Letter from Ithaca

Unfinished Business


nOT LONG AFTER HE LEFT HIS POSITION AS CORNELL'S vice president for university relations to go to Duke, John Burness had lunch with me at a Hell's Kitchen Italian restaurant. He wanted to talk about higher education; I wanted to find an alumni volunteer opportunity. We both wanted to eat. One course led to another, and John introduced me to this magazine's board. I write to you now, more than a decade later, as my last act as chair of that board. The magazine is in fine shape--Jim Roberts '71, our editor and publisher and my classmate and friend, has the awards to prove it. But we face real dangers that we need to address now.

The Cornell Alumni Federation owns CAM. The vast majority of its 28,000 subscribers choose to receive the magazine when they sign up for class membership. Because we are independent, we print what we want without benefit of the advice or consent of the University's public relations machinery. We intend to keep it that way-- and there's the rub.

The University gives us office space, assistance from the Alumni House staff, and access to its alumni database and employee benefits program. We are grateful for all that. However, unlike our mates at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton--to cite three institutions to which we like to compare ourselves--Cornell does not distribute its alumni magazine to all its alumni. There are many reasons, including cost. But after spending years on this subject, years full of good faith task force reports, meetings, proposals, and the like, I have concluded that the real stumbling block is another C-word: control.

What Cornell doesn't control it doesn't want to circulate. Instead, it prefers publications extolling good works by large donors and, lately, an e-mail compilation of campus news as filtered through University Communications. Both are worthy efforts. But as beneficiaries of Cornell educations, we can tell the difference between managed news and an independent voice-- and most of us prefer the latter.

What is it that Day Hall doesn't like about us? Once administrators get the pro forma denial out of the way, they invariably launch into a parade of what I can only call the not-so-horribles. I will mention three. The first is always the same: a lame attempt at humor the magazine ran in the late 1990s that portrayed Cornell as the "lowest leaf" of the Ivies. The problem wasn't the idea--anybody on your U-Hall floor who didn't get into Harvard?--but the execution. It wasn't funny. More to the point, it hasn't been repeated. Can we all please get over it?

The next example in the litany of perfidy varies. The one I like to cite was an irritated reference over a breakfast meeting to an article so minor I had missed it: an opinion piece in 2003 that politely objected to a proposed parking lot on a West Campus site (not yet known as Redbud Woods). My Day Hall companion was clearly agitated by that, but truly, as the controversy moved on, that story was but one of many--and the next day the sun rose over Ithaca. Sort of.

Mercifully, the third complaint has fallen out of favor. For a while last year, we received furious warnings over our investigation of the poorly explained resignation of Jeffrey Lehman '77. Dire consequences were predicted. Instead, after CAM published its thorough and less than incendiary account, a curious thing happened: University officials began to send the piece to people who inquired about the subject. Now maybe that means we missed the real story. But I think what it really means is that some at Cornell found value in having a trusted independent voice in their midst.

Maybe this year we can build on that. Maybe this year the University will come to grips with the fact that Cornell has the second lowest percentage of alumni givers in the Ivies--ahead of only Columbia--and will leverage the marvelous resource you hold in your hands. Maybe. But we can't wait forever. Our costs grow, our circulation is flat, and we need to control our future. The Federation and the CAM board are exploring fundraising opportunities to support our independence. That will be a task for future alumni volunteers. Thanks for allowing me to do this job. Now I think it's time for Burness and me to have another espresso.

Aric Press '71
Editor in Chief, The American Lawyer
Chairman, Cornell Alumni Magazine Committee