It’s difficult to glean any concrete predictions from the task force reports. I applaud the administration for this surprisingly high level of transparency during this process, but some of the ideas being tossed around in the summaries of the reports unsettled my stomach. In Cornell's effort to rapidly streamline our university, I fear we may lose some of the unique programs that make me so proud to be a Cornellian.
In typical Cornell fashion, the compiled snippets of reports represent a patchwork of separate efforts from many divisions within the University. Unsurprisingly, the recommendations these reports make occasionally conflict with each other.
For instance, the Social Sciences Task Force speaks of consolidating departments spread among several colleges into a single School of Public Policy, while the College of Human Ecology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Arts and Sciences, and School of Industrial and Labor Relations task forces do not offer such a recommendation. Similarly, the one of three options recommended in the online summary by the “Management Sciences” Task Force calls for consolidating Applied Economics and Management, Policy Analysis and Management and ILR into an undergraduate “School of Management and Public Policy.”
Throughout this discussion of departmental musical chairs, the online summary of the recommendations failed to discuss tuition: If AEM moves to The Johnson School of Management, will New Yorkers in AEM still receive state tuition? If Cornell consolidates social science departments among the endowed and contract colleges, who pays what? Will all New Yorkers get state tuition regardless of school? Or will there be complicated considerations of exactly what you happen to be studying? The summaries of these reports do not indulge such minor details, but I’d be willing to guess that we’re going to see the number of spots in the (cheaper) contract schools shrink considerably as the University attempts to balance the budget.
And finally, I personally felt that the reports promoted a sort of “Arts and Sciences first” mentality. The life sciences task force recommended diverting resources towards computational bio, genomics and genetics, and molecular and cell biology while cutting from departments that do not “bring distinction to the University,” which by process of elimination, sound like plant science or entomology or horticulture: also known as bio in the Ag school.
The story is a predictable one: Albany slashes funding to balance the budget. Cornell, already crippled by a shrunken endowment, contracts the contract schools to protect the liberal arts core. Along the way, we see our distinct University slowly morph into a more traditional, more streamlined Ivy League University, doing the research Ivy League universities are supposed to be doing. Big fat Cornell has decided to try the “Harvard Diet.”
But Cornell’s singular strengths lie precisely in these non-traditional fields. In the life sciences, we have a nationally reputed Lab of Ornithology, entire departments devoted to single kingdoms of organisms and lots of land to do field research metropolitan schools like Harvard and Columbia can’t. And yet our school of Agriculture is the first to announce enormous consolidations and cuts. The report announced CALS’ intentions of moving from 26 departments to only 18, while cutting 40 faculty — slashing dozens of labs and courses. We live in a world facing huge environmental changes, where food cultivation is a leading cause of carbon emissions and desertification may leave billions without food and water. And our University’s biggest cuts might be in agriculture?
Even Engineering, a college drenched in federal and corporate funding, cut the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics and the task force has entertained increasing class size to generate revenue and allowing the positions of an estimated 15 faculty positions to go unfilled upon the retirement of those professors. But the College of Arts and Premeds has not recommended any significant changes in its internal structure, beyond diverting resources towards more prestigious departments. One line from the summary left me particularly perturbed. The Arts report pointed out, “almost all top-ranked universities have a college of arts and sciences, and the reputations of those universities are highly correlated with the quality of their college of arts and sciences — more so than with the quality of other sorts of colleges within these universities.”
Why exactly is preserving the liberal arts core so important for Cornell’s reputation? We have the number one programs in veterinary medicine, hotel management and architecture, and top flight programs in numerous fields of agriculture, engineering and the sciences. I hate to mention this, but the only list I’ve checked where you consistently find Cornell at the very bottom is that collection of prestigious, exclusive institutions dubbed “The Ivy League.”
Cornell has a reputation for research and practical training in diverse fields the other Ivies don’t touch. But when push comes to shove, it seems we’d relinquish these bright spots while attempting to fit the mold. Perhaps this tactic is motivated by the historic divisions among our seven undergraduate colleges: diverting resources from Arts and Sciences to protect our acclaimed work in CALS or ILR would break too many traditional budget boundaries. Or maybe it’s convenient to let Albany do the talking, they cut from CALS, so CALS should pay the price. A third guess is that it’s convenient for the budget when state programs (with smaller tuition bills) shrink, and endowed programs (like Engineering and Arts, with more expensive tuition) grow. But I think this has more to do with attempting to make Cornell a more conventional top notch university. What the administration may not realize is that Cornell has always profited from being unconventional. Apparently innovation is a bit too old fashioned.
Balance the budget. Protect the core. Water the ivy.
Munier Salem is a former Sun Assistant Design Editor and founded the Science section. He is a senior in the College of Engineering. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Critical Mass appears alternate Mondays this semester.