History of Cornell’s Provosts

The office of provost was created at Cornell University on June 15, 1931, when the Board of Trustees amended the then Statutes of the University as follows:

The executive officers of the University shall be the President, the Provost, the comptroller, the Attorney, the Treasurer, and the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, and such assistants and deputies as may be deemed necessary. One person may hold more than one office. The said officers shall be selected by the Board of Trustees or in such other manner as it may provide. (Article III, 5)

The Provost shall be, under the President, the executive officer of the University. He shall be a member of all faculties of the University and shall perform such duties as shall be assigned to him by the Board of Trustees or delegated to him by the President. (Article III-A)

The post of provost was created — according to Morris Bishop (A History of Cornell, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1962) — because “President [Livingston] Farrand, overburdened with the routine of administration, needed an executive officer with power to decide matters on secondary importance, but above the competence of a secretary.”

Albert R. Mann was appointed to the newly created office at the same 1931 Board of Trustees meeting, and quickly fell into the role. Five months later Provost Mann was also named acting president, to allow President Farrand to take a three-month leave of absence. With one brief hiatus (1944-46), Cornell has benefited from the continued presence of a provost at both its Ithaca and New York City campuses.

Interestingly, the Board of Trustees in 1943 briefly considered changing the title of the provost position to vice president. From the Board of Trustee proceedings of October 15, 1943:

The President and several other members of the Committee expressed themselves as opposed to the title of vice president as this title implies a “second-string” man …. It was held that one of the great virtues of the title of provost is its ambiguity. It is not a second-rate title; it is coordinate with that of the President and this position needs a title that will cover that conception of its status.

The trustees continued to discuss the duties of the provost while several acting provosts filled the position. In 1946, the trustees returned the office of the provost to its traditional academic and administrative function.

W. Kent Fuchs


W. Kent Fuchs

Kent Fuchs was appointed Cornell’s provost effective January 2009. He served as the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, 2002-2008. He was formerly the Head of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Michael J. and Catherine R. Birck Distinguished Professor at Purdue University, 1996-2002, and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Coordinated Science Laboratory, University of Illinois, 1985-1996.

During his tenure as provost, Fuchs led the team and strategy that resulted in the winning proposal to create a graduate applied sciences campus on twelve acres of land in New York City. The Cornell Tech campus reported to him as provost. Fuchs also oversaw the development of Cornell’s comprehensive strategic plan focusing on academic stature. In the midst of the Great Recession, Fuchs led the transformation of Cornell’s budget model and a multi-year initiative to reduce administrative costs.

Fuchs received a B.S.E. degree from Duke University, M.Div. degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois.

Fuchs left Cornell in 2014 to become President of the University of Florida.

Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin

2000 – 2008

Carolyn A. Martin

Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin joined the faculty at Cornell in 1984 and, in 1985, received her Ph.D. in German Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1991, she was promoted to associate professor in the Department of German Studies with a joint appointment in the Women’s Studies Program. She served as chair of the Department of German Studies from 1994-97, and in 1997 was promoted to full professor in the department. In 1996, she was appointed senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. A distinguished scholar and author of numerous articles and two books, Martin was appointed Cornell University’s provost in 2000.

During her tenure as provost, Martin established the New Student Reading Project, a common intellectual experience for new students and the Cornell community. She oversaw Cornell’s interdisciplinary Life Sciences Initiative, increased the stature of humanities research and education at Cornell, and placed high priority on recruiting and retaining the best faculty, and keeping Cornell accessible to students regardless of their economic circumstances. In 2008, Martin announced a sweeping new financial aid initiative, eliminating need-based loans for all undergraduate students from families with income under $75,000, making it possible for new students to graduate debt-free.

Martin left Cornell in 2008, having been the longest serving provost in Cornell history, to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her graduate alma mater.

Don M. Randel

1995 – 2000

Don M. Randel

Don Randel received a Bachelor’s degree (1962), a Master of Fine Arts degree (1964), and a Ph.D. degree (1967) from Princeton University. He was a member of the faculty of the Department of Fine Arts at Syracuse University prior to coming to Cornell in 1968. Randel held the Given Foundation Professorship of Musicology at Cornell; his specialty was the music of the Middle Ages. In 1991, while chairman of the Department of Music, he accepted the position of Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Throughout his 31 years at Cornell, Randel was an active participant on numerous university boards and committees. He chaired a task force on undergraduate education and was involved in Cornell’s strategic planning. He also served on the committee on the curriculum and undergraduate education for the College of Arts and Sciences, on the Cornell Society for the Humanities, and on the University Appeals Board.

