The Committee on Organizational Structures in the Social Sciences, which was charged with the goal of identifying ideas that will “position Cornell for excellence in 10-15 years,” finished a report in late February outlining drastic changes to the University’s structure. One idea advocates for combining the College of Human Ecology and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Other proposals in the report include forming a new college of social sciences, creating a new center for social science research, establishing divisions in the College of Arts and Sciences and restructuring graduate social science studies.
The main problem that the committee was trying to address was how to maintain breadth while still developing focus. According to Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff, the breadth and the involvement of the applied social sciences problems is a particular strength of Cornell.
“Some of the biggest problems we face — whether it’s hunger, inequality, health policy, labor policy — have the breadth that is unusual amongst our peers.” Kotlikoff said. “The question is can we focus some of that, and limit that fact that this breadth dilutes some of that focus.”
The desire for change stemmed from a perception that the University’s social sciences is “less than the sum of our parts,” Kotlikoff said. As an example of the issue, Kotlikoff referenced the psychology department.
“You take psychology, it’s smaller than its peer departments in other Ivy institutions, but if you take the total number of Ph.D. psychologists in Cornell, it’s not small because they are distributed in several departments,” Kotlikoff said. “I think that has an impact long-term in terms of reputation.”
The report followed internal and external reviews initiated by Kotlikoff in 2016, and key factors in the structural review were the perceived strength and the actual ability of the departments.
Committee members were encouraged to think at a “high level,” according to Vice Provost Judith Appleton, and “to ignore the challenges or feasibility of implementation,” according to the report.
Each proposed change was measured “in order of promise from five stars (most positive) to one star (least positive),” the report stated.
One proposed change was the consolidation of the College of Human Ecology, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ departments of communication and developmental sociology into one college.
Marked with four out of five stars, potential advantages include combining a significant proportion of social scientists on campus into one college, with the potential to encourage new research and collaborations.
Potential disadvantages of this idea included a lack of alumni support for a merge, as well as harm to the “unique identities” of each college, according to the report, which noted that “some on the committee felt that it was not evident what problems exist with the existing structure that this is meant to cure.”
Another proposed idea is the formation of a College of Social Sciences. Marked with only two out of five stars, the report acknowledges that the idea “involves a high level of complexity and disruption.”
Other ideas include the formation of a Center for Social Sciences, which would serve as a link to support research. According to Kotlikoff, there is a “difficulty [in] collaborating and working together across departmental boundaries, college boundaries, school boundaries.”
The report referenced similar social science research support structures at other institutions, including those at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago.
Kotlikoff assured that individuals will not lose their jobs on account of an organizational change.
“I want to assure people that individuals are not going to be displaced or lose their jobs associated with an organizational change,” he said, “Stating that upfront allows us to get that off the table and get people not worried about that issue and really think about the ideas that the committees has put forth.”
So far, student involvement in the process has been limited. According to Appleton, the committee did involve students in the discussions, although no students are cited in the committee report.
Kotlikoff emphasized that the process is open to conversation and debate, saying there would be meetings with the employee and student assemblies, faculty senate and directors over the next six weeks.
The committee and the administration will “spend the rest of this semester listening,” he said.
According to Kotlikoff, the University is making an effort to be more transparent with this process. Avenues for student feedback will include a meeting with the Student Assembly and an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) for individuals to voice their concerns privately.
According to the Cornell Chronicle, which is run by the University, a “secure online discussion platform” for feedback will be available to faculty on the provost website after March 30.