Lessons in Sailing

December 18, 2015

By Laura J. Cole ’04 ’08MLS

As Rollins College voyages into its 130th year, the Tars have a true captain at the helm. An avid sailor, President Grant Cornwell has learned many lessons aboard ship that have proved as valuable on the water as they have in life—and in his role as president.

President Grant Cornwell learned to sail when he was an undergraduate student at St. Lawrence University in New York. It was his sophomore year, and he studied aboard a 95-foot schooner, sailing the Caribbean with 25 other students for a month as part of a series of enrichment courses St. Lawrence offers students every January.

That served as Grant’s introduction to life on the sea. He and his classmates learned about navigation and seamanship while taking classes on marine biology, ocean ecology, and the colonial history of the Caribbean.

Grant has been sailing ever since, first with his wife, Peg, while in graduate school; then with their friends and family; and for several years now, with their sons, Kelsey and Tosh. Their adventures have taken them far and wide—from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to Greece, the Grenadines, Chesapeake Bay, the coast of Maine, and ultimately to the shores of Lake Virginia, where on July 1, he took the helm as Rollins’ 15th president.

In a 2007 Wooster magazine article that introduced him as The College of Wooster’s 11th president, Grant talked about what he loves about sailing and why it was important to him to pass on that skill to his sons.

“I’ve taught my boys to be sailors because if you’re a sailor, you know how to respect nature,” he said. “You know how to work with the elements in a strategic and tactical way. You know how to fix things. You know how to become generally competent. You know how to navigate.”

It can also be said that much of that know-how applies to Grant’s life, his career, and certainly his role as president of the Tars.

Grant and Peg Cornwell sailing on Lake Virginia.Grant and Peg Cornwell sailing on Lake Virginia.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Sometimes, the best courses are the ones you don’t plan.

One of the best sailing days Grant recalls was actually something of a side trip. He and his family had been sailing around Penobscot Bay when they set anchor near a rocky fjord and hopped in their dinghy to explore. There, they discovered another boat with a crew collecting mussels.

“Within an hour, we had a bushel of these really fresh Maine mussels that we went back and steamed in the cockpit, and they were just amazing,” Grant recollects.

That isn’t the first time Grant has taken a new course with good results.

“I actually dropped my first philosophy class,” he confesses.

This comes from the man who would go on to earn a PhD in philosophy and teach the topic for 16 years at St. Lawrence University—his undergraduate alma mater, where he dropped that first course on ancient philosophy—before becoming president at The College of Wooster in Ohio and then Rollins.

At the time, Grant had enrolled at St. Lawrence because he was recruited to play basketball. He entered majoring in biology and “knowing I wanted to be a doctor because my mom told me I did.” But Grant made his undergraduate experience a quest.

While he would continue to pursue biology, he took classes on Shakespeare and Buddhism, art history and economics, before returning to philosophy, which asked the questions he cared about most.

“I really was a liberal arts student because I was passionately going after some kind of intellectual and ethical and emotional satisfaction through my learning.”

Rollins President Grant CornwellRollins President Grant Cornwell
Photo by Scott Cook.

In the end, Grant graduated with a double major in biology and philosophy. He also played basketball, learned how to sail, and met his wife and professors who would become his colleagues and close friends.

In the quest to find out where he wanted to go next, who he wanted to be, Grant found his life’s work. The curiosity and exploration at the core of liberal learning remain a driving force for him.

There will be storms. You must weather them.

This past summer, Grant and his family were sailing from Chatham to Nantucket when they found themselves in the middle of a bad lightning storm.

“It was as present a danger as I’ve ever felt,” he admits. Lightning was striking all around them, cracking loudly as the bolts hit the water near their boat.

“We didn’t like it, but there we were.”

He shrugs off the experience almost nonchalantly. He doesn’t find such episodes frightening because he thinks if you know how to handle the boat properly, it doesn’t matter what Mother Nature throws your way.

Perhaps his years of sailing have taught him how to keep a steady hand on the helm through a storm. Maybe all those years on a boat have given him the confidence to stay the course through turbulent seas.

One of the greatest challenges for the Cornwells came when their eldest son, Tanner, was still a toddler. He had broken his arm, and shortly thereafter, broke it again. Thinking something was wrong, they requested tests. And while Grant was in Chicago at an academic conference, Peg received a call from their doctor: Tanner had leukemia. He was 3.

For three years, Tanner battled cancer: recurrence, another remission, and then a bone marrow transplant. But the cancer returned again. Tanner didn’t make it. He was 6.

“That was obviously a momentous crisis,” Grant says. “He was a wonderful, wonderful, amazing child.”

