuing the above aspiration, the university should create and maintain academic leadership across all of the broad areas but do so selectively and strategically within each and be prepared to consolidate or even, under some conditions, eliminate departments or programs that are no longer critical, as constituted, to the university and its colleges.

At the implementation stage, the aspiration requires that the university define a set of criteria or dimensions-objective and reputational - upon which it will judge where it currently stands and how much progress it makes over time. It also should identify its primary competitor institutions and track those institutions over time on these dimensions. Finally, the university will need to make ongoing assessments of the strategically important or critical academic areas for Cornell - i.e., to identify current academic strengths or emerging strengths and to determine how the diverse, college-based strengths can be efficiently and effectively built upon.

8The appropriate aspiration for particular colleges or programs should be higher if at all possible. Each college or department should have aspirations that are challenging.