The Philosopher

By Randy Noles


Rollins President Grant Cornwell Inherits a Thriving College that Faces Some Fundamental Questions.

Grant H. Cornwell has spent his entire academic and professional career at small but well-regarded liberal arts institutions. He has definite — even passionate — opinions about the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education.
Grant H. Cornwell has spent his entire academic and professional career at small but well-regarded liberal arts institutions. He has definite — even passionate — opinions about the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education.

The 14 individuals who served as president of Rollins College, from Edward P. Hooker (1885-1892) to Lewis M. Duncan (2004-2014), were certainly an eclectic bunch. Some were much beloved, some were merely tolerated, and one, Paul Wagner in 1951, was literally run out of town accompanied by a police escort.

Some were innovators, some were fundraisers and some were placeholders. A few, however, were so revered professionally and personally that they became legendary figures on campus and throughout the broader community.

Grant H. Cornwell, 58, was named the college’s 15th president in February. He assumed the post in July and has been on campus since mid-August. He had, since 2007, been president of the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, outside Cleveland.

Where Cornwell will ultimately rank in the pantheon of Rollins presidents is obviously yet to be determined. But there’s a palpable sense that the lanky 6-foot-4 philosopher — an affable, articulate intellectual with proven administrative prowess — is precisely the type of leader Rollins needs at this point in its 130-year history.

There were originally 162 applicants for the position, and all four finalists were sitting college presidents, says Allan Keen, a Winter Park developer and board of trustees member who headed the search committee.

Cornwell, Keen adds, was ultimately a unanimous pick. “It was a very tough decision because of the quality of the candidates,” he adds. “After we had our finalists, it took four days to reach a strong consensus. But once we did, we felt like it was a great choice for the college.”


“This is going to be a busy place soon,” Cornwell says, surveying the vast emptiness of the first-floor reception area at the Barker House. The second floor of the Spanish Mediterranean-style structure on Lake Virginia serves as the college president’s official residence.

“A place like this is really a community center,” Cornwell continues. “It’s a place to build networks and share our common vision.” He noted that during his last year at Wooster, he and his wife, Peg, hosted more than 2,200 people at the president’s house.

Later in the day, at a series of on-campus introductory events, Cornwell told students, staffers and faculty that “I hope to welcome you all through our doors as soon as possible. It’ll take a while to get you all there, but in time I’ll bet you’ll all get there for one reason or another.”

Cornwell takes the helm of a highly regarded, financially solid institution boasting a rich history and a charming campus recently dubbed the most beautiful in the U.S. by the Princeton Review. But Rollins hasn’t been without its share of drama lately.

On paper, the presidency of Cornwell’s predecessor, Lewis Duncan, appeared extraordinarily successful. The “Duncan Decade” saw the launch of two wildly popular community outreach programs: the Winter Park Institute and the Center for Lifelong Learning. The Archibald Granville Bush Science Center was built, and numerous campus buildings were renovated.

Rollins maintained its impressive regional and national rankings among liberal arts colleges and MBA programs, while its endowment and capital assets tripled to more than $430 million. Undergraduate enrollment surged, and the number of international students soared by 72 percent.

Yet Duncan, a brilliant physicist who had once led Dartmouth College’s engineering school, was never embraced by many faculty members, some of whom found him to be autocratic and suspected that he never truly embraced the purity of the college’s liberal arts mission.

In late 2011 the College of Arts & Sciences faculty voted to censure Duncan after he failed to consult with them prior to launching a College of Professional Studies, through which students could earn an undergraduate degree in business.

(Although the Crummer Graduate School of Business had offered MBAs since 1957, Rollins had dropped its undergraduate business major in 1980, under President Thaddeus Seymour.)

In 2013 the Arts & Sciences faculty — many of whom complained that Duncan not only failed to involve them in decision making but also disrespected them personally and professionally — issued a vote of no confidence in his leadership. He stepped down in May of 2014.

So Duncan’s issues with the faculty encompassed both his leadership style and his vision of what a liberal arts college ought to be. The Arts & Sciences faculty liked neither the way the [College of Professional Studies] was formed nor the idea of the college,” says Carol Lauer, a professor of anthropology and president of the faculty organization.

