From “The Chronicle” At Cornell University: “With love and duty – retired academics give back to Cornell”

From “The Chronicle”


Cornell University

Caitlin Hayes | Cornell Chronicle

In his retirement, Charles Walcott, professor emeritus of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, attends weekly dinners at Carl Becker House to interact with students. Credit: Sreang Hok/Cornell University.

When Dean Kavita Bala needed guidance on defining tenure and promotion standards for the newly named Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, there was one person who had the experience, the depth and breadth of knowledge, to help: Charlie Van Loan, professor emeritus of computer science.

It didn’t matter that he had retired in 2016.

It didn’t matter that Van Loan had already served as dean of faculty for five years after gaining emeritus status, even staying an extra year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. When Bala called, Van Loan immediately agreed to help.

“He does these things purely out of a sense of duty and love for Cornell and a desire to give back,” said Bala, who listed a number of other retired faculty who have stepped up to fill a need. “It’s an inspiration. They give Cornell their best where Cornell needs it the most.”

Van Loan is part of a large community of retired academics and faculty that continue to contribute to and participate in university life – and are connected through Cornell Academics and Professors Emeriti (CAPE), an organization founded in 1982 that aims to provide community and support for retiring academics, keeping them connected to each other and Cornell. On Jan. 19, more than 100 members of CAPE celebrated its 40th anniversary at Moakley House.

“There’s often some dread at the idea of retirement,” said Charles Walcott, professor emeritus of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), “because faculty feel as they retire they’re going to lose the interaction with colleagues and students and staff which makes the Cornell experience so wonderful. What CAPE tries to do is help them through that transition, by pointing out that in general you can continue on but with greater freedom to do what you want.”

CAPE has a broad membership that includes faculty (and those awarded the title of emeritus/a), librarians, extension associates, academic counselors and advisers. The community includes around 1,200 people, about 650 of whom are local, with many still actively involved in research and teaching at Cornell.

In 2015, CAPE conducted a survey of its membership: nearly 80% of the 200 respondents indicated they were actively involved in research and scholarship and were still publishing; 57% said they were still involved in teaching and coursework; 44% were advising students in some form; and a third were serving on university committees.

“I don’t think many people appreciate the breadth and depth of contributions emeriti faculty still make,” said Hudson Kern Reeve, professor and chair in the department of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, who still relies on Walcott, retired since 2011, for teaching needs, mentorship of junior faculty and graduate students, valuable administrative advice, and friendship. “We don’t want to throw away all those years of wisdom but to keep using them to improve ourselves in light of what’s worked in the past. Charlie is a conduit to our deep history.”

Cornell’s ‘treasure’

Members of CAPE have banded together over the years to develop programs that fulfill needs at Cornell: for many years, CAPE’s Information Outpost program set up at key locations on move-in day to direct new students around campus; more recently, program committees have been involved in documenting the contributions of their colleagues and departments and counseling academics nearing retirement. CAPE holds a seat on the faculty senate, and the executive council, currently comprising 11 people with a range of academic titles, meets with the dean of faculty each month to stay abreast of issues impacting faculty and to advocate for the needs of its members.

Individually, CAPE members teach classes, give guest lectures, write letters of promotion, serve in administrative roles or on committees for their departments and the university, and represent the university on national committees and boards. They fundraise, advise graduate students and undergraduates, and mentor junior and senior faculty still in the ranks.

Lorraine Maxwell, professor emerita of human centered design in the College of Human Ecology and incoming president of the Cornell Academics and Professor Emeriti (CAPE) executive council, led CAPE’s involvement in a fundraiser for local childcare centers at the height of the pandemic. Credit: Sreang Hok/Cornell University.

Frank Robinson, the director emeritus of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, worked part-time in Alumni Affairs and Development for two years after his retirement from the museum in 2011. Now 83, he still maintains contacts with some museum donors – all of whom have become close friends. But these connections are also partly on behalf of Cornell and sustain a connection to the school and museum. The bond between alumni and their former, now-retired professors is similar, Robinson said.

“The members of CAPE are a treasure for Cornell,” said Robinson. “They have so much experience, so much knowledge of the history of Cornell, their departments, so many meaningful relationships. In retirement, you’re still a highly trained, intelligent person, and even if you might not have quite as much energy, you still have something to contribute. You’re a tool, an instrument, and you want to be useful.”