His death, understandably, profoundly affected his parents. Grant cites it as a tremendous source of compassion but also a kind of toughness.

“I certainly understand human suffering and that we all suffer grief, suffer hardship,” he says. “I see that play out in people’s lives. I try to always be cognizant of that. At the same time, having suffered traumatic hardship myself, I can also say that we have to summon the resolve to carry on, to make meaning of life.”

It has been more than 20 years since Tanner died, but the loss remains fresh. As Grant talks about losing his son, the pain is visible in his eyes and audible in his voice. But he doesn’t dwell on it, choosing instead to focus on what they gained rather than what they lost: the joy Tanner brought to their lives.

Rollins sailboats on Lake VirginiaRollins sailboats on Lake Virginia
Photo by Scott Cook.

All hands on deck make for smoother sailing.

“You learn so much being on a boat and making it work,” Grant says. “You’re working with nature and the physics of sailing, and also the aesthetics of being on the water and in harbors.”

You quickly learn, he says, that everyone has a role and their own strengths, and those contribute to making the ship run smoothly and effectively.

His sons, Kelsey and Tosh, serve as apt examples. Grant says they are very different. On the boat—and off.

Kelsey graduated from Bates College in Maine with a double major in archaeology and the classics, studying a semester in Rome and a semester in Athens, before spending two summers conducting research with National Geographic on the Aegean Sea and receiving a master’s degree in Mediterranean archaeology from University College London. His academic travels have led him to a position in international education, so that other students can have the same study-abroad opportunities afforded to him. On board, Kelsey is an able seaman, comfortable with any task at hand.

Tosh, on the other hand, is a focused helmsman. “He can steer a boat well; he can figure out a course well.” He recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied biomedical engineering. Currently, he has a research position at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Perhaps it’s his years of paying attention to his sons’ natural abilities, or it’s his training in philosophy, trenched deeply in a dialectic approach, but Grant is serious about recognizing others’ strengths and realizing that they are integral to the work he’s doing. On a boat, it may be easy to discern strengths by watching. On a college campus, however, it’s very much about listening, with an ear to bringing diverse perspectives to the table.

“I think best when I think with others, and I think problems are best solved by listening to differing points of view,” Grant says. “The creativity that happens in dialogue creates solutions that are not possible from one mind alone.”

Grant isn’t merely paying lip service to the concept of collaboration. His first orders of business at Rollins, made before he even officially took the helm, were to open spaces that would welcome more people to the conversation.

He had what was previously the president’s office—a rather spacious, well-lit area with views of the Bush Science Center, Annie Russell Theatre, and Knowles Memorial Chapel—converted into a conference room, allowing more people a seat at the table, quite literally.

He’s also had the president’s residence, Barker House, refreshed so he and Peg can welcome more people into the space, build relationships, and get to know faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents in a less formal setting.

“For a college to work well, we think it’s so important that people have relations across boundaries and borders, for faculty and staff from different departments to have time and space to be able to know one another,” Grant says. “The only reason you have a president’s home on a college campus is to build that sense of community so critical to our mission.”

And the strategy is on course. Since the Cornwells’ arrival on campus, they have welcomed more than 850 people at events large and small at Barker House.

Rollins President Grant Cornwell and his wife, Peg, on a sailboat on Lake Virginia.Rollins President Grant Cornwell and his wife, Peg, on a sailboat on Lake Virginia.
Photo by Scott Cook.

A good first mate makes all the difference.

If it’s true that people are only as good as the company they keep, then a captain is only as good as his crew. And that crew—and especially the captain—is buoyed by a good first mate.

While Grant has a team of people making sure the presidency is running smoothly, the person who most closely fills the equivalent role of first mate is Peg. The two met their first day as new students at St. Lawrence University and have been together for 35 years.

“We have been a partnership all along,” Grant says.

Ostensibly, that partnership began when Grant was in graduate school at The University of Chicago and Peg worked as a commercial banker on the 93rd floor of what was then the Sears Tower. They would take their sailboat—a stout pocket cruiser they named The Salty Hobbit—out on Lake Michigan and cruise to the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior.

But if you ask Grant, he would say they really laid the foundation for that partnership back at St. Lawrence, when he became a professor and she was the university’s director of career planning.

“Thinking of the work as a partnership now has everything to do with the fact that we haven’t always worked in the same area,” he says. “We came from different sides of the house. The whole time that I was in academic affairs and Peg was in student life, we would have these United Nations-like mediations at home. We both learned so much: to be respectful of the other side and the fact that it takes an entire campus to deliver on the mission.”

