Exclusive Interview: Chairman Robert S. Harrison

What about your experience at Cornell inspired you to take on the additional role of being Chairman, especially given your busy schedule?

I really had an amazing 4 years at Cornell- they were truly transformative for me. I lived in a very small town in Jersey, and when I got to Cornell I experienced and met people from all over the world. I also I had a great academic experience. I was accepted to the College Scholars Program, which allowed to me create my own academic program. This program basically focused on personality and politics, it was a combination of government, psychology and sociology. And then from an extracurricular perspective, I really took advantage of being there. I was in a fraternity - Sigma Phi, I worked at the radio station, WVBR as a Disc Jockey and also as a newscaster, and I got really involved in student government and student politics. I was speaker for an organization that no longer exists, but its called the Senate. I was ultimately elected as a student trustee.

So when I left Cornell I knew that I wanted to stay involved with the University over time. I participated in reunions each year, I got involved on the board of my fraternity, I also was involved on the University council. Ultimately in 2002, I went on the Board of Trustees as an alumni-elected trustee. The board appointed me as board-appointed trustee in 2006. So I basically have been on the board since 2006 and have had the great honor of becoming the Chair on Jan 1, 2012. I would say that it was essentially a continuing process of getting involved in the university, as I wanted to give back what the university had given to me.

It wasn’t like one day I woke up and decided to come back to Cornell, it was more like I never actually left Cornell.

After President Garrett’s tragic passing, how is the University proceeding with its search, and what qualities are you looking for in our next president?

I am proposing a Presidential Search Committee (PSC) , which will have a diverse group of people including faculty, students, employees and non-faculty employees, as well as the trustees. The group will be similar to the group that was convened the last time around, when we took on president Garrett. We will also be voting on a charge to the committee, about what the committee needs to do over the next several months in order to find the next president. So the process really begins today, assuming the board endorses the slate of the presidential search committee members.

The next step is listening to the Cornell community. The chair of the PSC and I will be meeting with many groups on campus - students, faculty, employees, deans, members of the Cornell and Ithaca Community. We will be asking the exact question that you asked - What should we be looking for in our next president. Based on that we will create a position description, which is what we will send out to the search firm we are working with. Then we will begin the process of going through many resumes, interviewing, coming to a final group and then narrowing it down to one candidate.

Which factors led to the decision to merge the separate schools into the College of Business and in which ways do you see the merger benefiting students? What were the Board’s hesitations in making this decision?

Let me start by saying that background here is important. Since I have been on the Board, there have been half a dozen studies that look at current configuration of the business schools on campus. Many previous Board members have looked into this and have thought that some kind of consolidation will make sense, given that we have 3 excellent but small accredited business schools i.e. Dyson, The Hotel School, and the Johnson School. If we combine those 3 into one larger college of business, while preserving the identity of each of the schools then we can do a number of things that will distinguish us globally.

First of all, the faculty hiring will be a lot of easier. Each of the three accredited programs will no longer have to act independently of the others in terms of who they recruit. So we don’t have to recruit three different professors in the same area. In order to get accredited, we can consolidate the groups and seek out the best professors. We don’t need to compete against each other for faculty. Second thing, we can provide many more opportunities with a group of faculty that is closer to 150-160 than 3 groups that are 45 each. They can collaborate with each other on research programs that can benefit the students and benefit the faculty. We can create new initiatives in terms of the leverage the strengths that Cornell has across colleges outside of business. For example, our focus on food and agriculture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and our focus in one of the largest industries in the world, the hospitality industry within the School of Hotel Administration. We can leverage our focus on technology, both on the Ithaca campus and the new CornellTech Campus on Roosevelt Island, and create programs and research opportunities for business students across the College of Business and not have them restricted to whatever is taught to them by the currently small group of faculty members. I think it will provide many more course offerings to students and more opportunities to collaborate with faculty for research. I think it will provide a lot of relevant opportunities that focus on solving pressing challenges. For instance, sustainability, shared prosperity and wealth imbalances that would be harder to do with the three silos that we have today.

A couple of things that the board wanted to make sure took place as we followed on from creating the strategic decision to establish a single College of Business were: 1. That we would preserve the identity of each of the 3 existing schools, not a single blur but still a very distinct identity to each of the 3 schools that make up the College of Business.  The second thing, was that the details of the College of Business that are of great relevance to the students, faculty and alumni on and off campus were mapped out, discussed, and created by the relevant groups.The Board’s goal is to take the strategic decisions to create a single College of Business by amending the bylaws. And then beyond that, I’m very pleased to see reports that faculty, students, staff, and alumni are working together on the various committees that the provost has created to build out all of the details surrounding the creation of this new college.