CAPE members have also organized numerous initiatives to help the broader Ithaca community. Lorraine Maxwell, professor emerita of human centered design in the College of Human Ecology and incoming president of the CAPE executive council, led CAPE’s involvement in a fundraiser for local childcare centers at the height of the pandemic, which overlapped with her research on child development and wellbeing.

“These folks just do a stand up job helping in any way,” said CAPE’s former administrative assistant Cindy Robinson, who retired at the end of January after 15 years. “I’ll walk away as a retiree changed by their example.”

Creating community

The structure of community often falls away in retirement – and one of CAPE’s aims is to maintain and expand a new community infrastructure for its members.

Cindy Robinson sent weekly, sometimes daily, emails filled with announcements that might engage and interest the CAPE community, from lectures, concerts, exhibitions and timely articles, to workshops about Medicare and estate planning. During the pandemic, she became a command center for locating and directing CAPE members to vaccination sites and providing members with daily updates and local COVID-19 statistics; this was especially important as the pandemic ebbed and flowed.

“Cindy has done such a terrific job of holding the whole thing together, and being a voice for it, and helping all of us,” Walcott said.

CAPE has long held a lecture series, with speakers from Cornell and elsewhere, that has drawn crowds of more than 100, as well as a more recent “Cornell Collects” series, that provides tours of various collections on campus. Before the pandemic, they also hosted frequent social hours – more than 200 people attended the last one before campus shut down.

For many members, the opportunity to meet other retirees deepens their appreciation and sense of connection to Cornell.

“As a faculty member, you’ve spent so much of your mental energy on ideas, and we still want to be intellectually active,” Maxwell said. “Many of us have also been siloed, and it’s nice to meet people from other areas of the university. CAPE is valuable in that way.”

“Once I became a member of CAPE and participated in the executive council and all the activities, I became much more aware of the variety and depth and quality of Cornell, whether it’s the veterinary school or the physics department or what have you,” Frank Robinson said. “It’s not that I wasn’t aware of such places, but now I met the people, heard them speak, served with them. I felt closer to the whole range of this truly great institution.”

With an endowment from Albert Podell ’58, CAPE also provides grants for continuing research in retirement – awarding between $25,000 and $30,000 annually.

In recent years, CAPE has worked to formalize and standardize processes and perks for retiring faculty and academics across departments and colleges – drafting standards that now appear on the dean of faculty’s website. With leadership from Van Loan, CAPE also pushed to expand eligibility for emeritus status to include Research, Teaching and Extension (RTE) faculty and other academic and administrative positions.

At 90, Daniel Peter Loucks, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering in Cornell Engineering, continues to conduct research and teach classes – this semester, Public Systems Modeling. Credit: Sreang Hok/Cornell University.

“Cornell has this tremendous teaching-research engine that runs on not just the tenure-track and tenured faculty, but the lecturers, the researchers, the extension associates,” Van Loan said. “If you’ve been a senior lecturer for 20 years, you deserve emeritus status. You deserve that kind of recognition.”

CAPE plays an important advocacy role for its membership as well. “If there are concerns from our membership, we can lay them out in dialogue with the dean of faculty,” said Elizabeth Earle, outgoing president of the CAPE executive council and professor emerita of plant breeding and genetics (CALS). “There are lots of issues that have emerged – parking and transportation and what benefits different groups get – these all reflect how retirees are treated by the university, and we make the case to the university that this is a valuable group of people, and they should be treated well.”

Along these lines, Van Loan said CAPE is an important symbol of the university’s commitment, even for those retired academics who don’t directly use CAPE’s resources. “The number of emeriti faculty and retirees – it’s bigger than any college, and the talent is huge,” Van Loan said, “and the university’s commitment to CAPE is a statement about how they value all retired faculty.”

For Reeve, Walcott’s contributions have reinforced the importance of an older generation’s participation – and of making sure retired faculty know they’re welcome and appreciated; in his department, all retired faculty are invited to take part in meetings and discussions. “We draw on their wisdom,” he said. “We hope Charlie stays involved as long as he’s willing to give his time.”

“There’s an attitude of: ‘we’re all in this together’ that makes Cornell so special,” Walcott said. “It’s why I like to continue to be involved. There’s an incredible richness and openness here, and the result is truly remarkable.”