He adds, “Those years really formed the foundation of understanding the holistic view of leading an institution, leading a liberal arts college.”

When Grant became president at Wooster, the two began working on the same kinds of projects, and their professional partnership flourished. Peg worked on building the first parents program at Wooster, growing to more than 250 families on their Parents Leadership Council. Together, they focused on turning the president’s home into a campus space to build community.

“I’m always up to welcome people into our home,” Peg says, “and to get to know new people, how I can get them more closely connected to the college, and what their interests are.”

It’s said that it’s essential for first mates to know their captains well. That way, they can anticipate their needs, keep the ship running smoothly, and make life more pleasant for everyone on board. And one of Peg’s most valuable traits is her ability to manage and pay attention to the details.

“You just do not realize how every detail of every day, every minute, every person, every connection, every conversation—everything is important and relevant and needs to be remembered and tended to,” Peg says. “If we do, people feel connected and committed to the same project.”

Like any smart captain, Grant doesn’t take that for granted.

“I’m not sure of the magic or chemistry of it, but I am absolutely sure that we are much more effective together than the sum of what each of us is doing individually,” he says.

Rollins President Grant CornwellRollins President Grant Cornwell
Photo by Scott Cook.

Never lose sight of the destination.

“Sailing requires absolute focus all the time,” Tosh said in the fall 2007 issue of Wooster magazine. You have to pay attention to the winds and your sails, watch for objects in the water and on the horizon, and make sure the boat stays on course.

That’s why, when the boys were younger, the Cornwells issued a no-cell phone rule when they were on the boat. It still stands today, but Grant points out that there’s already enough going on when you’re on the water that you don’t really have time to think about checking your phone.

He applies that same kind of focus to his presidency. The one thing that’s always in his sights is the mission. For Rollins, that’s educating students for global citizenship and responsible leadership. And he takes this very seriously.

He mentions this in interviews, in meetings, and just about every opportunity he gets. For most, it may not be the most enthralling topic, but when asked what this focus on a mission statement looks like in practice, he lights up.

“It’s an organizational mindset,” he says. “You should be able to discern it in absolutely everything that happens here.”

For Grant, that means every student should graduate with the capacities for global citizenship and responsible leadership. To do that, the faculty have to agree on a set of learning goals that every student will have achieved upon graduation. They have to ensure that they’re contributing to this outcome in every class and with every student. The administration’s job, Grant believes, is to make the relationships between faculty and students as robust as possible, so they can achieve those goals together.

“All of our decision making must be strictly focused on ensuring that the quality of education that happens at Rollins is as deep and transformative and engaging for each and every student as possible,” he says.

At the end of the day, that’s why Grant Cornwell is at Rollins. It’s why he does this work and is passionate about being a president. Holding Rollins true to its mission and making good on its promises are what keep him up at night and get him excited to wake up in the morning.

And it’s why he’s the ideal person to steer Rollins on its voyage to the best liberal education for the 21st century.

Fun Facts

Favorite book: If I have to pick a book, Plato’s The Republic is my favorite. It’s this interwoven commentary on what makes for the most just state and also what makes for the most just soul. I don’t think that he’s right about everything that he talks about, but I think that it’s smart and provocative.

Favorite sport: It’s between basketball and golf. I’ve certainly spent more years playing basketball, but these days, I take great philosophical interest in golf.

Can’t live without: Peg, of course, is the only answer there. I think that the things that sustain me are absolutely my relationship with Peg, my family, and my passion about the mission here at Rollins, and I couldn’t live without that. It consumes everything I do.

Favorite vacation spot: Our place in the Adirondacks. I wouldn’t say it’s a vacation spot, but kind of an epicenter of our family’s soul. It’s really where we raised our kids. We raised Tanner there until he died; our extended family is connected there; we’re connected to the land there. It’s not fair to call it home because we’ve never really resided there, but it feels most like home.

Most influential figure in my life: My father. He was a gentle and wise man with a delightfully playful sense of humor and he was really wise. He was a top salesperson for IBM for decades. He raised me on aphorisms, and now my sons can both tell you grandpa’s aphorisms, such as: Plan your work and work your plan; persistence overcomes resistance; 99 percent of the job is getting started; there’s no saturation in education.

What is always guaranteed to make me smile: The human condition. I take great, joyful pleasure in the foibles of the human condition, most often with myself as the subject.

The one word that best describes you: Enthusiastic.

What would you want for your epitaph? “He could hit a golf ball straight,” which of course would make it a lie. A better answer would be: “He tried really hard to make these colleges be true to their mission.” That’s what gets me going—that we’re really, really good at what we say we do.

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