Voting is open April 2–30 for the 2018 election. Cornell alumni will choose two new trustees from among their ranks. The Committee on Alumni Trustee Nominations endorses four candidates this year: John Boochever ’81, Mark Hansen ’79, Yonn Rasmussen ’83, MS ’86, PhD ’89, and Lisa Yang ’74.
We asked the candidates to share their memories of Cornell, their approaches to leadership, and more.
Why did you choose Cornell?
Lisa Yang: I had just completed my high school year in Singapore, where I grew up, and was working part-time as a research assistant for a professor who was on sabbatical from Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences. Knowing of my interests, he suggested that I apply to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. At the time when I made the decision to study at an American university, Cornell had an international reputation for academic excellence. On further research, it really appealed to me that Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White created Cornell as the “first truly American non-sectarian institution, open to all, and dedicated to all forms of intellectual endeavor.”
Yonn Rasmussen: I am an engineer through and through, but have also had a longstanding love for the broader humanities. I always knew I wanted to go to a school that was a true university rather than a technical institute. My family and I drew a six-hour driving circle centered on my hometown in Maryland, and two places bubbled up to the top of the list: Cornell in Ithaca, and Columbia in New York City. I had an equivalent financial aid package from each university, but after visiting both, I just fell in love with the beauty of Cornell. As an engineering major, I took full advantage of the humanities and took social anthropology, Asian American literature, and psychology classes, often being the only engineer in those classes. You never know how a broad education helps you connect the dots later: at Cornell I once wrote a paper on the Yanomami tribe and, many years later, I became an executive overseeing a plant in Brazil!
Mark Hansen: This may sound simplistic and cliché, but it has to be Ezra Cornell’s vision of “any person, any study.” During my junior year in high school, I visited my best friend, who was doing a Cornell summer course. My friend lauded the quality of the professors and courses. I did my own research, seeking a university that could best provide me a broad liberal arts education; I could find none better than Cornell. I also found the campus to be breathtakingly beautiful.
John Boochever: It was more like Cornell chose me! I grew up in a Cornell family: my grandfather was director of public relations in the administration of President [Edmund Ezra] Day, and he, two sisters, my dad, his brother, my brother, and numerous cousins all attended Cornell. I don’t know if it was reverse psychology, but my dad was encouraging me to look at small, liberal arts colleges. On my college tour, my mother took me to places like Haverford and Amherst, and I remember thinking “these schools are tiny, and don’t offer x,y,z!” After we toured New England, and feeling underwhelmed, I remember pulling up to West Campus, taking one look up Libe Slope, and saying to myself, “Now this is what a university should feel like!” I can’t really describe the feeling that came over me, other than I knew this was it. I didn’t even need to take the tour. I was home.
What one person or class at Cornell influenced you most?
Rasmussen: I cannot single out any one class from my time at Cornell. I came to Cornell as an eager teenager with intellectual curiosity and a thirst for knowledge and the world. Cornell taught me complex analysis, tribal dynamics in the Amazon and Africa, thermodynamics, psychology, electronic properties of materials, love for Truman Capote’s short stories, electron diffraction studies of phase boundaries in sesquioxides—an amalgam of technical depth and academic breadth stemming from the humanities education. In retrospect, I realize that it was the entirety of the many diverse courses which I was given the opportunity to take, as well as the broad intellectual environment, that shaped me as a person.
Hansen: Without a doubt, this would be Professor Peter J. Katzenstein in the government department. I was privileged to be a work-study research assistant for him for more than two years. I also took his joint graduate/undergraduate course in international relations. Peter challenged me professionally and personally. I cannot think about Cornell without gratitude for his intellect, devotion to quality research, and mentorship. He continues to produce groundbreaking work, which I read with interest, including his most recent paradigm-shifting book, Protean Power.
Boochever: My freshman year, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a government major so I enrolled in an introductory international relations course. I also thought I knew how to write. Well, I had a teaching assistant (TA) in that course named John Mearsheimer, who was a rock-star PhD candidate. We forget that Cornell attracts the best and brightest TA’s, in addition to students and faculty. In those days, you would submit your rough drafts handwritten, so I turned in a lengthy first paper on yellow legal notepad thinking I’d done a pretty good job. John thought otherwise, and I can still picture the red ink he used to make comments like, “Your argument is all over God’s little green acre…!” Anyway, after that, I learned how to write. And John went on to become the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.
Yang: Professor Gardner Clark, a professor of international comparative economic systems in the ILR School. He was an outstanding teacher; intellectually stimulating; and also an extremely kind, humble, and compassionate man.
Outside of class, what was your favorite part of your Cornell experience?
Hansen: My favorite part of the Cornell experience was the ability to explore my intellectual curiosity. I developed an appreciation of film through various Cornell film series. I attended lectures by guest speakers in a variety of disciplines. There were concerts, both classical and modern, to attend. As a young, intellectually curious undergraduate, I felt Cornell offered so much on so many topics.