In 1995, upon assuming the position of provost, he said “my principal aim [as provost] is to ensure that academic and educational principles guide the methods by which we build the budget and not the reverse.” While he was provost, Cornell began to implement the recommendations of a task force on the Division of Biological Sciences, which was commissioned to plan the future of biological sciences at Cornell and to help strengthen the program. He also helped to develop the Cornell Research Scholars Program in 1996, to recruit the best and brightest undergraduate students by offering special research opportunities and financial support. In a lighter vein, he also sponsored an undergraduate competition to determine the exact composition of a large orange object that had been affixed to the spire of Cornell’s McGraw Tower on Uris Library, a prank that gained national media attention. He even allowed himself to be hoisted aloft 173 feet on a chilly March day to retrieve the object, which was later scientifically determined to be a pumpkin.

In 2000 Randel left Cornell to serve as the twelfth president of the University of Chicago. In July 2005, he announced that he had accepted an appointment to the presidency of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and would be leaving the University of Chicago in 2006. The Mellon Foundation is a philanthropic organization dedicated to furthering the arts and humanities. The foundation focuses on five specific areas: higher education and scholarship, libraries and scholarly communications, conservation and the environment, museums and art conservation, and the performing arts.

Malden C. Nesheim

1989 – 1995

Malden C. Nesheim

When Mal Nesheim was elected provost of Cornell in 1989, he knew he needed to get the colleges, divisions, centers, libraries, programs, and other units talking and working together for the university’s common good. When he retired as provost in 1995, Dean Call of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences stated that Nesheim had succeeded, he had “the colleges pulling together, eliminating duplication and working more closely than at any time in the past.”

Nesheim came to Cornell in 1956 to pursue graduate studies in nutrition and physiology after acquiring a B.S. degree (1953) and an M.S. degree (1954) in animal science from the University of Illinois. After obtaining his Ph.D. degree from Cornell, he joined the faculty of the College of Agriculture in 1959 as an assistant professor of animal nutrition, and later became the director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Initially, his interests focused on nutritional chemistry in animals, but his award-winning research was on human nutrition and the interaction of parasitic infection and nutritional status. Under his directorship, the division became recognized as the premier research, teaching, and public-service program for human nutrition in the country.

In 1987, Nesheim became the vice provost for planning and budgeting, and in 1989 was elected provost by the Board of Trustees. As provost he served during a period of major financial adjustment, starting with a round of state and federal funding cutbacks; “a lot of effort had to be put into policies and practices to keep Cornell on a strong financial footing,” he said at the time. His affirmative-action efforts, particularly in faculty recruiting of women and underrepresented minorities, saw some progress as well.

His influence was national. He was president of the American Institute of Nutrition and served on the committee within the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board that wrote the 10th edition of Recommended Dietary Allowances. In New York State, he was responsible for initiating a statewide K-12 educational program in nutrition and a statewide nutritional surveillance program to monitor the well-being of the public.

After retiring from Cornell in 1995, Nesheim chaired the Presidential Commission on Dietary Supplement Labels and worked to ensure that consumers would be able to make informed choices about dietary supplements. He continues to work on Cornell’s behalf. In 2002 he co-chaired a committee to examine Cornell’s land-grant mission, especially those programs related to outreach and extension in the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Human Ecology, and Veterinary Medicine.

Robert Barker

1984 – 1991

Robert Barker

In 1979, Robert Barker came to Cornell as the director of the Division of Biological Sciences. In 1983 he was named Cornell’s vice president for research and advanced studies, and the following year was elected provost of the university by the Board of Trustees.

Before arriving at Cornell, Barker was on the faculty of Michigan State University, where he was a professor in and chairman of the Department of Biochemistry. He received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. degree in 1958 from the University of California at Berkeley. An authority on the biochemistry of carbohydrates, Barker served on many scholarly panels, including those of the National Institutes of Health, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1989 Robert Barker became Cornell’s first (and only) senior provost and chief operating officer, to allow him to focus on strategic planning, including the university’s long-range capital needs, and to stand in on a day-to-day basis for President Rhodes, who was increasingly involved in major university-wide fund-raising efforts. All executive officers who had been reporting to President Rhodes, including the newly appointed provost, Mal Nesheim, switched to reporting to the senior provost.

