How to Hit a Curveball

Confront and Overcome the Unexpected in Business
By Scott R. Singer with Mark Levine

Rebounding with a Second Curveball

Friday, March 19th, 2010

It would be tough to find any organization that has been thrown more dramatic curveballs in the month of March than Cornell University. This unprecedented month of unexpected changes is also proof that curveballs have the potential for positive change, not just trauma.

It was in early March that the Cornell community was stunned by the third apparent suicide of a student in less than a month—the second and third coming in successive days. The string of tragedies landed the Ivy League university on the front page of The New York Times and a place on almost every national news broadcast. The stories reopened the urban legend stories of Cornell as a suicide school, which has stung the school for generations.

Between 2000 and 2005, there were 10 confirmed suicides, Dr. Marchell said, and from the beginning of 2006 through the beginning of this academic year, there were none.

Dr. Marchell said he was “well acquainted with the perception of Cornell as a suicide school,” having grown up in Ithaca and graduated from Cornell. But it is an urban legend, he said, largely fueled by the fact that suicides there are often shockingly public.

“When someone dies by suicide in a gorge, it’s a very visible public act,” he said.

— The New York Times, After 3 Suspected Suicides, Cornell Reaches Out

Still reeling from this series of tragic curveballs, Cornell was suddenly thrown another curveball, one which was no less shocking, albeit in a positive way. Before the ink was dry on the suicide stories Cornell found itself a lead story in the news because of the surprising success of its men’s basketball team.

Despite being three-time Ivy League champions, Cornell was expected to exit the NCAA tournament without a win, like almost every other Ivy entrant over the years. Instead, Cornell advanced to the round of 16 in a Cinderella story that captivated much of the nation. Less than two weeks after the rash of suicides another curveball had helped turn things at least partially around. Stories were now about March Madness, Ivy League style.

“We were all checking the scores on our smartphones,” said Mr. Wolleman, a jeweler and father of four who managed to make it home to Scarsdale, N.Y., in time to watch the end of the game on TV. “This whole thing is a new experience—completely unexpected and wonderful. We’re more used to hearing about Nobel Prize winners in physics, not our athletic prowess.”

The good feelings surrounding the N.C.A.A. tournament are also helping to alleviate some of the gloom experienced by many students and alumni over the six suicides by Cornell students this school year. The most recent three occurred within weeks of one another beginning last month, all in the striking gorges on campus.

“The winter there is very long and cold and dark,” Mr. Weiss said, “and this goes a long way toward lifting the spirits on campus.”

—The New York Times, Energized by Cornell, and It’s Not Over Physics

Cornell’s March roller coaster is a reminder that curveballs can be disruptive agents for positive change, not just negative.

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