Boochever: I’d have to say joining Fiji [Cornell’s Phi Gamma Delta chapter, also known as “The Oaks”] and living among such a diverse group of independent-minded young men with different majors, classes, and backgrounds was perhaps the most formative experience for me at Cornell. We lived together, grew up together, learned how to self-organize, resolve issues, interact responsibly within a community, uphold a legacy (I once came across a set of leather-bound chapter notes penned by my predecessor in office, E.B. White) and, yes, had a heck of a lot of fun. I’d never considered these aspects of college life, or my own leadership abilities or potential, before joining The Oaks. Most of my lifelong friendships were formed there, and our bonds to Cornell and each other persist to this day through campus reunions; milestone birthdays; and, sadly, memorials, from time to time.
Yang: It was not one thing, but the whole adventure of living on my own, so far from home, was a maturing experience. I worked part-time outside of classes and study, so did not have a lot of free time to participate in student associations and activities. However, I have fond memories of the Friday night movies and visits to the pub after with friends. I also appreciated the opportunity to experience the different spring and winter sports during the first two years. Most of all, the visual beauty of the campus at different seasons was incredible.
Rasmussen: The favorite part of my Cornell experience was meeting and engaging with people from all over the country and the world, and partaking in many cultural events at Cornell. The Dragon Day parade each year, Korean/Asian student association dance events, and international pot luck dinners were wonderful. I loved the plays I went to see in the basement of Willard Straight, the exhibitions at the Johnson art museum, the Thursday night live folk singers in the flag room of Willard Straight, and endless conversations in Green Dragon Café in the basement of Sibley and in Temple of Zeus Café (with all its Greek statues) in Goldwin Smith Hall. Cornell to me was the epitome of cultural diversity with interesting people.
What do you contribute to a team?
Boochever: Unless you happen to be Leonardo da Vinci, you will be outshined by a team, no matter how brilliant you are. I’ve had a career in management consulting that’s predicated on team-based problem-solving. It takes some skill, though—you have to be able to break problems down into parts that can be worked on separately, then brought back together to tell a complete and compelling story. And you have to be able to match individuals to tasks (and the overall mission) to ensure diverse, interdisciplinary, and complementary views. I’ve had a lot of experience with this, working on some of the most challenging client problems in the world. I also had the honor to represent Cornell in three team sports, notably rugby, which requires the ability to improvise according to the situation on the field and tendencies of teammates under chaotic conditions—the essence of teamwork!
Yang: I have learned to not overestimate how quickly I can bring change, but to be provocative with questions and to work within my environment rather than control what I cannot. I seek and value input at all levels, and most of all, treasure my flexibility and ability to admit that when I am wrong, I need to cut my losses. My service on boards of multiple organizations—ranging from the arts, education, basic science, to human services—has helped me develop a wide-ranging skill set. I understand the importance of balancing the mission with effective execution, including “boots on the ground” intelligence and listening with empathy. High points and low points in my Cornell academic and professional paths, both as a foreign student, female, and minority, have shaped my perspective of global differences in economic, social, race, gender, cultural, and political values. I believe I can add a lot to the conversation to make sure Cornell remains a truly excellent academic institution with an enlightened international footprint.
Rasmussen: Having led global organizations for many years, I have extensive multicultural leadership experience that enables me to bring together diverse team members to achieve the team’s shared goals. I have experience both in delivering challenging projects with long-range strategic goals as well as in leading task forces with critical short-term deadlines for closure and implementation. In my career, I have also been involved in many transformational projects that required disciplined management of changes with strategic implications to make sure people and organizations thrived from those changes. I am an action-oriented, high-energy doer and facilitator, and can serve a team as both a leader and a team player. I love being part of a team in which all the team members are committed to working together toward a clear, common goal.
Hansen: I listen, ensure everyone has a voice in the discussion, and try to work toward win-win outcomes. Unless everyone on a team feels like they have been listened to, there can be no real acceptance of decisions made. Having worked in multicultural environments, I also understand that non-verbal communication can be as important as understanding what’s spoken. We need to encourage and create space for all to have their opinions voiced and respectfully heard. If we can’t or don’t listen, then we can’t truly coalesce.
What one cause or issue would you like to work on as a trustee, and why?
Yang: Recall the founding words of Ezra Cornell (1868): “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Also recall his remarkable ideals of America as a place where technology, wealth, and altruism could come together to benefit all, and “coeducation of the sexes and entire freedom from sectarian or political preferences is the only proper and safe way for providing an education that shall meet the wants of the future.” We need to have a discussion on the fundamentals of tolerance and equality, not simply elevate political correctness over merit. That means equal rights and respect for all beings irrespective of race, gender identification, culture, class, backgrounds, experiences, and politics, but also including neural diversity—acceptance that brains are wired differently, and thus think and work differently. The atmosphere and culture on campus should be one of tolerance, transparency, and free—but non-invasive—expression, where students, faculty, and staff can strive free of harassment, discrimination, and bullying.
