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While many colleges and universities this fall welcomed back fewer students — given the upheaval from COVID-19 and its impact on higher education — Mount Vernon’s Cornell College saw total enrollment jump more than 50 students to 1,055 and its first-year class swell 30 percent to 404.
The private liberal arts college throughout the pandemic kept its COVID infections low; faculty and staff adjusted swiftly to COVID-era teaching involving both online and in-person instruction; and employees overcame both personal and professional destruction from last year’s derecho that blindsided Eastern Iowa just before the start of fall 2020 classes.
“You responded immediately and worked day and night to get the campus prepared for our students,” Cornell President Jonathan Brand and Board of Trustees Chair Jeff Jensen told more than 230 employees in a joint email Sept. 23. “And, as none of us will forget, the pandemic required the change of all norms and protocols across the campus.”
In that email, Brand and Jensen told faculty and staff the campus’ Board of Trustees and some non-voting “life trustees” came together in a matter of days to donate about $350,000 of their own money for “thank you” bonuses this fall.
About half of the 40-plus trustees made donations, allowing 236 benefits-eligible faculty and staff to each get a $1,350 bonus. Donation amounts ranged from $20 to $50,000, of which there were three, Brand told The Gazette.
“We have some young trustees who are literally just out of Cornell,” he said. “They just graduated.”
The original fundraising goal was around $275,000 — enough to give each eligible employee $1,000. Brand said the board reached that in three days.
But the giving didn’t stop there.
“After that, we had other trustees call me and say, ‘Look, I know it’s over, but I really still want to give to this,” Brand said, noting one of the $50,000 gifts came in after the goal was met.
The bonuses will be paid Oct. 15.
In the email from Brand and Jensen, they acknowledged not only COVID and the derecho but enrollment and retention improvements and strong philanthropy.
“Cornell’s retention of last year’s first-year students was 4 percent above the retention rate from the year before,” they wrote. “In addition, as you know, Cornell recruited its largest incoming class in almost 20 years — a result that reflects the efforts put forth by everyone on campus.
“And, we raised more money last year than any year in the history of Cornell … Well done.”
In her 27th year at Cornell, Sharon Grice — director of admission operations and transfer coordinator — said this compensation bump “physically moved me.”
“The fact that the Board of Trustees took their own personal funds to contribute toward a bonus is what made me pause,” she said. “It's as if the trustees are saying to us, ‘We see you. We know how hard this past year has been. We know how hard everyone has worked. And we see incredible results.’”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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