Skip to content

World View

An interview with Robert Harrison ’76, Chairman of the Board of Trustees


Robert Harrison ’76 brings a unique perspective to the post of board chair. A College Scholar (and WVBR disc jockey) as an undergraduate, he served as a student trustee during his junior and senior years. He went on to earn a BA/MA from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and a JD at Yale Law School before embarking on careers as an attorney and an investment banker. Harrison returned to Cornell’s board in 2002, first as an alumni-elected and then board-elected trustee. After serving as a vice chairman from 2006 to 2009, he was named chairman last fall. His two-and-a-half-year term began on January 1, 2012.

Harrison left Wall Street after twenty-two years and is now the CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative, which was founded in 2005 by former President Bill Clinton to “implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.” In addition to his work for the CGI and Cornell, Harrison is a member of the board of directors of the Association of American Rhodes Scholars and honorary chairman of the board of the Henry Street Settlement, a social service agency founded in 1893 to address the problems caused by poverty in New York City. I met with him at the CGI office in midtown Manhattan last fall; the discussion ranged from current campus issues to the University’s role in the state, the nation, and the world.

Cornell Alumni Magazine: Most alumni understand that the trustees have oversight of the University and see some public aspects of your work, like choosing the president—but most of what you do is behind the scenes. What are the main activities of the Board of Trustees and what is the time commitment?

Robert Harrison: You’re right that the most important thing the board does is select the president. Beyond that, there are a number of committees and task forces—Academic Affairs, Student Life, Finance, Investment, Buildings and Properties, Alumni Affairs, Audit, Development, Diversity, and others—and those are the areas that the board gets involved in, providing advice and guidance to the president and the senior staff. The time commitment, at a minimum, is attendance at four board meetings a year plus some number of committee meetings, which sometimes coincide with the board meetings and are sometimes outside that schedule.

CAM: How active are most trustees?

RH: Our board is extraordinarily active. We have sixty-four members, and I would say that every one of them takes his or her responsibility to attend very seriously. And in addition to the current trustees, we have close to 100 trustees emeriti, many of whom also remain active. So we can have 100 people in the room at any given board meeting—and people stay very engaged. Beyond attendance at those meetings and committee meetings, many trustees get involved in alumni events in the town or city where they live, and they are generally available for guidance. Also, I get many e-mails and telephone calls—people providing advice or suggestions on what we might do better or differently.

Robert Harrison stands in front of his office desk

John Abbott

CAM: Given the size of the board, I imagine that a lot of the real work goes on in the committee meetings. True?

RH: For sure. With sixty-four trustees and then another, say, thirty who attend as trustees emeriti, in a board meeting with presentations by various administrators to set the stage, there isn’t a lot of time for everyone to be heard. So the place where people dig in and develop an expertise to work with the administrator responsible for that particular area is in the committees. Initially, mine was Student Life. I’ve been on the board for ten years this time—since 2002—but I was a member before, as a student trustee. Several years after I came back to the board, I was asked to chair the Committee on Student Life. So I developed a level of expertise in some of the issues, like housing and health and safety, that affect students on campus. Everyone on the board tends to focus on some areas more than others, depending on their background and interests.

CAM: How would you compare your experience on the board this time with being a student trustee?

RH: In the Seventies, the students and all of the other members elected by some constituency viewed their role as representing that constituency. It was strong partisan representation, in a way that is unthinkable today. Back then, there were student trustees who sued the University, who leaked information to the Cornell Daily Sun. That kind of behavior is unthinkable today; trustees view their role as representing the interests of the University as a whole, while still making sure that a particular viewpoint is heard. There’s no question that the board looks at student trustees as having a better perspective on what students are thinking than anyone else. That’s also true of the faculty representatives and the employee representatives. But it’s not the case that they are expected to represent, in a voting sense, their narrow constituency over the University’s interests as a whole.

CAM: In his book The Creation of the Future, President Emeritus Frank Rhodes offers some thoughts about what trustees should and should not do. He says they should have “noses in, fingers out,” making a distinction between governance and management. How would you define those two roles, and where do you think the line falls?

RH: ‘Cornell is taking a serious look at its online strategy— massively open online courses, eCornell, and other ways of addressing some of these issues.’There’s no question that the concept of keeping noses in but fingers out has taken hold in general at the board level. But I don’t think there’s a bright line, and I think it’s the job of the president and the chairman of the board to establish, on an ongoing basis, where that line actually is, given the circumstances. There are going to be times when a president might actually want the trustees to stick their fingers in more than at other times. President Skorton is someone who very much feels that way. In 2008, at the peak of the financial crisis, he put together what he affectionately called a “rump group,” which was a half-dozen trustees who had a background in finance. He brought them in with the relevant administrators to look at the University’s financial situation and make sure we were under control, from a financial management perspective. This group was brought on the inside, into management, more than I had seen happen before in my tenure.

CAM: Who were the members of that group?

