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Some Questions for Chris Marshall

Last winter we asked some questions of Chris Marshall, Cornell's Associate Vice President for Alumni Affairs. Well, he finally responded at the end of May, and we finally got around to posting them at the end of August. I should add that I recently assumed the Presidency of the Cornell Club of Greater Buffalo, so I now have even more interest in these questions than when they were first posed.

We'll post some Q&A today, and then a bit more later. But, as they say, better late than never:

You have been at Cornell for over half a year now. Are you beginning to feel like a local Ithacan? Have you been a quick study as to Cornelliana and all of our acronyms? CAAAN? Lynah Faithful? ILR? Dragon Day? PCCW? CIFAD? The Alma Mater?

My one year anniversary is June 1st. I have been telling alumni groups that I now proudly bleed Big Red!!! I’m slowly learning all the acronyms and traditions. Of the ones you mention I know all of them except for CIFAD.

You previously spent your career at a school founded in 1865 by a pragmatic industrialist situated high on a hill above a body of water – Lehigh University. You now find yourself at a slightly larger institution founded in 1865 by a pragmatic industrialist situated high on a (moderately steeper) hill above an (even larger) body of water. I can’t imagine the similarities end there…but how would you compare the two institutions?

Other similarities: a) The alma maters are sung to the same tune!?! b) If you took the statue of Ezra Cornell off the Arts Quad and switched it with the one of Asa Packer down at Lehigh, you would never be able to tell the difference. I’m convinced they are separated at birth twins. c) The Lehigh Valley Railroad was founded by Lehigh’s Asa Packer. Its northern-most terminus was… Ithaca, NY! There is still a Lehigh Valley Restaurant at the location with train cars stationed just across the street. It is likely that Asa and Ezra knew each other. And d) both universities were founded with the same initial endowment investment of $500,000… a HUGE sum at the time and a record for any university.

The differences can be summed up as follows: (I’m a big baseball fan so here is my best analogy) Lehigh was like playing for a small market AA minor league club. Cornell is like playing in the major leagues and for the New York Yankees. (I’m not a Yankees fan – Phillies all the way – but the Yankees franchise illustrates my point much better.)

Cornell is 3 or 4 times as large as Lehigh in every way: student body, alumni population, total endowment, number of colleges, staff, faculty, etc. Cornell is also MUCH more decentralized in terms of the administration of the university where Lehigh was very centralized.

A small but vocal minority of undergraduate students likes to complain a bit about their time at Cornell. They will quip that their classes are too hard, Ithaca too isolated, the weather is too miserable, the tuition too expensive, and that the Slope is too steep. How does this affect your job, and what can Alumni Affairs do to mitigate these complaints?

I have come to realize that there will always be a percentage (maybe 20%) of alumni that we’ll never connect with or keep connected to Cornell. There is also a percentage (another 20%) of alumni that will stay involved no matter what we do! It is that middle 60% that we need to work on becoming more engaged with Cornell. I think our new young alumni and affinity programs will make great strides here.

To your point though, I think our student program will also help mitigate some of the “student experience” based complaints. Getting a parking ticket in your junior year should not be the basis of a bad relationship with Cornell for 50+ years. The Cornell experience has value for even the most cynical of alumni.

Like clockwork, questions arise every couple of years as to the status of the Cornell Alumni Magazine, and its official ‘editorial independence’ from the University, despite the fact that it receives non-trivial amounts of support from Cornell. Alums are still asked to pay for their magazine, unlike at most other top colleges, and the University has just launched its own (free) quarterly publication – Ezra – that some might see as competition to “control the message” that alums are receiving. Do you see these tensions being reconciled anytime soon?

It is on my list of issues that simply have to be addressed. Here is some data that you will find interesting:

University Name % Receiving Magazine
Wake Forest 140%
Lehigh 139%
T.C.U. 128%
Washington 124%
Seton Hall 119%
R.I.T. 115%
Rochester 115%
Tufts 115%
Johns Hopkins 112%
G.W. 108%
Tulane 108%
Columbia 100%
Dartmouth 100%
Stanford 100%
Princeton 100%
Brown 100%
Yale 100%
Pepperdine 98%
Penn 97%
R.P.I. 87%
Boston U. 81%
Harvard 80%
Syracuse 63%
N.Y.U. 53%
Cornell 13%

We are the only school on this list that is in this category (13%). So yes, it is time we tackle this once and for all!

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 30, 2009 (#)

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