Carnegie Mellon University

Letter from the President

The following letter from Dr. Cohon was sent to the university community on August, 24, 2010:

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff:

Welcome back for a new academic year!  There's a sense of excitement at the beginning of the year. To me, this has always been one of the most attractive things about being in academia.  I still feel the same anticipation about a new year as I did more than 50 years ago as a grade school student. 

For those new to the university, welcome to Carnegie Mellon!  Let me extend a special welcome to our new graduate students in Pittsburgh and around the world and to the freshman class (in Doha, as well as Pittsburgh), our most diverse and talented in history.  Let me also take this opportunity to thank the many staff and upperclass students for the outstanding orientation activities of last week.

You likely have heard that, after consultation with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, the Board of Trustees extended my term as president by one year. My current (and third) five-year term ends in June 2012. Thus, with the extension, I will have three years through June 2013 to complete and make significant progress on some key initiatives. Equally important, Mark Kamlet has agreed to extend his term as Executive Vice President and Provost for at least another year.  I look forward to working with him and the rest of our superb senior team for the next three years.

I feel energized thinking about my next three years, and I want to share with you my top priorities. In doing so, I will also review the past year and preview what's ahead for this year and beyond.

Research and Educational Initiatives

Carnegie Mellon's history of innovation and accomplishment is a source of pride for all of us.  In every field represented at the university, we have made important contributions, many of them groundbreaking. 

Every year brings new innovations as well as reminders of past achievements.  Last year, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of Industrial Design at CMU, the first academic program in that field in the U.S., and we were reminded of the pre-eminent place that the School of Design occupies today.  We also celebrated the 30th anniversary of our internationally renowned Robotics Institute, the 25th anniversary of the Software Engineering Institute, the 20th anniversary of the Information Networking Institute, which is a key component of our Silicon Valley campus as well as many international programs, and the 10th anniversary of our Bachelor of Science and Arts program, a joint degree program between our College of Fine Arts and Mellon College of Science.

These first-of-a-kind and one-of-a-kind programs are examples of Carnegie Mellon's uniqueness and our ability to forge new paths as an institution.  Of course, it is the people of Carnegie Mellon who make all of this possible.  Last year we saw more major awards for our faculty (election to the national academies and key national awards for junior and senior faculty), students (Churchill, Truman and Goldwater scholarships and a Supreme Court internship) and alumni (two more Nobel Prizes and several Oscar, Emmy and Tony nominations.)  These awards are wonderful examples of our faculty and student excellence and powerful reminders of the knowledge and skills our alumni transfer from Carnegie Mellon to their careers and their communities.

Our faculty and highly gifted students, in every college and school, produced results that had impact in a wide range of areas, from economics, health care, energy and environmental policy, to computer security, new materials, the search for cures for human diseases like cancer and autism, and developments in energy-saving technologies and automated language translation.  Thanks to work by our faculty, staff and students, we have new insights into the history of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the origins of the universe, the history of Blacks in America, and the way humans think, decide and learn.  Thanks to Carnegie Mellon artists, architects and designers, the world is more beautiful and habitable and human lives are more meaningful.

Our accomplishments and our innovation are the product of an entrepreneurial culture supported by a highly decentralized organization.  New initiatives are the result of an organic process, driven by faculty and students.  Still, we do have a strategic plan - the current version approved two years ago - which lays out broad themes, chosen in a widely consultative process and is, thus, indicative of our collective vision about Carnegie Mellon's future directions.  We in the university administration use this strategic plan as a guide in allocating our limited discretionary resources and in setting our fundraising priorities.  I believe the current plan includes excellent priorities on which progress is crucial for maintaining our momentum.

High on the list is energy and the environment, an area that is a global and regional priority as much as it is a university priority.  There has been much progress on this front, including substantially increased funding from the U.S. Government.  Currently, we are part of an exciting new consortium with regional university partners and the U.S. Department of Energy. The consortium will be launched this fall,  and we are planning a new institute within Carnegie Mellon.  Our interests are wide-ranging, but they focus on transitioning from fossil fuels to their alternatives, a very complicated, decades-long process replete with science, technology and policy challenges.  You'll be hearing more about that in the days ahead and in the years to come.

The mysteries of the human brain and human behavior are being revealed and explained with extraordinary speed through fantastic discoveries by Carnegie Mellon scientists and new technologies that result from them.  Our understanding of the way the human brain thinks and learns, which received so much attention last year, is but one example of the superb work coming out of academic units like the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, the Department of Psychology, the Department of Biological Sciences,  the Machine Learning Department, and the Human Computer Interaction Institute.  Our faculty are using these breakthroughs to revolutionize education through the Open Learning Initiative and to shape policy on issues ranging from managing medications to lotteries and homeland security. 

An area rich in opportunities for Carnegie Mellon is data-intensive computing.  This presents both theoretical challenges in computer science and opportunities for breakthroughs in virtually every area of science, as well as management and policy.  The Lane Center for Computational Biology and the McWilliams Center for Cosmology are two leading examples of this.

