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October 16, 2012

Cohon's Cèilidh Address Reflects on CMU's Values

By Heidi Opdyke

Among the most interesting interdisciplinary stories that President Jared L. Cohon has seen at Carnegie Mellon is a student who double majored in biology and bassoon.

"She wasn't a biology major who took music appreciation. She was a bassoon major and all that that entails, practicing six hours a day," he said during his annual Cèilidh Weekend address. "And she was also a biology major, and that's what students are doing here. It creates a remarkable combination," he said.

He described many of the creative ways that Carnegie Mellon people approach subjects they are passionate about as he reflected on what he has seen at the university in the past 16 years. But, Cohon noted for the alumni in the audience, that as much as things change, some things stay the same.

"The same values that provided the organizing scaffold for the university that you attended 50, 60 years ago, are the same values we celebrate today: hard work; a commitment to real-world problem solving and making a difference in the world; and collaboration and teamwork," he said.

Those traits are making things happen outside of Carnegie Mellon. He shared that the university has been working to help southwest Pennsylvania through its commitment to generating more spinoff companies. The university is now second in the country for the number of startups per research dollar.

"The impact on Pittsburgh has been fabulous," said Cohon who noted that university research also has affected the region  - from its focus on energy to recent advances in life sciences.

Cohon spoke about training students to work in a global economy. Not only does CMU have a presence around the world with campuses and programs, but a diverse international student population benefits everyone on campus.

"We see this as a positive thing. Not only for those [international] students but also U.S. students. They interact in meaningful ways with students from different places. Why do we care about this so much? ... The day they walk out of here, wherever they work, whatever they are doing they're going to be part of a global economy that's totally connected. And if they're not comfortable working across cultures, not comfortable being in other countries, then they're not going to be successful."

Cohon said current and future challenges and opportunities for the university include the cost of education and online learning. Over the past 30 years, the cost of private education has gone up by a factor of six, compared to a cost of living that has increased two and a half times.

The model education uses hasn't changed much since Socrates - the so called "sage on a stage." "You can get more students in the room, but there's a limit to that and there's a loss in quality when the class gets too big," he said.

"As expensive as Carnegie Mellon is, it's worth it. It's absolutely worth it. I have no doubt or qualification in saying that to you and I have the data to prove it. They even rank us on that."

According to's Sept. 25, 2012, rankings that studied the returns on investment for education, Carnegie Mellon ranked second among private universities and 21st overall.

Cohon said the university is working on addressing the expense of education not only at Carnegie Mellon but for all educational institutions by improving online learning resources.

Cohon also addressed his own future plans. After the presidential transition on June 30, 2013, he will be taking up his faculty position in the College of Engineering and will be teaching in the Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Engineering and Public Policy departments.

"I have more trepidation in going back to the faculty than I had in becoming president. The standards are high. I don't want to be deadwood, I really want to make a contribution. The departments are wonderful and they've been very welcoming to the idea of my coming back to teach."