[APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 1: Welcome to reunion weekend, Cornellians.
What a fabulous turnout. How wonderful it is to be together as we do every year. And it's Robin and my fifth time in this wonderful, wonderful situation. And where is Robin Davisson, professor? Please stand up and be recognized for--
I want to welcome everybody, not only to reunion weekend, but to the 2011 Ohlin Lecture. As you know, each year, this event presents an internationally prominent speaker addressing a topic relevant to higher education and to the current world situation. Established in 1986 by the Spencer T. and Ann W. Ohlin Foundation, this lecture has become a highlight of reunion weekend. This year we are honored to have as our only lecturer, a distinguished member of the 55th reunion class.
I see we have a voting bloc right over here. Mr. Chuck Feeney, who earned his degree from the School of Hotel Administration in 1956. As the title of our program suggests, Chuck is the man who had it all and gave it all away. He is quite likely, in my eyes, the world's most generous and modest donor.
The modesty until the sale of his business, Duty Free Shoppers, forced him into the public eye. For nearly three decades, Chuck Feeney has been giving away the fortune he made in business to support good works-- giving while living, as he calls it, while until very recently, insisting on complete anonymity, doing the good work and refusing to be credited.
Through the foundation known today as Atlantic Philanthropies, or AP, this giant has funded schools and hospitals in Vietnam, worked to combat poverty in South Africa, supported peace initiatives in Northern Ireland, and most significant for those of us at the Cornell of 2011, Chuck transformed his alma mater over the decades through gifts that have been as noteworthy for what they have made possible as for their startling magnitude.
To Chuck Feeney, we owe such iconic Cornell programs as the Cornell tradition, which provides financial aid to talented, hard-working, but financially needy students. The Presidential Research Scholars Program, now named in honor of President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings, which provides undergraduate opportunities for faculty-mentored research. The Cornell Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development-- the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development, which, with international partners, initiates and supports innovative programs focused on global food security, sustainable rural development, and environmental conservation around the world, helping us to focus on some of the key problems before they became even well-known.
Chuck also seated projects on this campus that went on to gain critical support from others, projects like the new life sciences initiative, which is moving Cornell into the forefront of research in the broad area of the new life sciences; the expansion of our iconic Hotel School, which made such a difference in the quality of education that our students receive every day; the Tri-Institutional Research Program, a partnership involving Cornell and its Weill Cornell Medical College, Rockefeller University, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Institute; and the amazing transformations that we have watched on the North and West campuses, where many of our reunion classes have headquarters this weekend and which have had such a transformative effect on student campus life. With his giving while living philosophy, Chuck has made a huge difference at Cornell, a huge difference in this world at large.
And his approach has been embraced by other philanthropists, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. I am thrilled, and I know you are thrilled, that Chuck has come back to Cornell for his 55th reunion with the class of '56 and that he has agreed to be our distinguished Ohlin Lecturer for 2011. Please join me in welcoming to the stage-- and Chuck, please join us, so that we can welcome you and make our conversation begin.
CHUCK FEENEY: I just want to comment that I've never gotten that kind of ovation even after a speech, let alone before you start. So we're starting this off on the right foot.
SPEAKER 1: Well, welcome back home. I'd like to start our conversation, if you're willing, Chuck, with some history. If you're willing, share with us a bit about your childhood and family background and how that background has influenced you throughout your life.
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah. I'd like to make a first comment. I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. Anyway, it's wonderful to be back at the campus. And some of the happiest days of my life were spent here at Cornell. And I have fond memories of those days. Just use these glasses when I want to see.
SPEAKER 1: I don't need them if I don't want to see either.
CHUCK FEENEY: OK. Thank you one and all, president and Mrs. Skorton, president and Mrs. Rhodes, the Feeney families. I have to-- I have to come to these things with my relatives because I'm never sure if I'll get the applause.
The first question has to do with my childhood and family background and how it influenced my life. Clearly it did. My mother was a nurse. My father was an insurance broker. And I grew up in a family of five.