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Once called “the first American university” by educational historian Frederick Rudolph, Cornell University represents a distinctive mix of eminent scholarship and democratic ideals. Adding practical subjects to the classics and admitting qualified students regardless of nationality, race, social circumstance, gender, or religion was quite a departure when Cornell was founded in 1865.

Today’s Cornell reflects this heritage of egalitarian excellence. It is home to the nation’s first colleges devoted to hotel administration, industrial and labor relations, and veterinary medicine. Both a private university and the land-grant institution of New York State, Cornell University is the most educationally diverse member of the Ivy League.

On the Ithaca campus alone nearly 20,000 students representing every state and 120 countries choose from among 4,000 courses in 11 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. Many undergraduates participate in a wide range of interdisciplinary programs, play meaningful roles in original research, and study in Cornell programs in Washington, New York City, and the world over.

Cornell University is a private, statutory, Ivy League and land-grant research university in Ithaca, New York. Founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, the university was intended to teach and make contributions in all fields of knowledge—from the classics to the sciences, and from the theoretical to the applied. These ideals, unconventional for the time, are captured in Cornell’s founding principle, a popular 1868 quotation from founder Ezra Cornell: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

The university is broadly organized into seven undergraduate colleges and seven graduate divisions at its main Ithaca campus, with each college and division defining its specific admission standards and academic programs in near autonomy. The university also administers two satellite medical campuses, one in New York City and one in Education City, Qatar, and Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute in New York City, a graduate program that incorporates technology, business, and creative thinking. The program moved from Google’s Chelsea Building in New York City to its permanent campus on Roosevelt Island in September 2017.

Cornell is one of the few private land grant universities in the United States. Of its seven undergraduate colleges, three are state-supported statutory or contract colleges through the SUNY – The State University of New York system, including its Agricultural and Human Ecology colleges as well as its Industrial Labor Relations school. Of Cornell’s graduate schools, only the veterinary college is state-supported. As a land grant college, Cornell operates a cooperative extension outreach program in every county of New York and receives annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions. The Cornell University Ithaca Campus comprises 745 acres, but is much larger when the Cornell Botanic Gardens (more than 4,300 acres) and the numerous university-owned lands in New York City are considered.

Alumni and affiliates of Cornell have reached many notable and influential positions in politics, media, and science. As of January 2021, 61 Nobel laureates, four Turing Award winners and one Fields Medalist have been affiliated with Cornell. Cornell counts more than 250,000 living alumni, and its former and present faculty and alumni include 34 Marshall Scholars, 33 Rhodes Scholars, 29 Truman Scholars, 7 Gates Scholars, 55 Olympic Medalists, 10 current Fortune 500 CEOs, and 35 billionaire alumni. Since its founding, Cornell has been a co-educational, non-sectarian institution where admission has not been restricted by religion or race. The student body consists of more than 15,000 undergraduate and 9,000 graduate students from all 50 American states and 119 countries.


Cornell University was founded on April 27, 1865; the New York State (NYS) Senate authorized the university as the state’s land grant institution. Senator Ezra Cornell offered his farm in Ithaca, New York, as a site and $500,000 of his personal fortune as an initial endowment. Fellow senator and educator Andrew Dickson White agreed to be the first president. During the next three years, White oversaw the construction of the first two buildings and traveled to attract students and faculty. The university was inaugurated on October 7, 1868, and 412 men were enrolled the next day.

Cornell developed as a technologically innovative institution, applying its research to its own campus and to outreach efforts. For example, in 1883 it was one of the first university campuses to use electricity from a water-powered dynamo to light the grounds. Since 1894, Cornell has included colleges that are state funded and fulfill statutory requirements; it has also administered research and extension activities that have been jointly funded by state and federal matching programs.

Cornell has had active alumni since its earliest classes. It was one of the first universities to include alumni-elected representatives on its Board of Trustees. Cornell was also among the Ivies that had heightened student activism during the 1960s related to cultural issues; civil rights; and opposition to the Vietnam War, with protests and occupations resulting in the resignation of Cornell’s president and the restructuring of university governance. Today the university has more than 4,000 courses. Cornell is also known for the Residential Club Fire of 1967, a fire in the Residential Club building that killed eight students and one professor.