It’s into that hornet’s nest — albeit a lovely and seemingly serene hornet’s nest — that Cornwell has stepped. However, he seems to understand, in ways that perhaps Duncan didn’t, how to avoid getting stung.

“Of all the great things [Duncan] did, his communication wasn’t the best, especially near the end,” says Keen. “So, high on our list was someone who had a passion for the liberal arts and was also collegial and communicative.”

With the charismatic Cornwell, the committee was able to check all those boxes. He has spent his entire career at small liberal arts colleges, and has very definite — even passionate — opinions about the value of a liberal arts education. He has spoken and written extensively on the topic and, in the world of academia, is considered a national thought leader.

“Since around 2008 there’s been a drift toward thinking of college as being just for job training,” he says. “That’s tremendously shortsighted. I lament it.”

In his final convocation address at Wooster, an excerpt of which was published in the Huffington Post, Cornwell argued that a liberal arts education has intrinsic value because it fosters independent thinking and encourages social responsibility.

“A liberal education is an expansion of consciousness,” he said. “With every book read, every natural or social system grasped, every theory put to the test and employed, we become persons with greater scope and agency. Every book or poem, film or equation, image or idea that we struggle to grasp expands and complicates our souls and enlarges our capacities to make meaning of the world and effect change.”

But none of that necessarily means that the College of Professional Studies is going anywhere. Cornwell says there is “absolutely” a place for a professionally oriented curriculum — and even an undergraduate business degree — at a liberal arts college.

“How we organize ourselves is fluid and might change,” he says. “But we do need to come to a consensus on one mission, one set of goals.”

Lauer, who served with Keen on the search committee, says that she and other faculty members have already raised the contentious issue in face-to-face meetings with their new boss.

”[Cornwell] started joking that we couldn’t speak to him for more than 10 minutes without this topic coming up,” she says. “My sense is that the new college is here to stay. But I hope we can do a better job of coordinating activities among the colleges and move toward a cohesive ‘one Rollins.’”

Cornwell, as it happens, is a savvy consensus builder. When he was hired at Wooster, he was eager to change certain aspects of the curriculum and the culture. But he chose to do so in a deliberate fashion — and only after achieving buy-in from the college’s various constituencies.

During a 2011 interview with Smart Business, a magazine covering  Akron’s corporate community, Cornwell described his early challenges at Wooster using language that a new-ly hired corporate CEO would have appreciated:

“[Colleges] are very traditional, tradition-bound places, and that pretty much creates a kind of stability that protects the integrity of the mission through time,” he told a reporter. “For the most part, that’s a very good thing. At the same time … when there’s a leadership transition, it’s a time when nearly everything needs to be rethought.”

He added: “One critical element of success is the ability to articulate and communicate a vision in a way that’s inspiring to others, because it doesn’t do any good to have a brilliant vision for a place if nobody else is inspired by that vision. Communication is critical.”

Lauer’s impression of Cornwell is that, whatever he chooses to do, it will be well thought out, carefully vetted and openly discussed.

“I think Dr. Cornwell brings a breath of fresh air to the college,” she says. “The more time I spend with him, the more I’m impressed with his openness, his humor and his collaborative style.”

Those familiar with the colorful history of Rollins know that its most successful presidents — such as Seymour, now a beloved president emeritus — have been extraverted sorts who embrace the college’s quirks and solicit input from the sometimes-fractious faculty before launching major initiatives.

As the Duncan episode demonstrates, Cornwell will need his considerable interpersonal skills to achieve consensus on the central questions facing the college: How does a liberal arts institution continue to thrive in an environment where return on investment seems to have become the only metric that matters?  What should a Rollins degree really mean?

“That’s the work in front of me,” Cornwell says. “That’s what I’ve been brought here to do. We’re a team, and we need to work together to build a common purpose.”

There’s at least one simmering concern that Cornwell may need to address sooner rather than later. Earlier this summer, the community was surprised and dismayed when the contract of two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins wasn’t renewed.

Collins was senior distinguished fellow at the Winter Park Institute, a Rollins program that brings internationally known artists, authors, performers, politicians and others to Winter Park for free public presentations.

The poet’s abrupt departure, apparently a result of budgetary considerations, left legions of supporters wondering if the institute itself might also be in danger.