I hadn't, at that time, decided if I would go to university, nor had the universities figured out if they wanted me. But it was interesting to see that by researching out the background, I realized that my first knowledge of Cornell was based on an opportunity that came up when a friend of mine's sister didn't want to get her hair wet at the football game.
So on October 25, 1947, I attended the Cornell Princeton game. And that was my first connection with Cornell. I'm pleased to say that Cornell won that game 28 to 21. And someone behind me unidentified said, oh, they haven't lost the game for years.
I said, well, Jesus, they must be my team. Anyway, you know, it says the powerful part of the experience-- there is such thing as a Cornell experience. And we met new people, new faces, made new friends, ground out our studies and moaned about the tests we had to pass. But I took-- I took away with it a experience that was hard to match at the time. I went on, according to this--
SPEAKER 1: We're not supposed to let them know that this is rehearsed.
CHUCK FEENEY: --to co-found Duty Free Shoppers. Now, that was an interesting experience. I was in Europe. And I was standing by the arrival point for one of the large fleet movements. And I saw these guys selling everything from soup to nuts. And I said, well, shit, I can do that.
So one week later, there I was with my boxes of candies, nuts, everything you can think of, and was on my way to become a billionaire, whoo.
SPEAKER 1: That was my line, that was my line.
CHUCK FEENEY: That wasn't part of the deal. Well, the question to be asked by the president here is, what would have happened if I failed? My answer to that is, was unthinkable, unthinkable. I was driven to success. And I wanted to do a good job.
And we built a company which wound up eventually with 4,000 employees. And the people who worked for us were treated fairly. That was part of the early learning game. Be good, be right with your staff and your employees. And so we did that.
There is a question here-- what were the greatest-- what were the greatest challenges that you faced? Well, one of the challenges was making the payroll. And I used to meet with the human resources thing. You'd say, it's always the same with you.
I'd say, ha, we got to get rid of some people. We got to get rid of some people. We got too many people to pay. Anyway, we survived, went on. And yeah.
SPEAKER 1: At some point in the '70s and early '80s, you began to--
What prompted your shift from making money to giving it away?
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah, that's a good question. One of the-- one of the things that I thought that would be good is if we didn't have to make money anymore. Then we wouldn't have any worries. And we started out by not making money anymore, and we had a lot of worries.
So I said to myself, I got something wrong here. But we got to-- we got to not worry and make money. And so that's what we started to do. We, I'd say, by that time, I was a family man.
It says here-- a modest amount of support from a wife and five children. Let me tell you. There's a question that says, did you ever have any doubts? And I can say, in all honesty, I had nothing but doubts.
SPEAKER 1: Do you mean doubts about the enterprise or doubts about this here question deal we're doing?
CHUCK FEENEY: Whatever works. Anyway, we decided that once we had enough money, we would quit. We thought we'd never-- ever get to that point, but lo and behold, we did. And we decided to concentrate on spending the money that we were making.
It wasn't planned that way, but it worked out that way. Our main activities in the early days were in the US, and we concentrated on the universities and university support. The truth is that I had been spoiled by my Cornell education and said gee, if they're nice enough or dumb enough to let guys like me come in, we should help them.
So that's what we did. We started helping. And that brought us into stage two. The theory of philanthropy is based on effecting the highest and best use of the money that you're trying to spend. And we, I think, did a good job on that.
But we realized it was a big world and that we were trying to support schools in a number of countries, including South America, Hanoi, Vietnam. And we went on from there. It's funny how you learn something from trying to figure things out that you hadn't thought of before.
And I concluded that if we were to continue to support people who, one, who were sincere about learning, that we had to get plugged in. I told President Skorton that I had seen a CNBC documentary about what's called the price of admissions. And fortunately, the audience here is older like myself. And I think we don't realize the problems that are going to be facing the need to support our kids in schools. So--
SPEAKER 1: Maybe we should take a look at that.