We see Cornell Tech as an incredible opportunity for Cornell. How do you see the future of Cornell Tech, and how do you view its relationship with the College of Business?

I would put Cornell Tech in the category of handful of completely transformative events in the modern 50 year history of Cornell. I agree with you that it is exciting and it was unbelievably thrilling to win the competition to be able to build the campus. The whole world felt that and all eyes were on Cornell at that time. I think every one of our 250,000 alumni were incredibly proud of the university for winning that. And now, roll forward a few years, the progress is extraordinary. I met with Dan Huttenlocher, the Dean of Cornell Tech, and the progress is phenomenal. We have about 150 students there now.  Our faculty recruiting is going incredibly well.

I just got a progress report on the construction and we are right on schedule. So we’re looking forward to having in the Fall of 2017 the first real class on the completed campus. It is unbelievably exciting to hear Dan talk about the academic developments, the recruiting success  he’s been having with faculty, and the tremendous level of interest that students have been demonstrating.

As I think you know right now, there are tech master degrees being offered to students in the Johnson School that want to spend some time at Cornell Tech to get a very specific, very relevant masters degree in business tech. That's also being expanded to law. We’re going to be offering degrees which will include the elements of the tech campus curriculum for law students.  And my guess is that over time, there will be increasing involvement of other colleges in the Cornell Tech experience.  But right now, business was the first one that got involved and from all the accounts I hear, it's been going extraordinarily well.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the College of Business. What are some other important initiatives the Board is working on?

There are always many important initiatives that the Board is working on. The board has regular standing committees that address all kinds of areas around campus.  There’s a student life committee, an academic affairs committee, an investment committee, a buildings and properties committee, development committee, university relations, etc. Those are the areas the Board constantly pays attention to. The issues that rise to the top today are first, identifying a new president, which is the search committee ongoing. Second, Diversity and inclusion, and making sure we understand what kinds of efforts the university and various groups around the university are taking to enhance our diversity and enhance our inclusiveness to make Cornell the caring community that we have been trying to make it for many years.  And thirdly, there is a new project which is going to focus on the residential requirements at Cornell in the long-term.  We’re in the process of leading a study of what are our long-term housing needs for our students on and off campus.  So we are looking at the current dorm situation, the current residential college situation, and the capability of greek houses to house students. We are looking at program houses and we are going to look off campus as well, to Collegetown and other places, to see what we may need to do long-term to make sure that all of our students have the housing that they deserve.

For the 2015 fiscal year, Cornell reported an endowment return of 3.4%, significantly below some other prestigious universities. As the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and a former Partner at Goldman Sachs, what changes would you like to see in the endowment management?

Well, I think you have to put all of this in a context. One of the things I have learned as a Goldman Sachs investment banker and on the investment committee for a number of years is that we shouldn’t focus on one relatively short period of time as explaining the story. So I think if you look at this past year, the 3.4% -- this was a difficult market. It was a very challenging year generally in the market given commodity pricing, given oil pricing, and a number of global/political issues. Next, if you look historically at our investment returns, our returns have exceeded 10% on an annualized basis in both the three year period and the five year period. And if you go back ten years they’ve been over 7% annualized. So 3.4% is one year, but it’s not the full story.

We are thrilled to announce that we are bringing in an extraordinary individual to lead the investment office at Cornell named Ken Miranda. Ken is somebody who a number of us have gotten to know because he’s been a member of the investment committee for the past four years and he’s been extremely impressive. His full time job has been as director of the International Monetary Fund, the IMF investment office, and so we are extremely fortunate to have had Ken express a willingness to lead Cornell’s investment office going forward. He will start later this spring and I have complete confidence that Ken’s skills are going to be a great addition to our long term investment record.

We would love to hear any advice you have for Cornell students, specifically those interested in law and finance.

Take advantage of the full Cornell experience while you’re there, whether you’ve got one year left, two years left, three years left, or whether you’re a freshman. Get yourself involved in activities that Cornell has to offer in addition to the extraordinary academic offerings on campus. Next take seriously the part of Cornell’s DNA, or mission, of public engagement. The university has now a 150 year history of providing not just a theoretical academic experience, but an applied academic experience and it’s really been every chapter of our history including today with Cornell Tech. Cornell Tech is without question the digital expression of our land grant mission. So get involved and don’t just limit your experience to just the academic experience. Also, make sure to stay connected. The networks you develop at Cornell will be invaluable for the rest of your lives, both personally and professionally. I think that just remembering that Cornell is a lifetime experience, not a four year experience only, is probably the best advice I could give.