“I wasn’t making that call,” says Cornwell of the decision to let Collins go, leaving open the possibility that a renewed relationship might still be possible. “The Winter Park Institute is a great cultural and intellectual asset. I’m a fan. I imagine it will continue.”

Gail Sinclair, the institute’s executive director and scholar in residence, is cautiously optimistic that a resolution with Collins can be reached.

“Billy Collins was [the institute’s] inaugural scholar, and has been an integral part of our programming since then,” Sinclair says. “Our hope is that we will in some way be able to continue this valued relationship.”

(At press time Collins’ currently non-existent affiliation with the institute was still being promoted on the college’s website.)

Keen, a past chair of the institute’s advisory board, left little doubt that the program was safe, even if Collins’ affiliation with it was in flux.

“Things like the Winter Park Institute are part of what attracted Grant here,” he says. “I can tell you that the institute means a lot to me. It also means a lot to Grant.” Collins, who lives in Winter Park, couldn’t be reached for comment but is said to be open to discussions.

Obviously, with so much still to learn, the new president is choosing to err on the side of caution when making public pronouncements.

“I sense some pent-up urgency,” says Cornwell, who describes himself as a person inclined toward taking action. “But a little patience is called for.”


Cornwell was born in Aurora, Illinois. His family moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, when his father was transferred to IBM’s White Plains, New York, corporate headquarters. He spent summers with his grandparents, who owned a cabin in northeast Minnesota’s Iron Range.

“When you ask me where I’m from, I’m just as likely to say Minnesota as Illinois or Connecticut,” says Cornwell, who developed a lifelong love for the outdoors as a result of those childhood excursions.

He wanted to be a medical doctor, in part due to the influence of his mother, who had majored in chemistry at Skidmore College. Like his father, Cornwell enrolled at St. Lawrence University, a small liberal arts college in Canton, New York, where he took a tentative first step toward a medical career by majoring in biology.

However, in true liberal arts fashion, Cornwell explored other disciplines and found a new calling. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I felt dissatisfied intellectually,” he says. “So I took an array of courses. You have to find what really moves you. For me, I became enthralled by philosophy.”

Cornwell ended up with a bachelor’s degree in both biology and philosophy in 1979. “All disciplines are essentially different ways of approaching the analysis and resolution of important questions,” he says. “As an undergraduate, I was concerned with some questions biology was best suited to address, and others that philosophy was best equipped to grapple with.”

Following graduation, after a stint living in Germany, Cornwell enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he eventually earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy.

In 1980, having just started graduate school, Cornwell married Marguerite “Peg” Kelsey, whom he had met when both were students at St. Lawrence. Peg had moved to the Windy City and landed a job with Chemical Bank, eventually becoming assistant vice president.

In 1992 the couple returned to St. Lawrence, where Cornwell’s academic career began as associate dean of the college’s first-year program. He then became a philosophy professor and chair of the philosophy department before moving up to vice president and dean of academic affairs.

At St. Lawrence, Peg served as director of career planning and later as director of the Leadership Academy, a program devoted to developing leadership skills in students.

“I figured we’d be lifers at St. Lawrence,” says Cornwell, who felt at home on the familiar campus. “I was a peer with people who had been my mentors.” He and his family — including sons Tosh, now 22, and Kelsey, now 26 — also cherished time spent at their cabin in the Adirondacks, where they enjoyed snowshoeing and sailing.

Then the opportunity at Wooster presented itself, and Cornwell found the institution’s mission “too compelling” to ignore. He was named president of the college — founded shortly after the Civil War by the Presbyterian Church — in 2007.

There he was credited with advancing Wooster’s diversity and global engagement and strengthening student recruitment efforts, which led to new records for admission applications during each of his last three years at the helm.

“As much as I loved teaching, I found that I also loved to start programs,” Cornwell says. And at Wooster he did just that, launching the Center for Diversity and Global Engagement, which encompassed multi-ethnic and international student affairs as well as interfaith campus ministries.

Martha Nussbaum, the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, praised the center in her book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, calling it “a model of responsible teaching in several areas of human diversity.”

Cornwell also started the Collaborative Research Environment, to bolster mentored undergraduate research, and APEX (Advising, Planning and Experiential Learning), an integrated model that combined teaching with academic and career guidance.