Provost Barker also served as the first director of the Cornell Center for the Environment, a program committed to research, teaching, and outreach focused on environmental issues. In addition he was a member of the Cornell task force on graduate education, which addressed the need for graduate studies to be represented more strongly in the strategic councils and planning processes of the university. He retired from Cornell in 1995 and moved to Washington State, where he has continued his interest in conservation and environmental issues.

W. Keith Kennedy

1978 – 1984

W. Keith Kennedy

Keith Kennedy first came to Cornell as a graduate student, and in 1941 received an M.S. degree (1941) and a Ph.D. degree (1947) in agriculture and animal nutrition. In 1942 Kennedy left doctoral study at Cornell to serve in the armed services. He returned in 1946 to finish his Ph.D. program, and lived in “Vetsburg,” a Cornell housing community built under Provost Adams. After he got his doctorate, he spent two years in Washington State and came back to Cornell in 1949 to join the faculty as a professor of agronomy. In 1959 Kennedy was appointed director of research in the College of Agriculture, and in 1965 became the associate dean of the college. In 1972 he became the dean and also the director of research of the college, as well as the director of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva (now known as Cornell AgriTech).

In 1978, Kennedy accepted the position of provost at Cornell University. As provost, he balanced the budget for several years in a row — prior to that time, the university’s annual budgets had been in the red for many years, causing a devastating drain on the endowments.

President Frank Rhodes characterized Kennedy “as generous and sensitive an individual as he is forthright, perceptive and capable as an administrator.” Kennedy retired in 1984 and continued to serve Cornell in various roles, including as the acting dean of admissions and financial aid.

In 1990 Cornell honored Keith Kennedy by naming the newly constructed main administrative building for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in his honor. He died in 2011 at age 92.

David C. Knapp

1974 – 1978

David C. Knapp

In 1974, the dean of the College of Human Ecology, David Knapp, was elected provost of Cornell University by the Board of Trustees.

Knapp received a B.A. degree from Syracuse University in 1947 and an M.A. degree and a Ph.D. degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1948 and 1953, respectively. He was awarded a one-year Fulbright Research Scholarship at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in 1959. Knapp then joined the faculty in the government department at the University of New Hampshire, where he remained until coming to Cornell as dean of the College of Human Ecology in 1968. His research interests included intergovernmental relations, natural resources policy, and comparative administration.

Under Knapp’s deanship at Cornell, the Division of Nutritional Sciences was established in the College of Human Ecology. As provost, he encouraged interdisciplinary cooperation between the colleges, and guided the university through a period of severe financial constraint.

Upon his resignation, Knapp was satisfied with “efforts to build responsibility for minority education into the colleges and general University services while maintaining a strong coordinating minority education office” and “rebuilding the admissions, financial aid and other services that support undergraduate education along with efforts to strengthen undergraduate teaching.”

Knapp left Cornell upon his acceptance of the presidency of the University of Massachusetts in 1978. He died in 2010.

Robert A. Plane

1969 – 1973

Robert Plane joined the faculty at Cornell in 1952 as a professor of chemistry. In 1967 he became the chairman of the Department of Chemistry, and in 1969 was elected as a faculty trustee to the Board of Trustees. When Provost Corson was appointed to the presidency in 1969, the trustees elected Plane as the next provost of Cornell.

Plane graduated with a B.A. degree from Evansville College in Indiana in 1948, and he received a Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago in 1951. For a short while he was a research chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. During his tenure at Cornell, he co-wrote the most widely used general chemistry text in the world, Chemistry.

The late 1960s were turbulent on many college campuses, because many students were deeply concerned over the course of the war in Vietnam. Plane led efforts under the COSEP Program (Committee on Special Educational Projects) to admit to Cornell black students who had the potential to succeed academically. Problems in management, such as the assimilation of such students into the campus community, resulted in an increased awareness of latent racial prejudice.

Plane left the provost position in 1973 to return to his professorship in chemistry, saying that “in short, at Cornell I have had more fun being professor than provost.” He subsequently became a member of the Cornell Center for Environmental Quality Management. In 1974, Plane accepted the position of president and chief executive officer of Clarkson University.

In 1985 he retired from Clarkson. He established Plane’s Cayuga Winery and became a part-time winemaker. The following year, he assumed the leadership of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva. He retired from Cornell in 1990 and died at the age of 90 in 2018.

