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College of Arts and Sciences

A&S dean leaves legacy of support for students, faculty

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
June 5, 2018

As Gretchen Ritter ’83 leaves her post this year as the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts & Sciences, faculty, staff and alumni are offering accolades for her tireless fundraising efforts, her strong support of innovations in both teaching and research and her devotion to enhancing the college’s programs for first-generation and low-income students.

As a tribute, more than 55 members of the Arts & Sciences Advisory Council, alumni and friends of the college, as well as current and former senior associate deans and other staff, who have worked closely with Ritter, contributed $634,000 in gifts to create the Gretchen Ritter ‘83 First Generation Scholarship fund.

Gretchen Ritter stands by a plaque commemorating the Gretchen Ritter ‘83 First Generation Scholarship fundA plaque in Klarman Hall honors Dean Ritter and the new scholarship in her name, which supports first-generation students.

“Gretchen has accomplished so much as a dean; it’s a long list,” said John Siliciano, Cornell’s deputy provost and professor of law. Her many achievements, Siliciano noted, included bringing Klarman Hall to completion as a home for the humanities, launching of a review of the undergraduate curriculum of Arts and Sciences, restructuring of the college’s advising and admissions offices, overseeing a period of extraordinary hiring in the college in the face of budget challenges and “winning more than her fair share of retention battles.”

Dean Ritter visits with faculty, staff and guests at the reception for the dedication of Klarman Hall.Dean Ritter visits with faculty, staff and guests at the reception for the dedication of Klarman Hall.

Increasing the diversity of faculty and students has been a priority under Ritter’s leadership. Over the course of her deanship, the number of African-American faculty in the college has increased by 33 percent, while the number of Hispanic/Latinx faculty has increased by 21 percent. Of 16 completed retention efforts involving diverse faculty in the past five years, 13 were successful retentions showing an 80 percent success rate. Likewise, the percentage of underrepresented minority students in the college’s freshman class grew from about 18 percent to 27 percent over the course of her deanship.

“Gretchen has been a fantastic supporter of the Latina/o Studies Program, and I could not ask for a better or more thoughtful collaborator,” said Debra Castillo, Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, Emerson Hinchliff Professor of Hispanic Studies, professor of comparative literature and director of the Latina/o Studies Program. “She encouraged the program to expand our reach by collaborating with Science and Technology Studies, enabling us to hire a postdoc. She was also instrumental in a key retention case and has provided leadership in supporting other faculty as well.”

“Gretchen has consistently demonstrated the courage of her convictions, staying the course over bumpy roads that are inevitable in any liberal arts college these days, and certainly at Cornell,” said Barbara Baird, the Horace White Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, who served as senior associate dean under Ritter. “Her many important contributions include attracting record-breaking philanthropy to support faculty across the disciplines and developing innovative new programs in research and teaching.”

Ritter’s philanthropic focus resulted in more than $170 million raised during her five years as dean, the launch of a $40 million Winokur Future Faculty Initiative, an annual fund that has consistently grown and numerous other substantial gifts. These funds helped to launch Cornell Neurotech and the Milstein Program in Technology & Humanity and expand the college’s Active Learning and Data Science initiatives.

At an event marking the launch of the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, Dean Ritter emphasized the importance of liberal arts and sciences education in the 21st Century.At an event marking the launch of the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, Dean Ritter emphasized the importance of liberal arts and sciences education in the 21st Century.

On a more personal level, many faculty say Ritter encouraged and supported them, taking a close interest in their work.

“She was someone who I could engage and talk to,“ said Jamila Michener, an assistant professor of government. “In all of my interactions with Gretchen, it felt like she really cared about my research and about me in general.”

During her time as dean, Ritter often outlined her vision for the college, focusing on faculty recruitment, renewal and retention; strengthening research, scholarship and creative works; embracing innovation and the liberal arts; renewing the college’s commitment to undergraduate teaching; and recruiting the best and brightest students who are also best suited for Cornell.

To achieve that goal, Ritter pushed the college to do more for first generation and low-income students, including establishing a Summer Scholars Institute and a guaranteed summer internship program for sophomores. She also introduced a new advising seminar in fall 2017 as a pilot for improving pre-major advising for all students, and particularly for first generation and low-income students. This successful pilot is expanding further in fall 2018 to include 500 first-year students with a goal to include all first-year students in the college.

Dean Ritter led a pilot advising seminar in fall 2017.Dean Ritter led a pilot advising seminar in fall 2017.

“Transitioning to college can be stressful for anyone, and the advice of family members who’ve been through it before is so invaluable,” said Mary Meduski ’80, president and chief financial officer of TierPoint and a member of the College of Arts & Sciences Advisory Council. “From my experience, first generation students may lack this knowledgeable support base, so it is critical to provide additional resources — such as these new Arts & Sciences programs — to fill the gaps and level the playing field.”

Alumni say the new scholarship in her name is a recognition of those efforts.

“Helping first generation students succeed is a signature of Gretchen’s tenure as Dean,” said Franci Blassberg ‘75, chair of the Arts & Sciences Advisory Council and of council at Debevoise & Plimpton. “We hope this scholarship will be meaningful to her and to many first gen students in the years ahead.”

Dean Ritter made listening to students one of her top priorities.Dean Ritter made listening to students one of her top priorities.

“As a first-generation student myself, I know how challenging it can be to come to Cornell without having had access to the same resources as other students,” said Eileen Nugent ’75, partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and a member of the Arts & Sciences Advisory Council. “I’m thrilled that the College is taking such meaningful steps to support first generation, low income students and I’m grateful for Gretchen’s leadership, deep understanding and care for the issues these students face.”

David Taylor, associate dean of administration for the college, said Ritter’s motivations never wavered from what was best for the college.

“There has not been one decision that she has made that has been about her,” Taylor said. “It’s been about cross-disciplinary research; hiring, retaining and supporting our finest faculty; it’s about innovating and supporting our undergraduates.”

 Dean Ritter leads students during graduation processions.

Dean Ritter leads students during graduation processions.

To make a gift to the Gretchen Ritter ’83 First Generation Scholarship fund, contact Katherine Anderson, interim associate dean, College of Arts & Sciences, Cornell University, 130 East Seneca Street, Suite 400, Ithaca NY 14850 or give online at (Click “give now,” then the selection button and choose “Other – Arts & Sciences,” then “continue” and type in “Gretchen Ritter ‘83 First Generation Scholarship” in the “other” box.)