Oct. 31, 2011

Cornell Public Service Center applauded for 20 years of outreach and service

Several dozen Cornellians gathered at the Midtown Loft and Terraces in Manhattan, Oct. 28, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Cornell Public Service Center, an institution that nurtures Cornell's outreach and service missions through community partnerships.

"What began as a program with a particular focus on students," said Susan H. Murphy '73, Ph.D '94, vice president for student and academic services, "is now known for its involvement not only of students, but faculty, staff and even Cornell alumni." Today, more than 8,000 students and 12,000 alumni have engaged in service learning courses and co-curricular activities through the Cornell Public Service Center.

Robert S. Harrison '76, chairman-elect of the Cornell Board of Trustees and the chief executive officer of the Clinton Global Initiative, recognized the center's achievements as well as the leadership of Leonardo Vargas-Mendez, who has served as the center's executive director for 11 years.

"The center's achievements in embedding the service-learning and community involvement in the fabric of the Cornell experience has been nothing short of visionary," said Harrison.

Like many Cornell graduates, Harrison's experience with public service began as an undergraduate. "I spent my summer after my junior year at Cornell on Capitol Hill," Harrison said of his time working for Congressman Jack Murphy. "My main job was to arrange field hearings in places where there was actually [oil] drilling so the congressmen on that committee could see and hear firsthand from people with various perspectives on the issue."

Just as the Cornell Public Service Center brings students together with leaders in the community, so did Harrison's experiences in Washington, D.C.

On a flight at the time, when a congressman asked Harrison about his future, Harrison responded that he liked working on "the Hill" and dealing with big public policy issues. The congressman said "that I had a bad case of Potomac fever; that I should get over it, go to professional school, and get involved in public service when I had more to contribute than just enthusiasm."

Chris Dodd, then a freshman congressman from Connecticut, concurred with that advice. "Come back to Washington when it needs you more than you need it," Dodd told Harrison.

"I never forgot that advice," said Harrison, whose curriculum vitae includes a Rhodes scholarship, a J.D. from Yale University, corporate legal practice at Davis Polk & Wardwell, and investment banking at Goldman Sachs. "I enjoyed both of those careers very much, but I always knew since that summer internship in Washington, that at some point I would have a third chapter in public service," he said.

Today, Harrison is living out that chapter as the CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative, a foundation that has channeled $63 billion in commitments to address worldwide challenges such as economic empowerment, leadership, sustainability and public health.

This excellence in public engagement, demonstrated by the Public Service Center's success, is a trait Cornell and the Clinton Global Initiative share, he said. "In the coming decades," Harrison said, "no university on earth is better positioned than Cornell to deliver on a great promise and to move the needle on these challenges."

Claire Lambrecht '06 is a freelance writer in New York City.