While at Wooster, Peg — always a professional partner with her husband — served as associate to the president for community, trustee and parent relations, creating a 250-member Parents Leadership Council and playing an active role in promoting the college. (She will have comparable responsibilities at Rollins.)

In addition to demonstrating a knack for starting innovative programs, Cornwell proved himself to be a prodigious fundraiser.

On May 29, months after the announcement that he was leaving for Rollins, Wooster raised a record-setting $40 million in one day, more than half of which went toward construction of an integrated life sciences center. One donor kicked in an unexpected $5 million, $1 million of which was specifically for the establishment of a scholarship honoring the Cornwells.

Such affection — and generosity — toward a president who had just announced his resignation must surely have resonated with the Rollins trustees, who had undoubtedly grown weary over the growing turmoil surrounding Duncan.

In addition to his achievements at St. Lawrence and Wooster, Cornwell has served with an array of important organizations and produced some serious scholarship.

He’s a member of the Global Literacy Advisory Board, a joint venture between the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. He also serves on the board of directors of the American Association of Colleges & Universities.

Cornwell’s publications include books and journal articles on such topics as multiculturalism, global citizenship and the future of the liberal arts. He even produced a CD-ROM called Sugar Estates of St. Kitts: An Interpretive Essay of Plantation Heritage Sites, which primarily uses photographs and voices to tell the story of the sugar industry on the small Caribbean island.

An educator at heart, Cornwell labels himself as both a college president and a professor of philosophy on his CV. That small gesture made a big impression on Keen and others, who sought a leader who would nurture the college’s historic commitment to great teaching.

“At Wooster, I would mentor philosophy majors in their senior research projects,” Cornwell says. “I love to teach; it keeps me grounded in our core mission. Will I teach at Rollins? I hope so, but for the foreseeable future I’m too busy learning.”


Clearly, Cornwell is energized by Rollins and impressed by how closely the college and the community are intertwined. “At St. Lawrence,” he says, “the college is the town.”

Winter Park, Cornwell notes, is a vibrant place with a diversified economy in which the college plays an integral role. “Part of what attracted me to Rollins is its relationship to Winter Park,” he says.

Plus, Cornwell believes that the college’s Central Florida location will facilitate attracting a more multicultural student body. That’s a priority, he says, along with bolstering financial aid programs.

In addition to the Winter Park Institute, he cites the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park — a separate organization housed at Rollins and headed by John Sinclair, chairman of the college’s music department — as the kind of high-profile program that binds the community and the institution.

Cornwell is also excited by the Rollins athletic program. Although Wooster fielded 23 highly competitive varsity teams, including football, the Fighting Scots competed at the NCAA Division III level, meaning no athletic scholarships were offered.

Rollins, which doesn’t play football, also has 23 varsity teams. But the Tars compete at the NCAA Division II level, where scholarships are allowed and recruiting is fierce. The college has won 23 national championships —12 of those for women’s golf — and 67 Sunshine State Conference titles.

“I’m a believer that student athletes learn things that are part of a liberal education,” says Cornwell, who spent one season as a power forward at St. Lawrence. “These students make dual commitments and the demands are very rigorous. They learn work ethic, problem-solving and self-discipline.”

When asked by an interviewer at WPRK, the campus radio station, if he’d be attending any basketball games, Cornwell was unequivocal: “You’re going to see us at all the games; Peg and I will be at every game.”

Cornwell thinks a college president needs seven or eight years to make his or her mark. “So I’m here for a while,” he says. For now he’s getting accustomed to his new surroundings. And he’s planning to unwind by joining in noontime faculty-staff basketball games.

So will the new president be an innovator, a fundraiser or a placeholder? It seems a safe bet to rule out placeholder and expect a combination of innovator and fundraiser.

But as change-oriented as Cornwell is, he’s also steeped in academia and respects the importance of collegiate traditions — as long as they aren’t so hidebound that they hinder progress.

He may have expressed his stance best in that revealing 2011 Smart Business interview. He was talking about Wooster, but could just as easily have been referring to Rollins:

“Tradition is not something that needs a lot of care and feeding. If anything, you have to always say, ‘Listen, we value these traditions, but we have to have them be dynamic traditions.’ Tradition doesn’t mean you do things the way you’ve always done them; it means that you hold on to a sense of yourself while you continually innovate.”

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