In the face of the current economic downturn and New York’s fiscal woes, President Skorton recently asserted the need to “reconfigure” our beloved Cornell. The time is opportune to rethink how departments and colleges are positioned across East Hill. By doing so, we can not only streamline the University’s budget and cut through the Big Red Tape, but also improve the undergraduate experience and strengthen Cornell’s role as a land-grant institution.
Nowhere is this need greater than in the applied social sciences. Today, applied programs featuring faculty in the fields of economics, psychology, government, business and sociology are found in all three of the undergraduate contract colleges in an inefficient mix of departments and students.
While good historical reasons exist for the current arrangement, the simple truth is that many of Cornell’s departmental and college-level distinctions puzzle prospective students, faculty recruits and outside observers alike. Not only do they dilute the academic experience for many Cornellians, but they can also foster unhealthy budgetary and programmatic competition between the colleges.
Consider the implications for a student with an interest in business: ILR and PAM have emerged as de facto business programs for a plurality of their students. And AEM frustrates its own students with CALS-imposed requirements in the natural sciences, often making students in the life sciences feel like strangers on their own quad.
At the same time, these arrangements also hurt students interested in public policy. Their courses are routinely watered down by students who are only interested in their social science education as a guise for a career in business.
Similar arguments can easily be made for students interested in global health, economic development, education and political economy. Undergrads with these interests often find themselves spread thin across different colleges, limiting their ability to engage and learn with one-another.
It’s important to note that undergraduates bear the brunt of this institutional confusion. Thanks to the lead of the provost’s office, both faculty units and graduate programs have succeeded in working across college and departmental lines — best evidenced by the Institute for Social Sciences, the graduate field of economics and the programs in statistics and information science
And it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that there may be better ways for Cornell to offer many of its undergraduate majors.
One rather dramatic proposal — out of many feasible alternatives — would involve expanding the College of Human Ecology into a broader college comprising all “human and public affairs.”
The resulting college would broadly constitute a hybrid school of human ecology, public health and public policy. It would include the departments of developmental sociology, communication, education, agricultural and resource economics from CALS, as well as the comparative labor, social statistics, collective bargaining and labor economics from ILR.
Meanwhile, a streamlined Ag School would be able to focus on its comparative advantages in the earth and life sciences by jettisoning AEM to regroup with the remaining business-centric departments of ILR. And common sense would indicate that an expanded Johnson School — allied more strongly with the Hotel School — might be a useful place for these undergraduate programs.
Some might argue that these changes would force the contract colleges to lose their unique interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate education. But they could actually strengthen Ezra’s vision of “any study” by offering the opportunity to develop a multitude of unique cross-college programs and institutes while improving the rigor of undergraduate curriculums.
These cross-college linkages would allow uncertain underclassmen to grow into their academic interests over time while helping to placate any alumni who fear that their particular niche on campus is being lost. And they would still conform to the Cornellian ideal of mixing theory with application.
For instance, students majoring in natural resources or environmental economics might engage in an upper-level concentration in environmental policy. Food science majors might combine with business students to study sustainable agribusiness. And those studying human resources or comparative labor in their respective colleges would likewise be able to engage in an expanded upper-level ILR curriculum producing the next generation of labor and business leaders.
What’s also exciting is how this re-imagined Cornell could recommit to its outreach and extension activities. In many ways it is ironic that Cornell — an institution that was forged out of a historically unique public-private partnership — has not reached its potential to inform the state’s policy and economic development agendas. This is particularly lamentable, as Cornell is perhaps the only institution in the state capable of bridging both Albany’s dysfunction and the wide gulf that exists between Downstate’s wealth and Upstate’s economic doldrums.
In this way, the oft-overlooked ILR extension offices can be reinvented as regional centers for policy and business expertise — by drawing from disciplines across the different colleges to better leverage Cornell’s intellectual capital. And the county extension offices can redouble their focus on agricultural best practices and family health.
I’m not naïve, though. The challenges of path dependency, budgetary cross-subsidization, campus and state politics, and the scope of the physical plant serve as strong impediments to this type of change on campus.
But the alternative may be the continued ossification of departments into anachronistic units that, in the face of budgetary cutbacks, increasingly fail to serve student needs or the needs of both New York State and the world. Our unfortunate economic crisis offers a proactive opportunity to reshape Cornell for the better.
To the extent that department heads, college deans and the provosts — with the input of the entire Cornell community — can begin coming to these types of strategic decisions, the sooner our fair Cornell can begin to meet the challenges of the 21st century.