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Make Big Plans: Cornell Olin Lecture

Resource type: Speech

Christopher G. Oechsli, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies |

Atlantic President and CEO Christopher G. Oechsli joined Cornell University President Emeritus Frank H. T. Rhodes for a conversation about Atlantic’s founder, Chuck Feeney, and the vision and values behind the foundation’s grantmaking at Cornell and around the world.

At the event, Hunter R. Rawlings III, Cornell’s interim president, also announced three new Atlantic grants to Cornell. Watch the full video below and read the transcript of Oechsli’s remarks.

At the 2016 Olin Lecture, Atlantic President and CEO Christopher G. Oechsli discussed Charles Feeney’s vision in establishing The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Thank you, President Rawlings. And thank you to your colleagues – in particular, Amy Russ – who have been so supportive, not just on this visit but in continuing to build on a long and strong relationship between Cornell University and The Atlantic Philanthropies.

I am privileged to be here on Cornell’s beautiful campus. I have spent these last couple of days with some exceptional faculty and leaders who are dedicated to addressing some of the great challenges of our times.

I am here on behalf of Chuck Feeney – class of 1956 – and Atlantic staff, of which there have been over 400 since Chuck created the Atlantic Foundation in 1982.

It is not Chuck’s style to speak about himself or his work. Forbes magazine famously referred to him as the James Bond of philanthropy. If we didn’t know from his biography by Conor O’Clery that he was from New Jersey we might be forgiven for thinking he was from Missouri as Forbes magazine has also accurately referred to Chuck as “a show me, not tell me” kind of guy.

This year, as Atlantic concludes our final grantmaking, we want to share Chuck and Atlantic’s story in ways that will inform, influence and inspire others.

This effort includes our recent grant to Cornell to house Atlantic’s archives. We are excited about our partnership with Cornell to keep these stories about Chuck and Atlantic’s philanthropy vibrant and accessible to inform and inspire others to action.

Before I continue, l would like to share one of those stories – a short video that was shown when Warren Buffett presented Chuck Feeney with the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy.

In his introduction, Buffet said: “Chuck has set an example . . . He should be everybody’s hero.” This video may help to explain why.

“I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today.”– Chuck Feeney, visionary philanthropist and founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Chuck was grateful to attend Cornell on the GI Bill. He was the first person in his family to go to college. That opportunity has left an indelible and lasting legacy. Atlantic’s work over 35 years is rooted in that opportunity.

In fact, Atlantic’s very first grant was to establish the Cornell Tradition. For 30 years, the Cornell Tradition has enabled thousands of students like Chuck Feeney who needed financial support to widen and deepen their knowledge and experience at Cornell. The “thank you” notes Chuck receives from Cornell Tradition recipients are a testament to the impact of that opportunity.

Since that first grant, Atlantic has invested almost $1 billion in Cornell, much of that while President Rawlings was here in his first term.  We have deep connections here: Our first U.S. office was in Ithaca, and Frank Rhodes served on the Atlantic Board for 13 years, chairing it for eight of those years.

As many of you may know, Chuck believes in big bets. Dramatic changes on this campus were among his early big bets. And the crowning bet – the biggest in the history of the foundation – was the $350 million catalytic grant for establishing the on Roosevelt Island.

These facilities are not monuments to their donor. You won’t find Chuck’s name on any of these buildings in which he invested through Atlantic. Chuck believes that it’s the people and the activities in the buildings that count.

They’re tools for innovation in the research, education, patient care, culture and other activities undertaken in them and in the communities that surround them. Buildings are vehicles for change, but, as Chuck has said, “It’s always about the people.”  People like us; people like Frank Rhodes and Hunter Rawlings and Beth Garrett. People who envision; people who look deeply into the causes of things; people who make things happen.

We are pleased that the latest Atlantic grant for a capital project will be to create the Cornell Welcome Center – a testament to the efforts of Ernie Stern and the class of 1956 to create a portal into the history, lives and values of the Cornell community, its traditions and aspirations. We hope that this building will offer an introduction for the next generations to imagine and think big.

Last year, Atlantic published a book entitled Laying Foundations for Change. The book is a compilation of photos and essays that capture some of the almost $3 billion invested by Chuck Feeney and Atlantic in capital projects in five continents. What you will see in this book, behind the very tangible and concrete initiatives, were the values reflected in the Cornell Tradition. Chuck and Atlantic have always sought to expand opportunity and achieve fairness in our societies.

In my dinner last night with Provost Michael Kotlikoff, we were marveling at the continuity of certain core characteristics of the Cornell community – not only its dedication to rigor, discipline and excellence but its underlying character of modesty and humaneness. Chuck Feeney lives these values.

Atlantic’s work on five continents has been an extension of Chuck’s vision and values. We have sought to translate these into actions to bring systemic changes for those who have experienced less than equal opportunity or great injustice.

The philosopher, John Rawls, who was a professor here at Cornell for many years, argued that justice is the first virtue of social institutions.  His work, A Theory of Justice, made arguments about what a just society should look like. One particular principle stands out.

Rawls writes of “the priority of fair opportunity” – a goal deeply rooted in Chuck and Atlantic’s DNA.

Chuck has lived what Rawls calls “the importance of preventing excessive accumulations of property and wealth and of maintaining equal opportunities of education for all.” Rawls wrote that “Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend upon one’s class position – and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers.”

Chuck’s own Cornell experience informed his drive to expand opportunities for others and to level the playing field. His vision, values and actions have catalyzed billions of dollars of related investments in the U.S., Ireland, Northern Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Viet Nam, Bermuda and Cuba to expand opportunities and create fairer and healthier societies.

It is those values and that motivation that underpin our grants to the Center for the Study of Inequality and to the Cornell Law School International Center on Capital Punishment. We are privileged and excited to be able to support the work of Kim Weeden, John Blume, Sandra Babcock and their colleagues as they inform and influence their respective fields and contribute to the next generation of emerging leaders dedicated to enhancing opportunities and fairness in our societies.

As we completed the book Laying Foundations for Change and surveyed what Chuck had quietly achieved, I was reminded by my wife of what the great American architect, Daniel Burnham, designer of iconic buildings in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., said:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work . . . Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. . . .  Think big.”

To that, Chuck would certainly add that “our daughters and granddaughters” will do great things that amaze us as well.

Chuck is the architect of big ideas like Giving While Living and big things that last, like many of the university buildings here at Cornell that will house opportunity and emerging leaders for generations to come.

All of us at Atlantic, like Warren Buffet said, know Chuck has set an example for us. We hope all of you here at Cornell will be proud champions of that example. These are your values and Charles Francis Feeney, class of 1956, is your alumnus.

I celebrate and congratulate you on your own accomplishments and thank you for giving us Chuck Feeney.