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah, why don't you--
SPEAKER 1: Wait, let me say it again. Maybe we should watch a brief clip of the documentary.
CHUCK FEENEY: Why not?
SPEAKER 1: Maybe we should watch a brief clip of the documentary.
CHUCK FEENEY: Oh, right, clip, clip.
- 2/3 of American college students will graduate in debt-- on average, $24,000 for the class of 2009. Add loans for graduate school and parent loans on behalf of their kids, and the Kuipers' family plan of 80,000 dollars per student is all too typical, says Lauren Asher, who directs the nonprofit project on student debt.
- The need to borrow has grown for all types of students at all types of schools, and the amount that students are borrowing is driven by the share of costs that students and families are expected to cover after aid. Now, those costs have risen faster than family incomes, faster than available grant aid.
- America's student debt at the end of 2010 is nearly $880 billion, a number growing by more than $2,800 per second. But most students, like Kaylie Kuipers, don't dwell on that.
- Tell me about the loans and, you know, how much you have so far in loans and how you plan to pay them back.
- That's a good question. I don't really know how much I have. My mom handles a lot of it for me.
- Does that scare you at all? I mean, you have 10s of thousands of dollars in loans, and you don't know how to pay them back.
- It should. It doesn't.
- Why not?
- I just feel like I'm in the career field that I love, so it'll somehow work out.
- But for a growing number of graduates, it's not working out, especially in an economy where well-paying jobs for college graduates are in short supply. Student loan defaults have doubled in the last five years, according to the Department of Education, now approaching nearly a quarter million defaults a year. And because the government is lending most of the money, every default leaves the taxpayers on the hook. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin chairs the education committee.
- The schools keep the money. The students keep the debt. And the taxpayers lose.
- Is this another housing crisis waiting to happen?
- Well, I tell you, there's a lot of similarities between what's happening with student loans and the housing crisis.
- For banks.
- But Allen--
SPEAKER 1: So Chuck, as you know, because you and I had some wonderful conversations about it, several years ago-- actually, right at the beginning of the recession-- we recognized the importance of doing something about this prospect here. The Cornellians here may feel good about the fact that we replaced loans with scholarships in the financial aid packages of all families with annual incomes below $75,000 a year and eliminated the parental contribution for students with incomes under $60,000 and less than 100,000 in assets. So we've done our part to recognize this problem. And I'm wondering if you'd share with the group a little bit about the GI Bill and how you financed your own education back in another day of difficult financial circumstances.
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah, well, I had the fortune or misfortune to spend four years in the military at the end of my high school days. And I bitched and moaned all the way. But later I realized when I got to Cornell that they had passed a law called the GI Bill, which gave people like myself who had put in x time the income to pay their tuition.
That was a wonderful support. And even though in the first year of it, I got approximately $800 for the year, it almost covered the expenses. Now, I have to admit a certain number of things because we're all Cornellians and we won't rat on each other.
But I figured out that between the $800 I was making and the, about $1,200 that I needed, I'd have to work for a living. So one night I was wandering around the fraternities. And I saw this guy coming in and selling sandwiches to the fraternity members.
And I said to myself, I can do that. So, lo and behold, the sandwich man was born. And I spent the rest of my four years selling sandwiches every single night. And it managed to pay my bills. And when I graduated, I only had debt for about $1,000, so that wasn't--
SPEAKER 1: So were you competing with Louie's Lunch in the hot truck?
CHUCK FEENEY: It was no competition.
SPEAKER 1: Now, now, I know you hate these things about yourself. But I want to share with the Cornellians, I was at a conference in another country. And I met a fabulous educational leader, the provost of Trinity College in Dublin.
In that particular culture, the provost is the one running the university. That's the title they use. Wonderful man. John Hagerty, I think is the gentleman's name.
CHUCK FEENEY: John Hagerty, yeah.