RH: Paul Gould ’67, Donald Opatrny ’74, David Zalaznick ’76, Peter Meinig ’61, BME ’62, Peter Nolan ’80, MBA ’82, and David Croll ’70. They picked apart the balance sheet and probed to the point where they uncovered things that were not transparent to the board. Here’s a great example: Back then, we had about a billion dollars in debt and 80 percent of it was variable-rate. In the course of analyzing that debt, the group learned that much of it was reset on a weekly or daily basis. In an economic crisis, you might not have access to the markets in a particular week, given what’s going on in the rest of the world. So now, as a result of that effort, on a monthly basis the board is given what’s called the “dashboard,” which shows all our major financial indicators, including the cash position. It was really as a result of that process, with the rump group looking at the University’s financial situation along with the administration, that we re-evaluated the approach to our budget. When we looked ahead, we saw that if we had kept doing exactly what we were doing, we would have had a $215 million deficit by 2014. But as a result of a lot of decisions that were made because of this group’s exploration, we recently balanced the budget—a year earlier than we thought we could.

CAM: The Cornell endowment took a big hit during the financial crisis—a loss of more than a billion dollars. It has recovered since then, but the numbers released about the value of the University’s long-term investments (LTI), which include the endowment, showed a decrease in value from $5.35 billion to $5.23 billion in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2012. What happened?

RH: It’s pretty straightforward. The LTI realized a gain of $6 million in a very volatile environment, and it benefited from an additional inflow of $138 million, mainly from gifts. Those gains were offset by a distribution to the University in the amount of $267 million, including $35 million for incremental financial aid, which the board committed to at the onset of the financial crisis. That results in a fiscal year end value of $5.23 billion.

CAM: There’s growing national concern about the rising cost of higher education, particularly as expressed in increases in tuition—increases that have been running well above the rate of inflation for years. How is Cornell addressing that?

RH: Many universities, Cornell included, are doing things to address that, partly through tuition and financial aid, but also through things like distance learning. I know that Cornell is taking a serious look at its online strategy—massively open online courses, eCornell, and other ways of addressing some of these issues. And my guess is that out of this will come some new thinking about how to teach, and that may have implications on the expense side.

CAM: I’m glad you brought that up, because there has been a great deal of publicity about these massively open online courses—MOOCs—recently. Some schools have jumped in with both feet. Does Cornell have some sort of study group that’s looking at this?

RH: Yes, this was a topic at the meeting of the Committee on Academic Affairs during Trustee-Council weekend. I’ve also asked Provost Kent Fuchs to include it as a major topic for discussion at our January board meeting. The provost has, appropriately, asked the faculty to take the lead in determining the direction that Cornell will pursue in this area.

CAM: Several years ago, ILR professor Ron Ehrenberg wrote a book called Tuition Rising in which he expressed alarm about the so-called “arms race” between universities, where everyone wants to have facilities that are as good as or better than the next guy, and everyone wants to have a faculty that’s the best that can be—and whether this competition is driving up costs in an unsustainable way. Is there a board committee that’s looking at this?

RH: It’s definitely within the purview of the Committee on Finance, and obviously of interest to Student Life and others. In fact, I would say that tuition and financial aid are two of the topics that more trustees are interested in understanding and weighing in on than any others. And I think the point about faculty being expensive is something that we must deal with, because our future reputation depends on the quality of our faculty. We have to figure out how to attract the very best faculty to Cornell. While it may be true that they are expensive, it’s a reality we have to deal with.

CAM: It’s an unavoidable expense.

RH: It’s an unavoidable expense, and if we really do plan to be one of the top ten research institutions in the world, we are going to have to have the highest quality faculty. Period.

CAM: Another area of financial concern is New York State’s support of the contract colleges. In an interview I did with AAP Dean Emeritus Porus Olpadwala, MBA ’73, PhD ’79 [published in the November/December 2012 issue], he said that there have been discussions going back many years regarding the contract colleges and whether they might have to become private some day. Is this being considered?

RH: ‘The NYC Tech campus is going to be transformative—I don’t think there’s any question about that.’I have not heard any discussion of privatizing the contract colleges. It is definitely important that we do everything we can to maintain good relations with the state, so that we are as fully funded in the contract colleges as possible. That’s where the efforts have been—to do what we can to deliver on our side of the bargain and work closely with the state. For instance, President Skorton was co-chair of the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council, and in October he was appointed by Governor Cuomo to chair the New York Racing Association. Those illustrate ways in which we are trying to be as helpful as we can toward the state’s economy. And hopefully, in the long term, the governor and the legislature in Albany will appreciate that Cornell can deliver tremendous value back to the state and therefore will strongly support the contract colleges.

CAM: I’m glad you brought that up, because David Skorton has quite a few appointments and other responsibilities in addition to being Cornell’s president, and I sometimes wonder if there’s enough time in the day.

RH: As part of the decision to accept the job with the Racing Association, he did give up being the co-chair of the Southern Tier council. I think that Governor Cuomo is respectful of the fact that President Skorton doesn’t have unlimited time. Over the past couple of years, President Skorton has actually cut back on a number of outside activities, including his work with an NIH biomedical council, the board of the Business-Higher Education Forum, the NCAA Division I board, and others.

