Q: Before you were the president of Cornell—an Ivy League university—you were the provost at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (Michigan)—a big public university. Can you compare the two?
A: Here's an interesting fact: even though I'm the fourteenth president of Cornell, I'm the sixth—the sixth—to come from Michigan. That might seem surprising, but, actually, there are a lot of similarities between [the two schools]. When I was interviewing for this job, [the presidency], one of the people on the search committee described Cornell as an Ivy League university with a Big Ten heart. Cornell is an Ivy League, and Michigan is a Big Ten, but what he meant was that Cornell has world-class academics[
], but it also really reaches out to the community and tries to make people's lives better—like a Big Ten University. Also, both Michigan and Cornell are very devoted to diversity: Michigan fought a supreme court case in favor of diversity. Cornell's motto from the beginning has been,
I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.
Q: I'd imagine that part of your job as president is acting as Cornell's ambassador to the wider world. How do you want to use your cultural influence?
A: One of the things that I'm really trying to do is make sure that people continue to understand how important universities are. It's surprising to me that you hear people saying
oh, universities are irrelevant—you don't need a college education anymore. That—in the twenty-first century, when we're becoming more and more and more of a knowledge-based society—that is just hard to imagine thinking. People say that it's not worth it financially; we know that's not true—the wage-gap is getting wider and wider. But, more than that, we live in such a diverse and complicated society, and learning to work across differences, learning to work with people who have different perspectives from you, learning how to absorb lots of complicated information, learning to take intellectual risks—all those things that you learn in college are more important than ever today.