Of course, the three areas that I've highlighted here are far from the only exciting and important directions we are headed.  Virtually every department on campus has articulated a dynamic agenda and set of priorities that we will seek to advance over the coming three years.  Furthermore, I've learned that three years is a long time in the life of this vibrant, striving university.  There's no telling what else you might come up with during that time!

Pittsburgh Campus Master Plan

Another priority is improving our physical infrastructure.  During the next three years we will complete a new campus master plan, have it approved by the city of Pittsburgh and start to implement it.  In fact, we started this process last year and will continue through this year, during which your input will be sought and welcomed.

While this planning effort proceeds, we are pursuing a modest amount of construction on campus, reflecting our decision to initiate only essential projects and high-priority ones with funding already in place.  In the first category, and most visibly, is the Warner Hall Plaza project.  This area, which is the defacto "front door" and welcome center for the university, has become unsightly, as western Pennsylvania's weather has taken its toll on the plaza's pavement.  But that alone would not have been reason enough to pursue the project at this time of constrained budgets.  There is a membrane under the plaza that protects subsurface office areas from flooding.  The membrane's useful life is well behind us; it has been leaking for several years, and putting off its replacement any longer would have risked significant disruption to essential student support services and costly damage to crucial office space.  Having torn up the surface to replace the membrane, we will take the opportunity to create a more attractive and "green" plaza, within a tight budget for the work, which we expect to be completed in November.

Another very important building project was started in the Mellon Institute last year and will be completed this fall.  This renovated and repurposed space is crucial for much of the research in Biological Sciences.

Over the summer, we replaced the grass on the intramural field at Forbes and Margaret Morrison with artificial turf.  This provides more -- and more durable -- practice and play space for varsity teams, intramural sports and casual recreation.  The new field is a significant improvement over what was there, but we have a long way to go before our athletic and recreational facilities are where we want them to be. 

We also continued to expand and improve student housing.  We acquired and renovated the building at 4700 Fifth Avenue, a former assisted living facility, which has allowed us to reduce the number of properties we rent in Oakland. Much-needed renovations of Roselawn Terrace were also completed.

While construction will be limited in the short-term, the master-planning effort promises to lead to a construction boom in the long term.  I want to emphasize that this is a comprehensive effort, looking at the entire Pittsburgh campus footprint, but with a particular focus on the land we recently acquired from the Carnegie Museums and the Morewood parking lot, which, for us, represent very large potential building sites.  Let me also emphasize that the plan that comes from this effort will take many years to implement.  There have already been many meetings with faculty, staff and students and there will be more.  Your input matters, and it is welcome.

Capital Campaign

"Inspire Innovation," our capital campaign, will receive particular attention from me during the next three years. 

The success of Carnegie Mellon is one of the great stories in higher education.  The transition from a regional technical institute and arts conservatory to a global research university in 40 years - and doing it with very limited resources - has been remarkable.  With a much smaller endowment than our peers, we have leveraged gifts from some wonderful and visionary donors with hard work, innovation and determination to create a unique and important institution.

To me, it's remarkable how much we have achieved and continue to, given the resource constraints we face.  Imagine if we had more money!  We set out seven years ago to raise $1 billion, three times the amount we had raised in our prior campaign.  We gave ourselves 10 years to do it (until 2013), and we are on schedule, despite the financial crisis and global recession. 

Through June 30 of this year, we have raised $654 million. To raise the remaining $346 million by June 30, 2013 will require us to raise money at a rate substantially higher than Carnegie Mellon has ever done before.  Our fundraising success to date has been a team effort, involving the central administration, the colleges, the Board of Trustees and hundreds of alumni around the world.  It will take an even greater effort to reach our goal in three years, but I am optimistic, determined and excited.  Indeed, I find it extremely rewarding to raise money for Carnegie Mellon because no institution I know puts it to such good use.

Budgeting and Financial Management

Another priority for this year and the rest of my presidency is also related to money.  I want very much to create the firmest foundation possible for our annual budgets and future plans, and to put the effects of the financial crisis and economic recession behind us, to the extent possible.

We have felt the effects of the financial crisis in 2008 and the recession of 2009 in two ways.  First, as projected, our investment losses from the year before (2008-2009) led to reduced endowment withdrawals for university operations in 2009-2010 and in the current year.   Based on currently available information, we estimate that our endowment gained approximately 12% last year.  It's a good result, but those gains represent only about a third of what we lost the year before.  It will take some time for the endowment to recover fully. In fact, we project that it will be another three or four years before the endowment income is back to where it was before the recession.  Second, we saw an increase in the need for financial aid among our students.  These factors are what led us to freeze salaries last year and limit raises this year, cut back on construction projects, and to ask academic and administrative units to reduce centrally supported expenditures by 5% and 10% respectively, over a three-year period, with the year past the first of those years As we prepare for final reductions in Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012, the steps we have taken, and the sacrifices you have made, have produced good results, with the university's total operations ending the year with a surplus each of the last several years, including last year. 