Dale R. Corson

1963 – 1969

Dale R. Corson

Dale Corson received a B.A. degree from the College of Emporia in 1934, an M.A. degree from the University of Kansas in 1935, and a Ph.D. degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1938. In 1940, while at Berkeley, Corson discovered astatine, element 85 in the periodic table. At the end of World War II, he joined the staff of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

Corson came to Cornell University in 1946 as a professor of physics. In 1959 he became dean of the College of Engineering and in 1963 was elected provost by the Board of Trustees. In 1969 he assumed the presidency of Cornell University, upon the retirement of President James Perkins. As president, he led the university through the final years of the Vietnam War and student activism, and through the economic recession of the 1970s. His role was to return the university to stability: to concentration on research, teaching, and scholarship.

After stepping down from the presidency, he chaired major national study groups that delved into such subjects as U.S.-Japanese scientific relations, introduction of modern technology into China, striking a balance between national security and open inquiry at international conclaves, and promoting a free exchange among American leaders of government, science, and industry. He is the only person to receive both the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences and the Beuche Medal from the National Academy of Engineering, two of the nation’s highest honors in science and engineering. Corson also committed much time to studying and talking about the subject he cares most deeply about: the future of the research university.

He died in 2012 at age 97.

Sanford S. Atwood

1955 – 1963

Sanford S. Atwood

Sanford Atwood came to Cornell in 1944 as a professor of plant breeding, and became chairman of the Department of Plant Breeding in 1948. He was the dean of the Graduate School from 1953 to 1955, prior to being elected by the Board of Trustees to the position of provost in 1955.

Atwood received a B.A. degree (1934), an M.S. degree (1935), and a Ph.D. degree (1937) from the University of Wisconsin. His research concerned chiefly alfalfa, clover, and the more-important grasses. He established a large-scale breeding and cytogenic program involving principal hay and pasture species in New York State.

While at Cornell, Atwood held various positions with the Association of Graduate Schools and the Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities. As provost he was a promoter of graduate education and research activities. In 1961, the Board of Trustees assigned Atwood to a major capital fund-raising campaign to culminate with the beginning of Cornell’s Centennial Celebration in 1964. Special emphasis was placed on developing areas of new distinction and interdisciplinary programs, such as a School of Education, construction of a nuclear reactor, and new centers for materials science and international studies. The largest item in the campaign was for faculty salary support.

In 1963 Atwood left Cornell to assume the presidency of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He retired from Emory in 1977. Sanford Atwood died on December 2, 2002, one day short of his ninetieth birthday.

Forrest F. Hill

1952 – 1955

Forrest F. Hill

Forrest “Frosty” Hill received a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1923, and a Ph.D. degree in agricultural economics from Cornell in 1930. Early in his career, he assisted the new Farm Credit Administration (FCA) in Washington, D.C. The FCA was created to finance farm loans during the Depression and to help bail out local banks whose assets were tied up in farm mortgages. He was the governor of the FCA for several years before returning to Cornell in 1940.

For 25 years he served Cornell as a professor of land economics, as chairman of the Department of Agricultural Economics, and as provost of the university. He was involved in studies designed to identify areas of New York State where farming was likely to remain unprofitable because of poor terrain and poor roads. “Frosty” was as much concerned with the families displaced from agriculture as with the land made obsolete because of the technical changes in farming. As provost, he operated under a deficit for most of his tenure, and he became frustrated with the lack of funds. He was very much concerned about the status of the faculty and with improving salaries, stating, “If you don’t have a good faculty, you haven’t got a good university.”

In 1955, Provost Hill resigned from Cornell to be the vice president of overseas development for the Ford Foundation and spent several years working in newly developing countries, where he helped establish international research centers to study how to increase yields on food crops. In 1962 he became chairman of the board of the International Rice Research Institute and was instrumental in seeking and obtaining funding for this and other international agricultural institutes.

Hill retired to Ithaca in 1976 and died in 1988. In his eulogy, Provost Hill was described as a “Cornellian who helped feed the hungry around the world.”

Cornelis W. de Kiewiet

1948 – 1951

Cornelis W. de Kiewiet

Cornelis de Kiewiet was born in the Netherlands, and was brought up and educated in South Africa. He graduated with a B.A. degree (1923) and an M.A. degree (1924) from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and received a Ph.D. degree in 1927 from the University of London.

De Kiewiet came to the United States in 1929 to teach at the University of Iowa. He joined the faculty at Cornell in 1941 as a professor of modern European history. His research interests lay in the history of the British Empire and South Africa, including British colonial policy. De Kiewiet often lectured and wrote about the injustice of apartheid. According to President Day, de Kiewiet was also “a militant spokesman for educational leadership in combating communism and other enemy ideologies” and was known as a “great expounder of the democratic faith.”

