Carnegie Mellon University

Letter from the President

The following letter from Dr. Cohon was sent to the university community on January, 21, 2011:

Welcome back to a new semester, a new year, and a new decade.  I hope you had an enjoyable holiday break.

As I think about what's ahead for the university, I am encouraged by our recent accomplishments and our progress in areas of strategic importance.  At the same time, I have to acknowledge that the future is unusually uncertain, due especially to the financial challenges faced by our government. 

Recent Awards

Last semester brought news of major awards earned by our students, faculty and alumni.  Dale Mortensen, who received his PhD in 1967 from the Tepper School, shared the Nobel Prize in Economics.  He is the 19th person affiliated with Carnegie Mellon to receive a Nobel Prize and the third in the last two years.

In a first for Carnegie Mellon faculty, Terrance Hayes, Professor of English, won the National Book Award for Poetry for his collection, "Lighthead."  This is an outstanding honor for Professor Hayes, and it reflects very positively on our marvelous Creative Writing Program in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.  In recognition of the award, November 30, 2010, was proclaimed "Terrance Hayes Day" by Pittsburgh's City Council.

Many faculty received major honors for their achievements, too numerous to list here.  Of particular note, John Anderson, the Richard King Mellon University Professor of Psychology and Computer Science, was named the recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science by the Franklin Institute.

Our faculty are very successful in earning grants in the highly competitive world of U.S. federal sponsored research support.  Some recent major awards include: $16 million from the National Institutes of Health to continue the National Technology Center for Networks and Pathways in the Department of Biology; $6 million from the National Science Foundation to create a Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making based in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy; and, $2.9 million from the Department of Defense for research on therapeutic aids for amputees, especially wounded soldiers, in our Bone Tissue Engineering Center. 

Among the most highly sought after research grants are "Career Awards" awarded to young, untenured faculty by the National Science Foundation and other research agencies. In the last year, more than 20 of our faculty members have received Career Awards, with three awards coming in recent weeks. It was pointed out to me that every current junior faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering has received a Career Award. This is an outstanding achievement, and I congratulate the department (and all other departments that may also have achieved this.).

Our students also have received many awards, bringing distinction to the university. Just this week we received word that Rebecca Krall, a senior physics major, is the second Mellon College of Science student to win a prestigious Churchill Scholarship in the past two years. The scholarship will allow her to pursue graduate studies at Cambridge University¹s Churchill College in the United Kingdom.  In the last month, Derek Lomas, a PhD student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, won the $50,000 grand prize for the best new educational app for tablet computers in a competition sponsored by Marvell Technology Group; and, Lufei Ruan, a PhD student at the Tepper School of Business, finished second in the World Women¹s Chess Championship.

I want to make special note of three other awards and achievements by campus groups.   Carnegie Mellon's Police are the first higher education police force in the State of Pennsylvania to receive re-accreditation and one of the only three to be accredited at all.  We are proud and grateful for the high standards and professionalism of our Campus Police.

Carnegie Mellon is one of only three US universities to be selected by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as "Kauffman Commercialization Leaders" in recognition of the success of our "Project Olympus," founded and led by Computer Science Professor Lenore Blum. This is notable and rare recognition from a Foundation that is widely regarded for its focus on entrepreneurism. 

I received a visit late last year from the leaders of Pittsburgh's Blood Bank to express their appreciation for your contributions throughout the year and for your extraordinary response to the blood shortage during the enormous snowstorm last February.  In recognition of what you did, the Blood Bank made a financial contribution in Carnegie Mellon's name to the Food Bank.  I was moved by this gesture, which was the perfect gift for Carnegie Mellon in light of Staff Council's annual and very successful food drive.  My thanks and admiration go out to John Papinchak, Carole Panno and Katie Lambrou for their leadership of the blood and food drives and to the hundreds of Carnegie Mellon people who gave so selflessly. 


A community of our size loses many people each year, people who leave behind loved ones and friends.  We will miss of all these valued colleagues, but I wish to single out four recent deaths of particular significance to Carnegie Mellon.  Watts Humphrey died in October at the age of 83.  A recipient of the National Medal of Technology, Watts was a founder and early leader of the software engineering field and a major figure in the success of Software Engineering Institute.  Robyn Dawes, who retired last year as the Charles J. Queenan, Jr. University Professor of Psychology, died on December 14 at the age of 74.  Robyn was a pioneer in the field of behavioral decision theory. Edmund Delaney, founder of our weekly 8.5 x 11 News for faculty and staff, died on Dec. 21 at the age of 83. Ed worked with our faculty and students to promote their accomplishments for 33 years before retiring in 2007. Earlier this month, Phil Chosky died at the age of 85.  A 1948 CIT alumnus, Phil had a lifelong love for theater, and he was a major supporter of our School of Drama.  The Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center was named for him in recognition of his support.