SPEAKER 1: And we were talking about this and that and the other thing, the usual stuff presidents talk about-- you're fabulous, no, you're a world leader, this kind of stuff. And then as soon as we-- soon as we got that out of the way, somehow the conversation turned in a direction that-- I happened to mention Chuck's name. I think perhaps the book was just published.
CHUCK FEENEY: It's Feeney, F-E-E-N-E-Y.
SPEAKER 1: Exactly. Anyway, here's what the guy says to me. This, a leader of one of the most distinguished universities, colleges in Europe says, Chuck Feeney, that's the man who saved Ireland, the man who saved Ireland. And so Chuck, tell us a tiny bit about this.
CHUCK FEENEY: Well, I gave them the benefit of my business experience to that point. And I said to the number two politician, you know what? You're in deep shit. I said-- I said, there's no way, except for selling sandwiches, that you can come out of this problem.
So I was able to convince a certain number of people that they had to make some economic changes. And they did that. And they were successful. And we sold enough to get the economy moving again. Fortunately or unfortunately, you don't seem to learn from that because we're in deep shit again. But--
SPEAKER 1: Although, I'll say, because I know you won't say it about yourself, that not only did Chuck direct funding in a direction that made a huge difference in innovation in the country, and we all clearly remember the days, I know, that Dean [INAUDIBLE], for example, our dean of our fabulous faculty of computer information science, and Lance Collins, dean of engineering, remember when Ireland began to eat the world's lunch in information technology innovation. And the other thing, Chuck, was that I know that you played a role in the Northern Ireland peace process. And I wonder if you could share any thoughts about that you're willing to.
CHUCK FEENEY: Yes. And that was a different type of thing. We got into a situation where we decided we were going to create opportunities. But we couldn't get to it because every time we'd have an opportunity, we'd have a big bombing. So between bombings, I said, we got to stop the bombing because we're not going to get anywhere if we concentrate there. So I had, at that time, a certain number of connections I just mentioned to these tough guys in Northern Ireland that I was from Elizabeth, New Jersey, scared the shit out of them.
SPEAKER 1: Well, if you have-- if you have a chance-- if you have a chance to read a book called The Billionaire Who Wasn't and dip in a little deeper to this thing that happened, you'll understand what a rare, rare gem this individual is.
I want to ask your thoughts about the future before we, with your permission, open it up to a few questions from your fellow thugs out here. And in 2010, in 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett launched the Giving Pledge, an effort intended to encourage the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. And we're talking about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
Warren Buffett, Chuck, referred to you as the inspiration and spiritual leader of the pledge, noting that you, Chuck, want your last check to bounce. When you were--
CHUCK FEENEY: I told him I had a lot of experience because I used to go down to the bank at downtown Ithaca and pray, pray that my $30 check wouldn't bounce so that I could buy sandwich money.
SPEAKER 1: So before we open it up, any advice for these colleagues of yours out here, many of whom I suspect, I know, have the desire to give back? I've seen the ferocious passion that's expressed through your philanthropy in the different classes. It's breathtaking. We'll review it at Cornelliana tomorrow night. So I know they have the same passion. Any advice for them, Chuck?
CHUCK FEENEY: Well, I think it's evident now that philanthropy has reached a point where people are saying that, look, if we're going to get out of this, we've got to get out of it together. And they are prepared to look into opportunities. We've always been good here at Cornell because we raise money in tough times. But that's the secret of philanthropy, again, is raising money when money is tough.
So all I can say is that, don't sell us short. Let's look for opportunities to help. If you say, I think I've seen this appeal before, never mind, you're going to see it again. So I guess that that's my summary. But--
SPEAKER 1: Could you take a few questions, is that all right?
CHUCK FEENEY: I thought you were going to say, take a few bows?
SPEAKER 1: We'll get to that soon.
Plus you're fabulous, fabulous. So we have microphones here. We have one up in the front, up in the top and the balcony. If possible, try to focus questions that cast a positive light on me if it's possible. But short of that, ask whatever you like. How are you doing?
