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Spotlight On ... Madelyn Wessel ’76

Madelyn Wessel ’76 has been named university counsel and secretary of the corporation for Cornell University—the first woman to hold that position.


What does this honor mean to you?

I am thrilled to have been selected for this role at Cornell, an institution whose academic and research excellence combines with a very strong sense of public mission and service, all of which have been guideposts to me throughout my career as a lawyer. Swarthmore and Cornell are very different institutions in size, focus, and scope, but one of the draws for me was actually the sense of common values between the two institutions.

How has Swarthmore shaped your career—and your life?

Swarthmore imbued me with a very strong sense of doing all things for their intrinsic worth, whether that might be intellectual, moral, artistic, or just caring about people and having fun. The rigor of the academic program I experienced at Swarthmore was both inspiring and sometimes daunting, but it has had a lasting impact on my ability and willingness to tackle very hard problems, hopefully with ultimately more competence than the somewhat addled 17-year-old who arrived at Swarthmore in 1972.

What advice would you give current Swarthmoreans hoping to follow in your path?

Do what you think is right, not necessarily what you think is expedient, and know that life has many twists and turns for most of us. I've had to reinvent my career several times in order to follow my spouse across the country twice to new university appointments. Law has enabled a lot of flexibility, including a chance for me to work part time to raise two boys. Law is not for everyone, and it's become such an expensive education to complete you really need to think hard about why you're exploring the profession and how you will finance it. But law, and higher education law in particular, has enabled me to retain a strong footing in research, writing, and "intellectual' pursuits, while also living a life of practical impact. I can't imagine having stumbled on a better choice than this, and stumbling it frankly was.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Cornell's announcement pointed to the fact that I will be the first woman to serve in this role. What's interesting is that I've been a "first" in many areas throughout my working life, which points only to how relatively recently women (and certainly also racial and religious minorities) have had opportunities to participate fully in the life of this country. I am looking forward to a time when "firsts" can become irrelevant because they've stopped being noteworthy.