Kathleen Gemmell was so busy sending just one more update of a department chair’s handbook that she was a few minutes late to her own retirement party.
That says a lot about Gemmell’s commitment to her job as director of planning, policy & academic support for the College of Arts and Sciences, a position she has held for 42 years. She was celebrated Sept. 15 during a Zoom retirement party that featured current dean and senior associate deans, as well as two former deans of the college and numerous faculty and staff.
Gemmell wore many hats in her role, including spearheading external review processes for each of the college’s 27 departments and compiling and analyzing data on everything from financial projections and course enrollments to faculty salaries, promotion rates and demographics. She also helped to draft and revise many of the college’s core policy documents and worked closely with the deans and College computer staff to shape databases and systems for course evaluations and annual reporting.
“Kathleen, you have challenged us to ask important questions, you have helped define the information necessary to answer those questions, and you have shaped the methodologies to gather and interpret that information so that the right conclusions could be reached,” said Ray Jayawardhana, Harold Tanner Dean of Arts & Sciences. “Long before the term ‘evidence-based decision-making’ became part of the everyday lexicon in professional circles, you understood that unless we had facts and figures before us to guide our thinking, our decisions would not be up to the task.”
Gemmell said she found a home at Cornell and in her role. Although she spent her entire professional career in work related to higher education, before coming to Cornell, she typically stayed in a job for only three years.
“This was the perfect place to work. I have had such good friendships with faculty and staff and have been universally impressed by the caliber of people I’ve had the chance to work with,” she said. “Plus, I appreciated the lack of hierarchy here. I found the College to be a very democratic place to work.”
Former dean Gretchen Ritter, now the vice provost and executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University, said Gemmell embodied the kind of breadth that the College offers to its students. “You’re someone who is analytical, but at the same time you are a beautiful writer,” Ritter said. “You spend time thinking about things from different angles. You are willing to go deep to figure out the history of an issue and understand the different perspectives.”
Former dean Peter Lapage, Tisch Family Distinguished University Professor of physics, went through past emails from Gemmell as he thought about their work together.
“I found email after email filled with tables, graphs and plots, but I also found emails about Seamus Heaney, Beowulf and other poetry suggestions and about your work with refugees through the Ithaca City of Asylum,” he said. “If you have to spend hours working with someone, it really helps if they’re an interesting person. Thank you for being an interesting person.”
Gemmell said during her last few days, she had lots of office clean-up to do from the past 42 years.
“I kept thinking of things that should be done and so I did them,” she said. “Working at Cornell has been a tremendous pleasure and a privilege for me.”