Since 2000, Cornell has been expanding its international programs. In 2004, the university opened the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. It has partnerships with institutions in India, Singapore, and the People’s Republic of China. Former president Jeffrey S. Lehman described the university, with its high international profile, a “transnational university”. On March 9, 2004, Cornell and Stanford University laid the cornerstone for a new ‘Bridging the Rift Center’ to be built and jointly operated for education on the Israel–Jordan border.


Cornell, a research university, is ranked fourth in the world in producing the largest number of graduates who go on to pursue PhDs in engineering or the natural sciences at American institutions, and fifth in the world in producing graduates who pursue PhDs at American institutions in any field. Research is a central element of the university’s mission; in 2009 Cornell spent $671 million on science and engineering research and development, the 16th highest in the United States. Cornell is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”.

For the 2016–17 fiscal year, the university spent $984.5 million on research. Federal sources constitute the largest source of research funding, with total federal investment of $438.2 million. The agencies contributing the largest share of that investment are The Department of Health and Human Services and the National Science Foundation, accounting for 49.6% and 24.4% of all federal investment, respectively. Cornell was on the top-ten list of U.S. universities receiving the most patents in 2003, and was one of the nation’s top five institutions in forming start-up companies. In 2004–05, Cornell received 200 invention disclosures; filed 203 U.S. patent applications; completed 77 commercial license agreements; and distributed royalties of more than $4.1 million to Cornell units and inventors.

Since 1962, Cornell has been involved in unmanned missions to Mars. In the 21st century, Cornell had a hand in the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. Cornell’s Steve Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Athena Science Payload, led the selection of the landing zones and requested data collection features for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. NASA-JPL/Caltech engineers took those requests and designed the rovers to meet them. The rovers, both of which have operated long past their original life expectancies, are responsible for the discoveries that were awarded 2004 Breakthrough of the Year honors by Science. Control of the Mars rovers has shifted between National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s JPL-Caltech and Cornell’s Space Sciences Building.

Further, Cornell researchers discovered the rings around the planet Uranus, and Cornell built and operated the telescope at Arecibo Observatory located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico until 2011, when they transferred the operations to SRI International, the Universities Space Research Association and the Metropolitan University of Puerto Rico [Universidad Metropolitana de Puerto Rico].

The Automotive Crash Injury Research Project was begun in 1952. It pioneered the use of crash testing, originally using corpses rather than dummies. The project discovered that improved door locks; energy-absorbing steering wheels; padded dashboards; and seat belts could prevent an extraordinary percentage of injuries.

In the early 1980s, Cornell deployed the first IBM 3090-400VF and coupled two IBM 3090-600E systems to investigate coarse-grained parallel computing. In 1984, the National Science Foundation began work on establishing five new supercomputer centers, including the Cornell Center for Advanced Computing, to provide high-speed computing resources for research within the United States. As a National Science Foundation center, Cornell deployed the first IBM Scalable Parallel supercomputer.

In the 1990s, Cornell developed scheduling software and deployed the first supercomputer built by Dell. Most recently, Cornell deployed Red Cloud, one of the first cloud computing services designed specifically for research. Today, the center is a partner on the National Science Foundation XSEDE-Extreme Science Engineering Discovery Environment supercomputing program, providing coordination for XSEDE architecture and design, systems reliability testing, and online training using the Cornell Virtual Workshop learning platform.

Cornell scientists have researched the fundamental particles of nature for more than 70 years. Cornell physicists, such as Hans Bethe, contributed not only to the foundations of nuclear physics but also participated in the Manhattan Project. In the 1930s, Cornell built the second cyclotron in the United States. In the 1950s, Cornell physicists became the first to study synchrotron radiation.

During the 1990s, the Cornell Electron Storage Ring, located beneath Alumni Field, was the world’s highest-luminosity electron-positron collider. After building the synchrotron at Cornell, Robert R. Wilson took a leave of absence to become the founding director of DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which involved designing and building the largest accelerator in the United States.

Cornell’s accelerator and high-energy physics groups are involved in the design of the proposed ILC-International Linear Collider(JP) and plan to participate in its construction and operation. The International Linear Collider(JP), to be completed in the late 2010s, will complement the CERN Large Hadron Collider(CH) and shed light on questions such as the identity of dark matter and the existence of extra dimensions.

As part of its research work, Cornell has established several research collaborations with universities around the globe. For example, a partnership with the University of Sussex(UK) (including the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex) allows research and teaching collaboration between the two institutions.