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From Elizabeth Garrett

Toward a Sustainable Future.


Green line: President Garrett with the Campus-to-Campus bus, which promotes sustainability by reducing personal car use. (Photo: Jason Koski / UP)

One of the most critical challenges for humankind is meeting the energy, environmental, economic, and social needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. Through research and hands-on education, innovation, and public engagement, Cornell has become a world leader in addressing these challenges. As we move forward with a strategic planning effort over the next months, I see sustainability emerging as among the promising areas for increased effort and impact.

Sustainability is a signature area of excellence for Cornell. Being interdisciplinary in nature, it draws together creative combinations of expertise from across our colleges and campuses. It offers unparalleled opportunities for student learning, and it taps into our land-grant mission by bringing knowledge to bear on critical local and global problems.

Cornell researchers play pivotal roles in advancing public policy on climate change, informed by science and reasoned analysis, and in spurring innovative technologies that support a more sustainable future. Moreover, the University may well lead the country in the rigorous study of inequality and its effects on related challenges, such as resource allocation, that can negatively affect sustainability.

In May we will welcome internationally recognized conservation biologist David Lodge as the first Francis J. DiSalvo Director of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. With an impressive record of multidisciplinary research, administrative leadership, and policy experience, he will enhance the Atkinson Center’s global perspective on sustainability issues—and bring even more prominence to Cornell’s efforts.

We are known for training the next generation of leaders who will determine how best to respond to environmental challenges. For example, Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD), an interdisciplinary student project team advised by systems engineering faculty member David Schneider, has collaborated with faculty and staff in our Division of Infrastructure Properties and Planning to take advantage of our campuses as “living laboratories” for sustainability and climate action.

Building on the significant progress we have already made in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels through such innovations as lake source cooling and our combined heat and power plant, CUSD students surveyed rooftops on the Ithaca campus to create a prioritized action list for solar photovoltaic development and presented a design for what could be the city’s first net zero building. Our new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island will incorporate sustainable design—and progressive engineering—to create an environmentally friendly, energy-efficient community, with several buildings that will be world-class examples of green design. CUSD teams have collaborated with faculty and facilities engineering professionals on feasibility studies for solar, wind, and geothermal energy for Cornell Tech and will continue to be involved as the project develops.

Several of the curriculum grants made this fall through the Engaged Cornell initiative, which seeks to make community-engaged learning a central part of the student experience, have a sustainability component. The Cornell Conservation Medicine Program, for example, will bring together veterinary students and undergraduates for experiences that link the health of animals, humans, and the environment to biodiversity and societal needs, working with partners in Africa and Indonesia. An Engaged Cornell grant is also strengthening the newly launched undergraduate minor in community food systems with opportunities for students to work with local partners on issues related to food security, sovereignty, and justice across New York State and beyond.

We are leading the way in practice, research, and education, and we can underscore and enhance that. I have asked our Senior Leadership Climate Action Group—led by Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, and KyuJung Whang, vice president for infrastructure properties and planning—to consider how we might use our campuses more fully as “living laboratories” to increase the impact of our efforts. They will report back by the end of the academic year so their findings can inform the strategic planning process, our collective decision-making, and fundraising.

After surveying an image of Earth taken from space, the late Cornell professor Carl Sagan observed, “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Like many of you, I share Sagan’s concern for our “pale blue dot,” and believe that sustainability must continue to be a priority for Cornell, the country, and the world.

— President Elizabeth Garrett