SPEAKER 2: Good. Or well, I should say. Chuck, I have one quick question and then another more philosophical one. The first-- the quick question is, do you have any empathy for Leo [INAUDIBLE], who was an original partner of yours and then bailed out at the first signs of trouble? And the other question is how you came up with the idea of proactive philanthropy, where you don't get solicitations, but your own staff goes out and determines what to do and then implements that?
CHUCK FEENEY: To answer the first question, I've been friends with Lee Sterling up here at Cornell and many times after that. And he could have been assumed to be intelligent to jump off a ship when it was in such bad shape as we had ours. But you know, life's like that, that sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. But I'd say I count him among my friends, and he's living out in California. We see each other occasionally. What was the other question?
SPEAKER 2: The other question was about your method of giving money away. You determine where you're going to give it, rather than having people ask you for it.
CHUCK FEENEY: You're right, you're right. The assumption is that the person who is seeking the money is prepared to give you a never-ending series of lies. So by going in and seeking opportunity and then verifying it. I think we can count ourselves lucky because we've never been bagged by anyone. We've been successful in achieving what we had targeted to do.
SPEAKER 1: You know, this is probably a coincidence. But when you said that about a never-ending series of lies, two of the deans and the provost fainted, dead away over here. But I think, as a physician, that's just a complete coincidence, got nothing to do with it.
CHUCK FEENEY: And as we discussed last night, sometimes it's worth it.
SPEAKER 1: Upstairs.
SPEAKER 3: Chuck, thanks for joining us here today. I'm from Cleveland, Ohio and a friend of yours, Mario Moreno, said to say hello when I told him I was coming up here.
CHUCK FEENEY: OK, he's another good friend.
SPEAKER 3: I was a beneficiary of a Cornell tradition, a grant when I was a junior at Cornell. And it continued through my senior year. And through that, I became a prison chaplain at the Tompkins County Jail. And that was A resume builder that I couldn't shake for 10 more years in four different cities. I was a prison chaplain. So thank you for that community service piece. But seriously, I'd like you to talk about how you designed the idea for a Cornell tradition fellowship or scholarship.
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah, well, that was early days. I guess-- I think that was one of the first things that we put into effect. And I was convinced that the approach was right. We told people, look, you can have the money.
But when you're standing on your feet, be sure to pay it back because if you don't, there won't be another guy standing on his feet. So that was the pitch of the tradition, Cornell tradition. And I forget the figure, but it's very impressive, the figure that we did raise. So be it.
SPEAKER 3: It changed hundreds of people's lives, hundreds of people. Please.
SPEAKER 4: Thanks. Thanks again for being here. Quick question. Had you not sold the company, would you have continued to donate or be a philanthropist anonymously? And then can you also share with us maybe what went through your mind in doing it anonymously versus getting out there and becoming sort of a role model for-- a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates?
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah, well, I think the idea was that, from the anonymous point of view, we felt we could accomplish more, sometimes, through being anonymous. As you can imagine, it's hard to keep a facade of anonymity.
And so people say that he doesn't any money. He's got a million, a billion. So I think that was the idea of it. And it was successful. I think we've been successful in many of the appeals that we made to get people to support the programs. So--
SPEAKER 1: Well, in closing, I want to say one thing. We joked around a lot today, but I want to say something from the heart. When you walk around this campus, and you see the freshmen having their experience on the North Campus and the upper class people having the experience on the West Campus, and students who never, ever were to realize the aspiration of a college education. And when we look at these buildings where people are doing research that's going to change the world of our kids and our grandkids, I'm thinking about you, Chuck Feeney, and I'm thanking you.
CHUCK FEENEY: Thank you.
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A dialogue between President David Skorton and philanthropist Chuck Feeney, Hotel '56, June 10 at 3 p.m. in Bailey Hall.
For more than three decades, Feeney, Cornell's top benefactor, has given away billions of dollars to charitable causes around the world.