Reimagining Cornell: Breadth vs. Excellence

February 4, 2010 1:51 am0 comments

The University’s poor economic situation has prompted a great deal of reflection on its founding principles. Most notable is Ezra Cornell’s vision that this institution would serve as a place “where any person can find instruction in any study.”
The Cornell administration has pledged that it will seek to live up to the University’s core mission by learning to “do more with less.”

In order to achieve this goal, the University is in the midst of a massive strategic planning process. With the University’s resources so strained, the central tension in this planning effort is a struggle between excellence and breadth: To what extent should Cornell direct funding towards maintaining top notch programs and departments? On the other hand, to what extent should the University devote resources to ensuring diversity in its academic offerings?
We agree with Cornell officials that there is a delicate balance between fostering excellence and offering breadth. Finding such an equilibrium is the fundamental challenge of “Reimagining Cornell.” It is, admittedly, a daunting task. However, the line has to be drawn when it comes to eliminating or severely handicapping an entire area of study.
We find the University’s most recent decision to drastically cut the Theater, Film and Dance Department’s budget misguided — a move which will severely limit theatrical production education. By the same token, we opposed the complete elimination of Swedish and Dutch language classes last year and the closure of the Knight Visual Resources Facility, which housed a large collection of visual resources.
The cuts to these smaller programs, which are presumably made in order to maintain the excellence of other programs, too severely curb the breadth of academic offerings at Cornell.
While the University must make judicious choices in selecting which programs deserve long-term investment, it can not undervalue the intangible costs associated with permanently eliminating or virtually crippling an entire branch of knowledge from the University.