During World War II, de Kiewiet served as the director of Cornell University’s Area and Language Program for army personnel. Prior to his election as provost in 1948, he served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

In 1949 President Day resigned for health reasons, and for two years Provost de Kiewiet managed both the provost’s and the president’s duties. It is noteworthy that in his role as acting president of Cornell, de Kiewiet succeeded in presenting a balanced budget to the Board of Trustees after two years of deficit spending. After leaving Cornell in 1951, he accepted the position of president of the University of Rochester.

De Kiewiet left the University of Rochester in 1961 to help address the issue of higher education in the emerging nations of Africa. He died in 1986.

Arthur S. Adams

1946 – 1948

Arthur S. Adams

Arthur Adams was elected provost by the Board of Trustees in 1944 but did not serve in the position until 1946, when he returned from active duty in the Navy. The end of World War II brought rapid expansion to Cornell, because many returning veterans enrolled in the university. Adams’s “roving assignment as a university executive” per President Day included organizing housing for almost 3,000 new and returning students and hiring 200 new faculty members. A new temporary community officially designated as a critical housing area was erected on South Hill for married students and the new faculty members.

Adams was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Submarine School, and obtained an A.M. degree in physics from the University of California in 1926 and an Sc.D. degree in metallurgy from the Colorado School of Mines in 1926. He was a professor of mechanics and an assistant to the president at the Colorado School of Mines prior to coming to Cornell.

While at Cornell, Adams directed the Engineering, Science and Management War Training Program, as well as the diesel engineering course for naval reserve officers. He was recalled to duty in 1942 and re-entered the Navy to organize and direct the V-12 Navy College Training Program. This program was initiated to meet both the immediate and long-range needs for commissioned officers to staff ships, fly planes, and command troops.

In 1948 Adams resigned as provost and accepted the presidency of the University of New Hampshire. In 1950 he was elected president of the American Council on Education. Adams returned to New Hampshire in 1961 and served as a consultant to the New England Center for Continuing Education (1968-1976). He died in Durham, New Hampshire, on November 18, 1980.

H. Wallace Peters

1938 – 1943

H. Wallace Peters

For several years after Provost Mann retired from Cornell, the Board of Trustees discussed and refined the duties of the provost’s office while the position remained vacant. The provost title and the primary function of the job were finally defined to be the “coordination of efforts to increase the University’s financial resources.” President Edmund Day described the following needs of the university: “a new library building, a modernized plant for the Engineering College, new indoor sports buildings for both men and women, increased endowments for salaries and research and funds for these and other purposes must be raised in due course and without much delay.”

Wallace Peters graduated from Cornell with an A.B. degree in 1914 and worked for many years in Detroit in the automotive industry, rising to the vice presidency of Packard Motors. He retired in 1936, came to Ithaca, and served as President Jacob Shurman’s secretary for two years, prior to his appointment as provost in 1938.

During Provost Peters’s tenure President Day stressed that the “designation of Provost does not indicate that the officer would have any educational function or powers but rather would serve as the full-time executive officer of the Committee on Funds for the Endowed Colleges.”

In the period after Peters resigned, from 1944 to 1946, the Board of Trustees continued to discuss the duties of the provost while several acting provosts filled the position: Sherman Peer, an Ithaca-based attorney, and Walter Heasley, Jr., the executive secretary of the Cornellian Council, an alumni fund-raising agency.

Peters died in 1971.

Albert R. Mann

1931 – 1937

Albert R. Mann

The position of provost was created in 1931 by the Board of Trustees to relieve the pressure on the president’s office. Albert R. Mann, the dean of the College of Agriculture, was elected to be Cornell’s first provost.

Mann graduated from Cornell with an undergraduate degree in 1904. He first served Cornell as secretary to the colorful Liberty Hyde Bailey, the dean of the College of Agriculture. Mann became a professor of rural social organization and the registrar for the College of Agriculture in 1915, acting dean in 1916, and dean of the college and director of the Extension and the Experiment Station in 1917. Under Mann’s leadership as dean, the extension service developed into a statewide activity sponsored by the university.

Mann received an M.A. degree from the University of Chicago in 1916 and honorary doctorates from several colleges and universities. During World War I, he left Cornell for a short time to be the federal food administrator for New York State. After resigning as Cornell’s provost in 1937, Mann became the director of southern education of the Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored General Education Board.

While at Cornell, Mann made many efforts to upgrade the library — what he called the “educational center” of the university. Tragically, he died in 1947, shortly before construction of the agriculture, food science, and biosciences library that now bears his name.