February 13, 2004

C.U. Creates Social Sciences Institute

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As part of a University-wide initiative to improve the reputation of the social sciences at Cornell, a joint task force of faculty and administrators has created the Institute for Social Sciences.

The offices of the president and provost, as well as the 13-member Social Science Advisory Council, came up with the idea for the ISS in July 2002. Prof. David Harris, sociology, was named director of the institute and joined Cornell’s faculty in the fall of 2003. The ISS, which will be based in Noyes Lodge at the foot of North Campus, will oversee three-year research projects conducted by social science faculty from across Cornell.

“By design, it interacts with the Cornell community. There are lots of opportunities to engage the student community,” said Harris.

A call for proposals, ending on April 1, has been sent to department and college leaders for faculty participation. The professors will teach undergraduate and graduate-level courses, and students can get involved as research assistants. Professors will also give public lectures and smaller interactive presentations throughout their terms.

According to the ISS website, the goals of the institute are “to encourage collaborations among social scientists across disciplinary and institutional boundaries, to engage the Cornell community in discussions of cutting-edge topics in the social sciences and to assist departments and programs in attracting and retaining top social science faculty.”

“We hope it will raise the intellectual profile of the University,” said Vice Provost Walter Cohen. Although the social sciences are not ignored, with 400-540 social scientists at Cornell, “we feel that we ought to improve and that we can improve,” said Cohen.

He sees the ISS as “a symbolic and substantive step in that direction.” One of the weaknesses of the social sciences at Cornell has been a lack of interdepartmental collaboration for classes and research endeavors, according to Cohen

“The social sciences need University attention,” Cohen said. He explained that it has become a general trend to have University involvement in programs that used to be controlled by departments. Citing physical science initiatives, Cohen said that with social scientists in nearly 20 different departments across campus, some sort of oversight committee needs to be installed.

Once the main structure of the institute has been solidified, Harris will take control with the University administration adopting a role as liaison. Harris’ past research has had a distinctively interdisciplinary focus, exploring themes of racial identity, classification and the role of race in neighborhood development. He will act as director for a three-year term.

Harris said that the institute will “bring the very best social scientists to Cornell” as it “increases Cornell’s profile.” Because he is an outsider with no strong departmental ties, Harris said, his non-biased position allows him to “show social scientists at Cornell how the work they’re doing can be informed by colleagues in different departments and at different colleges.”

The creation of the ISS is part of a three-pronged effort to improve the reputation of Cornell’s social science studies. An annual budget of $1.5 million will cover the costs of funding junior-level professorships in the government and economics departments, recruiting social scientists from across the country and running the ISS.

Archived article by Melissa Korn