Kent Hubbell Leaves a Legacy of Concern for Cornell's Students
If Cornell's caring community has a face, it is Kent Hubbell's.
After serving for 15 years as the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, Hubbell (B.Arch. '69) steps down June 30 to return to the architecture faculty. He leaves a legacy of commitment and work dedicated to supporting the well-being of all students and helping them through the daily stress of college life.
"The reward for me has been the enormous opportunity to observe the whole university," Hubbell said in a recent interview. "As a faculty member, you're focused on your own pursuits in research and teaching and on your students. By being dean of students, you really see all the developmental opportunities they have outside the classroom — it's so much more than the single sum of courses and credit hours."
Hubbell worked on a multitude of initiatives with units and colleges across campus — particularly around mental health issues. Psychiatric disorders are "an equal opportunity illness," he said, affecting about 20 percent of students of college age. "I spent a lot of my time working to find ways and means to be proactive about student mental health."
"The goal is to create a community that's sufficiently responsible to our students' needs, and to create an educated community — so students are aware that they can get help at Gannett or EARS [the Empathy, Assistance, and Referral Service] or whatever," he said. "Once referred, students can be diagnosed and treated, and go on to have productive lives at Cornell, and beyond."
He has also worked on refining measures to respond to bias and hazing incidents, alcohol and drug abuse, and tracking such incidents on campus; and served on numerous university committees working on issues ranging from diversity and behavioral health to campus climate, health, and safety.
Hubbell had a significant role in the West Campus Residential Initiative, home to more than 1,700 students in five living and learning environments with resident faculty and graduate advisors, and in addressing issues in Cornell's Greek community.
"My dream would be to have live-in advisors to enrich the fraternity and sorority experience, help in difficult times, and be a mentor of sorts," he said.
His first challenge as dean of students came after two months in office, with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "After 9/11, there was a lot of concern for anti-Muslim backlash, mostly from the outside," he said.
In September 2005, Hubbell's office helped Cornell to accommodate Tulane University and Xavier University of Louisiana students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
"My staff is very, very dedicated," Hubbell said. He often took on crisis management shifts and worked on holidays and over winter break to let them be home with their families.
Hubbell worked in close collaboration with Vice President Emerita for Student and Academic Services Susan H. Murphy '73, Ph.D. '94, who retired in 2015, and her successor, Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life.
"His passion is fueled by his commitment to students," Lombardi said at an event in Willard Straight Hall honoring Hubbell's service. "Architects are individuals who take ideas and turn them into something tangible. Part of Kent's legacy is here in this building. But a much more important part of his legacy . . . is what he's built as dean — things that aren't necessarily material. His generosity of spirit and kindness are as real as any bridge or building ever constructed and are certainly more endearing and enduring."
Murphy described Hubbell as her "partner in so many ways" during the years they worked together.
"Kent was an advocate for students — all students — and his door was always open to them," she said. "He always kept them at the center of his efforts. His collaboration with faculty colleagues across the campus, as well as academic partners in the schools and colleges, transformed how we were able to recognize and respond to students needing help. His willingness to share resources with colleagues across the country is just one example of his generosity of spirit."
Hubbell's early work on behalf of others was as a Peace Corps architect on the Marshall Islands' Bikini Atoll in Micronesia in 1969–70, building dispensaries and hospitals. A main focus of his career as an architect is fabric structures — as a visiting assistant professor in the 1970s, he built a tensile structure for events behind Risley Hall.
The Nathaniel and Margaret Owings Professor of Architecture since 1993, he chaired the Department of Architecture from 1993 to 1998 after holding a similar position at the University of Michigan.
Transitioning to teaching after three terms as dean of students, Hubbell will teach one semester each year in AAP, and he plans to write a handbook on acoustics for architects.
"I would recommend this job to anybody who cares about students," Hubbell said. "Of course, there is never a dull moment."
By Dan Aloi, Cornell Chronicle