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Kathi Warren Q&A

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Kathi WarrenKathi Warren became assistant dean for Alumni Affairs and Development in the College of Engineering June 1. As chief development officer for the college with responsibility for the college’s alumni affairs and development program, Warren works closely with Dean Lance Collins, directors, chairs, faculty members, and staff to ensure the college achieves its fundraising goals. She came to Cornell after serving as campaign director and director of corporate relations at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Previously, she held positions as a major gifts officer at Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and at the Smith School of Business.

Cornell Engineering Magazine: You’ve been here for about seven months now. How’s it going so far?

Kathi Warren: It’s going well. It’s a very exciting time having a new dean (Lance Collins) here. We’ve been very busy on the road and thinking about the future of the college and how alumni resources can be brought to bear on that. We’ve been to Boston, Washington, the Northeast, the West Coast, and, of course, New York City. We’re focusing on the dean’s priorities, which will be further articulated as a function of the strategic planning process the college is undertaking.

CEM: Will changes be made to the college’s strategic plan?

KW: Lance is building on the great leadership of former dean Kent Fuchs (now provost) and former interim dean Chris Ober, but the last strategic plan was written in 2004. When Lance talks about the strategic planning he calls it an update and simply says, ‘I’m asking us to think about how we build on it.’ He is not changing the research areas we are focusing on, but he recognizes that within them there are areas where we are already great to preeminent while in others we are just emerging. Lance is working with the schools and departments to identify opportunities to truly go to the next level in those areas.  His goal is to position the college among the top five in engineering.

CEM: What sort of reception are you getting from alumni?

KW: I’d say a very warm welcome. When we went to San Francisco in November, Autodesk, a company where most of the leadership is Cornellian, hosted an alumni event for the dean. There were over 100 alumni in this fabulous gallery where they have the products people have made with Autodesk software, everything from designing the Avatar movie to the new bridge that spans over the East Bay to the new Tesla car. There were alumni, parents, friends, prospective students. It was a really great gathering and it happened to coincide with game five of the World Series, in which—of course—the San Francisco Giants were playing. Lance’s presentation on the future of the college started somewhere around the bottom of the eighth. Even when everyone knew that the game was ending, they listened in rapt attention. Then, maybe halfway through the talk, it came through that the Giants had won and there was a little cheer. Lance said ‘OK—phew—they didn’t lose the game.’ and then he finished the talk. I’ve seen that kind of interest in the college replicated across the country.

CEM: What are the college’s fundraising priorities?

KW: Our focus right now is on faculty renewal. We recognize that there’s a talent bubble out there in the marketplace as well as the significant retirements that will be happening in the college. We estimate that a third of the faculty will retire in next five to 10 years. That’s why Cornell has established a $100 million Faculty Renewal Fund. The university has asked the college deans and the department chairs to develop hiring plans for the next five years and to reallocate monies from their budgets to focus on faculty hiring. These reallocated monies will comprise half of the faculty renewal fund. The other half will come from philanthropy; we are asking donors to make faculty renewal their priority.

Lance wants to ensure that we aren’t just replacing faculty, but hiring in the research fields that align with our strategic priorities and position the college for success. If you don’t have great faculty you don’t have a great institution—you can’t do great research; you can’t do great teaching.

Another key area is graduate fellowships. We’d love to have fellowship funds available for every first-year Ph.D. student, and we’re off by more than half. That would make us much more competitive in terms of getting the best graduate students and it would actually allow us to enhance our teaching and faculty research.

Another priority area for us is providing support for some of the experiential learning activities that our students undertake such as student teams. The dean has said “This is something I want to hang my hat on.” Around 20 percent of our undergraduates participate, which is quite unusual for a college like ours. It’s quite rigorous and prepares them to hit the ground running when they leave this place in a way that no other experience that they have here does. We want to celebrate that and provide the support that will allow those programs to continue and grow to the next level. That’s preparing entrepreneurs. That’s developing leadership skills, providing them with an experience that can’t be learned in the class.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight annual support for the College of Engineering. The university has seen support for the annual fund increase in a sustained fashion in recent years resulting in back-to-back record-breaking years. We’d love to see our alumni continue that. Unrestricted support to the college is of incredible importance. It’s basically giving where the dean’s need is greatest. If you can’t give a gift to create a professorship or endowed fellowship—which 99 percent of people can’t—what you can do is provide unrestricted support. The dean can use that money for everything from a faculty startup package or a new faculty line to graduate fellowships.

Kathi WarrenCEM: Why do engineering alumni give?

KW: They tell us over and over again about how important their education was. It doesn’t matter that many of them are not practicing engineers. They could be on Wall Street, or in a venture capital firm, or an entrepreneur, but they tell us that the principles that they learned here are what gave them the wherewithal to be successful, period, end of story. That motivates them because they know that that quality has only improved, the rigor has only improved.

Our alumni also know that Cornell is actually answering global challenges and they believe that we are positioned to do that in a way that’s unique amongst colleges and universities across the world. When they give, they’re not just thinking about helping their alma mater, they’re thinking about solving some global challenges too.

CEM: What’s the toughest part of your job?

KW: Our alums are some of the smartest people on the planet. I’ve had some of the most intriguing, but daunting conversations with some of these folks. I’m learning a whole new language. What it comes back to is they are at the heart of solving challenges. I’m a scientist. I look at myself as the person who would try to understand what they did. I’m on the end game. They are on the front end. To me being an engineer is the definition of being a pioneer.

CEM: What has surprised you about Cornell?

KW: I’m consistently surprised by how deep the culture of collegiality goes here. Whether that’s within the college, when I’m engaging with a faculty member or chair or director trying to understand how I can help them obtain resources for a program, or whether its with my colleagues in Alumni Affairs and Development trying to think about how I can engage an alumnus to support a program, people here really want the organization to succeed and it just plays out over and over again.

I’m struck by how the minds here are fluid and there really is interdisciplinary collaboration happening all across the quad here and you see it exemplified in so many ways and that’s exciting. As I said before, I’m a scientist by training, not an engineer, but I can at least talk about faculty research with a sense of understanding and certainly the passion—that’s the thing—the passion these folks have for what they are doing is palpable, it’s infectious.

CEM: Do Cornellians identify with their alma mater more than other alumni?

KW: There’s something in the water here. You come here and you spend years in this freezing cold, you get a connection and a passion for this place and somehow you infect another generation. There’s nothing like Cornell so it breeds an affinity and connection to it like no other institution. I’ve worked at land grant schools; I’ve worked at private schools. There’s something different about being a Cornellian, and it’s more than academic excellence. I don’t have the words to describe it. It’s truly a community and its very inclusive and supportive. People’s livelihood and connections are woven in and through Cornell. And they’re genuinely passionate about it.