Despite these steps and the good overall financial results, the revenues coming into the central administration through, for instance, tuition, gifts, and endowment draw, have been less than the allocations by central to the academic and administrative units to spend.    While the size of this "deficit" is small relative to the university's overall budget-approximately 1 to 2 percent-and deficits perhaps can be excused during economic downturns, still we must work to restore the institution to fiscal balance over the coming few years.   Moreover, this must be done while recognizing the need for some incremental investments if we are to maintain the positive momentum in education and research that underpins future success. And, this must be done without harming the entrepreneurial culture and the relative autonomy of our colleges and departments.    Addressing this will not be simple and, doubtless, will not be painless.  But I am committed to finding a way to resolve this in the next several years.

So there is no confusion, let me emphasize that the university already has a solid financial base, which we have maintained during these difficult times.  Indeed, that has been reaffirmed regularly by external organizations.  Our focus on financial matters has to do with being positioned to pay competitive salaries and maintain our infrastructure for the long term, while being sure that we have the resources and the incentive structure to innovate and to pursue strategic opportunities aggressively - which has always been the key to Carnegie Mellon's success.

International Programs

Most of our campuses and programs outside of Pittsburgh have been thriving.  Carnegie Mellon in Silicon Valley is doing very well with a major increase in enrollments in our master's degree programs and in research activity.  As we graduated our third class from Carnegie Mellon Qatar, we also approached our long-term enrollment target of 100 students in each class.  Our master's degree and doctoral programs (CIT, SCS and MCS) in Portugal are having an impact on that country much more rapidly than one would have expected.  We celebrated the 10th anniversary of our Masters of Software Engineering program with SSN School of Engineering in Chennai, India.  And, we initiated new partnerships and continued existing ones in Singapore, Korea, China and Japan.

The Heinz College's master's degree programs in Adelaide, Australia, are attracting excellent students and graduating highly valued alumni, but it has been more difficult to attract students than we anticipated.  We believe this will change over time, and we are optimistic about our long-term prospects.  In the spring, we agreed to continue those programs for at least another four years. 

As you know, the recession of 2009 was global.  Greece was especially hard-hit, and CIT has decided to suspend temporarily its master's degree program offered there.  Provisions have been made to allow previously enrolled students to complete their degrees, but no new students will be admitted this year.

We will continue to pursue new international opportunities if they extend Carnegie Mellon's reach and impact and adhere to core principles that assure that Carnegie Mellon controls all important aspects of the programs in a manner consistent with university policy.

Community Success:  Diversity

Diversity has been a long-standing priority for me and Carnegie Mellon.  And, we've seen significant success.  Our new freshman class is the most diverse in our history, by far, with African American, Hispanic, and Native American students representing more than 14% of the class.  This summer we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Summer Academy for Math and Science (SAMS) program.  SAMS has enjoyed outstanding success, adding more than 800 underrepresented minorities to the very selective college and university pipeline.

Our progress is gratifying, but we have much yet to do, especially with women and minorities in our graduate student body, our faculty and senior administrative positions.  The Diversity Advisory Council has also identified a new emphasis on meaningful engagement, with the goal of encouraging our community, especially our students, to reap the benefits of being part of a diverse university.

Western Pennsylvania Impact

Carnegie Mellon has been engaged in and has had an impact on the geographic area surrounding our Pittsburgh campus to a significant and unusual degree.  Much of this has been related to company and job creation and most of that has been a result of our technology commercialization efforts. During the last 15 years, Carnegie Mellon has been responsible for creating or attracting more than 200 companies which employ approximately 9,000 people in the Pittsburgh area.  We have enjoyed great success in this domain, and, in fact, Carnegie Mellon is now number two in the country (number one among universities without medical schools) in the number of companies we create per dollar of sponsored research.

We have also been a magnet for global tech companies.  The Collaborative Innovation Center has been an unqualified success.  Google is moving - I prefer to think of them as "graduating" - to Bakery Square in East Liberty in order to have more space for their expansion.  The Intel and Apple research centers will continue in the CIC, and there is much interest from other companies in moving into the space that Google will vacate.

Pittsburgh's success and Carnegie Mellon's role in it have been recognized in many ways over the last year.  The G-20 Summit last September, President Obama's speech in Wiegand Gymnasium in June and ongoing interest from other national policy makers and leaders are all indications of this. 

We will continue to develop and improve our "innovation ecosystem."  The Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation, Project Olympus, the Don Jones Center, external organizations like Innovation Works, the Technology Collaborative, the Life Sciences Greenhouse, the National Energy Technology Laboratory and our collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh are all elements of this.

As you can see, while we have accomplished much, we have a busy agenda for the next three years.  I hope you share my excitement and enthusiasm for the new school year, and I wish you much success. Have a great one!


Jared Cohon
Jared L. Cohon
President, Carnegie Mellon University