Boochever: Having invested much in our presence and impact outside of Ithaca, our challenge now is to define, put the resources behind, and strengthen the common ties that make us Cornell. The possibilities seem endless, like the early days of cable TV. I’m fascinated to work on fostering and enabling the synergies that will accelerate academic programming and educational opportunities across our campuses. These efforts will bring major benefits in sparking interdisciplinary innovation, recruiting the next generation of students and faculty, and reducing institutional barriers. New ventures that bridge our campuses in creative ways like the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity resonate with me greatly as a liberal arts major who made a career in technology. The prospect of helping to scale our impact as an institution and expand opportunities—themes I’ve worked on professionally and in which I include affordability and socioeconomic diversity—motivate me as a trustee.
Hansen: I would like to focus on the new challenges around university governance. The role and value of major research universities is under greater scrutiny these days, especially in the US. Questions are raised about the contribution of universities to society and, in the case of public universities, to the state and its taxpayers. The optics of admissions policies, affordability, and educational outcomes are being critically reviewed in the public sphere. Cornell is well-positioned as a leader in university governance as both a private and land-grant institution. Cornell’s broad board composition, which includes alumni-elected and employee-elected trustees, is a proof point for this. The board of trustees has a fiduciary responsibility for Cornell. Changing social mores and expectations are bringing university governance and university boards’ execution of their fiduciary responsibility under greater scrutiny by various stakeholders. Given my extensive governance experience, I believe this is an issue to which I bring some expertise.
Rasmussen: I would like to contribute to “innovation through diversity” in the broadest sense to help unleash the potential of “One Cornell.” In this context, several areas of focus come to mind: 1) bring together humanities and technology research for breakthrough innovation that can come from the interdisciplinary collaboration between these areas, 2) create new entrepreneurial ventures involving students and alumni, leveraging the diversity and strengths of the Ithaca and NYC campuses, and 3) create an even more inclusive environment across the cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries that further promote innovation and creativity. I firmly believe that diversity fuels innovation and am passionate about promoting both.
What calls you to volunteer service?
Hansen: Cornell instilled in me a value of community service as an integral part of public citizenship. This value has remained with me since graduation and shaped my commitment to volunteer service for Cornell and other educational and social organizations. As the eldest of five children in a large, middle-class family, I wouldn’t have been able to attend Cornell without the support and generosity of many previous Cornellians who devoted their time, talent, and treasure to Cornell. From the alumni interview during the application process to the scholarships that helped fund my Cornell education, I feel like I stand on the shoulders of previous alumni. Cornell has given me so much: a world-class education, lifelong friendships, and an intellectual rigor that shapes my work to this day. How could I not give back in gratitude for all that Cornell has given me?
Rasmussen: I feel deep gratitude and love for Cornell and want to give back. Over the years, one of the most fulfilling ways I have been able to serve Cornell is by mentoring students. It is the personal interactions with students that have touched me the most. It was deeply gratifying when one of my externship mentees, a first-generation student of color who had been overwhelmed by the intensity of Cornell, felt more confident about overcoming barriers after our conversations together. It was exhilarating for me to have the opportunity to organize an on-campus PCCW mentoring event that brought humanities and sciences together by creating a joint art/science exhibition; this event allowed fine arts and science students to intermingle and interact with each other while presenting their original artwork and research posters. Experiences like these are deeply gratifying and give me a strong desire to continue, and to expand, my service to Cornell.
Boochever: A few years ago, I was asked to present at a Cornell Family Fellows dinner my personal reasons for philanthropy to Cornell. I organized my talk around inspiration, imagination, and passion. It strikes me these are the same principles that call me to volunteer service. I feel inspired to give back to an institution that’s been a touchstone to generations of my family, but more importantly to what Cornell represents: a commitment to educational equity, diversity, and access; to public engagement and service; to academic and research excellence. Cornell never ceases to fire my imagination, whether through contributions to the dendrochronology lab or theoretical physics, or service to my class and college, or work on university-wide challenges like alumni election participation or young alumni engagement. Aristotle wrote, “What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” I think that sums up my calling to Cornell service.
Yang: The true mission of a land-grant university is the obligation to help others less fortunate. To do that, we have to be open to change, and sometimes “unlearning” is needed to achieve change. My life is the reality of being female, minority, international, growing up overseas in a foreign culture and a Third World economy, graduating from two Ivy League universities, building a successful career on Wall Street, becoming the mother of children (two of whom are on the autism spectrum), and, in retirement, achieving some regard as a hands-on philanthropist. I want to share my growth from my time at Cornell, my professional life, and my maturation as a person, so as to have impact on the next generation of students in their role beyond the academic world to, ultimately, be ethically responsible world citizens.