CAM: Overall, what is the board’s evaluation of David Skorton’s performance as president so far?

RH: The trustees could not be more thrilled by President Skorton, and we are particularly pleased that he agreed, last year, to renew his contract for another five years. This is the right person at the right time for Cornell. He is energetic beyond belief—completely “hands-on.” He has done an extraordinary job at fundraising; he has done an extraordinary job supporting the faculty and being a listener to student groups—and alumni absolutely love him. He has taken on a national role in a way that, I think, makes people feel proud that we have a spokesperson talking about important issues of higher education in New York State and Washington. And he has had some incredible, globally significant successes, including the New York tech campus and the new medical research building at Weill Cornell. We all hope he stays around a long time.

CAM: The NYC Tech campus is obviously going to represent a big change for Cornell for many years to come. What are your impressions about the role it’s going to play in the University’s mission?

RH: It’s going to be transformative—I don’t think there’s any question about that. There is a tremendous opportunity in New York City, given the industries that exist here—publishing, finance, media, fashion—that are being transformed by technology. By having Cornell build an applied, commercial campus—that is, a campus where commercial intent is part of the DNA—we are taking advantage of an opportunity that will, I think, pay off for Cornell, for New York City, and for the country. There’s tremendous demand for what we want to do, the place where we are located has phenomenal resources, and the talent we will be able to bring to this from Ithaca and elsewhere is going to be transformative. Positively transformative.

CAM: Some people are concerned about the cost, and the big question is: is this going to pull money away from Ithaca?

RH: The reality is that in the same way that Weill Cornell receives a great deal of philanthropy from grateful patients who have no other connection with Cornell, this campus will draw from the New York community, which wants to see it succeed, and from the tech community, which also wants to see it succeed. So I would not think that this will cannibalize; it will be additive from non-Cornell donors. In addition, I can easily imagine joint efforts in fundraising where Ithaca would benefit, in the same way that there are joint programs between the Medical College and the Ithaca campus, and these benefit both campuses from a philanthropic and academic perspective.

CAM: As CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative, you’re involved with programs around the world—and on more than one occasion, I’ve heard David Skorton say that Cornell wants to be the land-grant university to the world. What does that mean for the University?

Robert Harrison at the podium, speaking at a council meeting

Robert Harrison ’76 introduces President David Shorten at the Trustee-Council Annual Meeting in October 2012.Robert Barker/UP

RH: I’m 100 percent in agreement with David Skorton on this. I think that Cornell has an important role to play in helping people around the world, both because of its history as a land-grant institution and because of the development of its college system to address global problems. I see examples of this in my current job regularly. For example, I was in an airport not long ago and saw Helene Gayle, the head of CARE, who was thrilled about the new partnership between Cornell and CARE. The kind of work we’re doing in CALS and other places on the Cornell campus is going to be valuable to what CARE is doing to provide food security and fight poverty in Africa and Asia and elsewhere. There’s no question that Cornell can contribute a huge amount to solving some of the great global problems. And with President Skorton’s leadership, we are tremendously well positioned to become the land-grant university to the world.

CAM: The sesquicentennial celebration is going to start soon. What is the role of the trustees and what events do you have planned?

RH: The current plan is for the celebration to take an entire year, including a Charter Day event in April 2015 in Ithaca to celebrate the day of the charter being granted to Cornell in 1865. There are also plans for celebrations in New York City and across the country, so alumni who can’t be in Ithaca will be able to celebrate the sesquicentennial.

CAM: As you look ahead, to the sesquicentennial and beyond, what do you think are the biggest challenges that Cornell is facing?

RH: Let me say that every one of these is an opportunity at the same time that it’s a challenge. Number one is faculty renewal, because we have to replace—in advance, actually, of retirements—nearly one-half of our faculty that will be turning over as part of the baby boom retirement phenomenon over the next decade. Getting that right is absolutely critical, and it is priority number one—because, as I said earlier, the stature of the University depends on our faculty. Second, I think that the focus on diversity and access to Cornell by great students of all means and all backgrounds is something we need to focus on as much as we ever have. That’s partly for economic reasons, but also because of the Fisher case [about equal opportunity] that is now before the Supreme Court. It could present us with challenges that we can’t imagine today, in terms of taking race into account with respect to college admissions.

Then, third, we need to focus on the health, safety, and well-being of our students. We’re addressing it with the gold standard of service at Gannett, and we need to make sure that we don’t take our eye off that. Fourth, there are the challenges and opportunities of international public engagement, which will be a major driver of what we’re going to be doing over the next five to ten years—beyond the sesquicentennial.

Finally, there are the two campuses in New York City, Weill Cornell and the new tech campus. I think the tech campus, as I said before, will be transformative. And I think that the new Belfer Research Building at the Medical College will also be transformative, in that the kinds of scientists that Dean Laurie Glimcher is going to be able to recruit will be at the top of their fields—world-class scientists who will now have world-class facilities. That will both enhance the stature of our University tremendously and provide translational research that will produce real solutions for the problems existing in the hospital across the street. Those are the areas that I would put in the category of challenges, but also huge opportunities for Cornell as we move ahead.