Strategic Priorities

In my last letter, I focused on three areas:  energy and environment, brain and behavioral science and data-intensive computing.  Here are some updates.

Our consortium with the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, West Virginia University and Virginia Tech was formally created in October.  The new University Energy Partnership is being directed by Chris Gabriel, our former Vice Provost who returns to the academic world after a stint as a program officer at the Heinz Endowments.  Chris will lead our collective efforts to expand our work with the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

For Carnegie Mellon, energy and environment represent a priority for our own operations, as well as a focus for research and teaching.  We were pleased to have our efforts recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with a 2010 Green Power Leadership Award, signifying that Carnegie Mellon is one of the Nation's 10 largest purchasers of electricity from alternative energy sources.  In fact, 75% of our electricity is green power, and it's on its way to 100%.  Congratulations go to our Green Practices Committee and our Facilities Group.

Our colleagues who study the brain and human behavior continue to produce results that are giving us new insight and understanding and build a foundation on which new applications are created.  The Open Learning Initiative (OLI) was the focus of a session at the fall presidents' meeting of the Association of American Universities, and it is receiving widespread attention for its potential to improve and make more accessible online learning experiences.  On Thursday January 20, there was a special panel presentation open to the university community and other invited guests entitled, "How to Build a Better Brain."

On the international front, we announced in November the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Shiv Nadar Foundation to offer undergraduate engineering programs in India.  Details are still to be worked out, but we look forward to launching this program in the coming year.  

In addition, I am very pleased to report that earlier this week, the World Economic Forum invited Carnegie Mellon to be a permanent member of its Global University Leaders Forum (GULF).  This is a small, elite group of international university leaders that have been chosen to formally engage with the Forum's corporate members on issues of critical importance to the global community.  It is a great honor that Carnegie Mellon has been invited to join the GULF and is one more signal of our growing global recognition.

The development of the university's new master plan has moved along nicely.  There have been many meetings with groups on and off campus.  We expect to complete the plan and submit it to the City of Pittsburgh for approval next month.

Financial Matters

Last year was a good one, with the university ending the year with a surplus, due to better than expected revenues and strong cost control, and with solid investment returns by the endowment.  At the halfway point in the current fiscal year, this strong financial performance has continued.

As we plan the budget for Fiscal Year 2012, which starts this July 1, our priorities are staff and faculty raises, investments in strategically important areas and continued cost control.  As positive as the last 18 months have been, we still likely have years to go before our endowment returns to its pre-recession level.  We will continue to implement the third and final year of the expense reductions that were mandated two years ago.

Our continuing caution with expenses is also prudent given the uncertainty we face in future revenues, especially sponsored research.  The new U.S. Congress is focused on reductions in the federal budget.  The research funding, on which we depend so heavily, is within the "discretionary" portion of the federal budget which is likely to be the focus of cuts.  We don't know how much these cuts will be or how they will affect Carnegie Mellon.  Our faculty have been extraordinarily successful in the highly competitive sponsored research process, but less funding overall will produce even greater competition and possibly reduced revenues.  While the university is positioned well due to the cost control over the last two years, we can't rule out even further reductions if cuts in the federal budget are severe enough.  Such reductions would likely be department and college-specific, not university wide.

Our fundraising campaign, "Inspire Innovation," continues to progress toward its goal of $1 billion by June 30, 2013.  Though the recession has also affected our donors-large and small, alike-I am heartened by the ever-increasing, global recognition of the importance of the education and research conducted at Carnegie Mellon and the desire of prospective donors around the world to invest in our work.  The pace of gifts is beginning to increase, including annual giving by our alumni. Gifts to the campaign now total approximately $690 million, almost 70% more than what we raised in our last campaign.  Anyone who has been through a major fundraising campaign knows the hardest work often comes in the final years.  Given the campaign's importance to the university, today and well into the future, I am continuing to dedicate a substantial portion of my time to meet with alumni, companies, and foundations to ensure the campaign's success.

While acknowledging the uncertainty we face, I view the future with optimism.  The importance of higher education and research for future economic and national success is recognized by both parties.  I will be especially active in reinforcing that message among leaders in Congress and the Administration, both as your president and as the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities.

I wish you all the best for a successful semester and a happy and healthy new year.


Jared Cohon
Jared L. Cohon
President, Carnegie Mellon University