Speaking to a standing-room-only audience in Kennedy Hall, Provost Biddy Martin addressed the current academic status of Cornell University.
The focus of the Provost’s first annual Academic State of the University address revolved around the status of the faculty and diversity throughout the Cornell community.
“One-third of the faculty will be replaced over the next 10 to 15 years,” Martin said, a number roughly equivalent to 600 University jobs.
The task of recruiting suitable candidates, Martin continued, is not a simple one.
“It’s our job to apply the absolute highest academic standards at the point of hiring,” Martin said.
One of the largest issues regarding the Cornell faculty concerns the subject of undergraduate education. The administration fears that professors and graduate students are currently sacrificing the quality of their teaching for the sake of their own research.
“Faculty care far too little about what students are learning,” Martin said.
“Re-emphasizing undergraduate education is not an effort to demean the importance of research.”
Martin made an example of the scholar-teachers who balance their own research goals with the desire to impart knowledge upon undergraduates.
“Many of the great scholar-teachers are concerned with what students learn and how to help them learn more,” Martin said.
Martin’s speech also addressed concerns that new faculty recruits may simply perpetuate the status quo at Cornell and fail to stimulate necessary University progress.
“We have to avoid the temptation to replace ourselves — duplicate ourselves,” Martin said.
Martin’s plan represents an effort to further diversify the faculty of the University. Martin implied that many take the easy way out when faced with a hiring decision.
“The misconception is that the white male candidate is the right choice,” Martin said. “We need to attract and keep a much broader faculty.”
Regarding tenure, Martin hinted that more stringent requirements would be placed upon those on the tenure track, including possible peer evaluation.
“The idea of making peer review a requirement for tenure is so that interests about pedagogy and curricular innovation can be addressed,” Martin said.
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According to Martin, a problem also exists concerning the egos of those who are tenure faculty members at the University.
“There are unfortunate heriarchies built into the institution,” Martin said.
One man gave a perspective from the vantage point of more senior faculty members during the question and answer segment following the address. The gentleman who stood up postulated that the faculty will not be open to change. He also stated that there were “secret deals” going on behind the scenes within the higher level of academic society, between people such as the deans and vice presidents.
Martin responded to these concerns with no hesitation.
“The thing I really believe strongly about Cornell — love about Cornell — is that it’s clean; it’s remarkably clean,” Martin said. “I worked with a group of deans who weren’t only leading intellectuals, but who also had a level of integrity that I think would be impossible to match anywhere else. Secret deals are not in their mode of operation.”
Regarding the suggested implementation of a mandatory course informing all students about the issues of diversity, Martin stated that she was not on board with the proposal.
“I don’t support the idea of one single mandatory course,” Martin said. “I think it would be unmanageable and also undesirable. I do think we need to find a way to ensure that not only our students, but our faculty, staff and students are all privy to sophisticated analysis of understandings of the issues.”
Furthermore, Martin said, diversity is not a matter to be tolerated. Instead, Martin said, diversity should be embraced.
In response to Martin’s emphasis on the necessity for true diversity, Prof. Mark Wysocki, associate director of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, confronted the use of the term “best and brightest” often employed to describe the Cornell student population. Wysocki feared that the University places too much emphasis on recruiting only those who are the best and brightest by traditional academic standards, thus eliminating a large chunk of potential students who, for whatever reason, may not have performed well in high school or who previously lacked the opportunity to demonstrate their academic potential.
“The students who leave here should be the best and the brightest, [not just the students who arrive],” Wysocki said.
Martin agreed with Wysocki’s assertion, and did not hesitate to demonstrate her support.
“The faculty is charged with the task of admitting new students. These are not decisions that are made mechanically on a quantification of the qualities of the ‘best and the brightest’,” Martin said.
The recruitment of students and faculty are all a part of the fabric that Cornell is trying to weave, Martin explained. The renovations that the University is currently undergoing are no small matter.
“We are in the process of doing nothing short of rebuilding this institution,” Martin said.
Martin’s address was directed at the entire Cornell community, but the event was sparsely attended by Cornell undergraduates. Still, President David J. Skorton was heartened by the message of the speech and the engagement of Martin’s audience.
“It was even better than I had hoped,” Skorton said.