October 14, 2004

Lehman Responds to the Call

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Last November, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 challenged University faculty, students, alumni and staff to voice their opinions on Cornell and its future — to address a set of questions “that touches the core of our identity.”

Yesterday, after almost a year of reading and digesting over 1,000 pages of thoughts, recommendations and musings, Lehman issued his “Reflections on the Call to Engagement.” The reflections, which contain about 20 pages of Lehman’s commentary and summary and about 60 pages of feedback from the Cornell community, is a response primarily to eight general questions the president issued during the Call.

These questions range from how and what Cornell should be teaching to where and with whom the University should work.

Lehman cautioned that the reflections were not “intended to suggest a direction for Cornell over the coming decade.”

Lehman did promise to share that vision in his second State of the University address, to be given in October.

According to Lehman, the Call to Engagement’s first question — “What should we be teaching?” — drew the largest response.

Some proposed a stronger “core curriculum,” but most quoted respondents favored keeping to Cornell’s open-ended “any study” philosophy.

Instead, respondents emphasized teaching the less-tangible qualities, such as curiosity and responsibility.

“The student of the future has to love learning,” wrote one Cornell graduate, encouraging students to “always ask why.”

One concerned faculty member wrote: “So many students today seem to have a more pronounced sense of entitlement, rather than a belief that they have an obligation to give something back to their communities, their country.”

“Thus, I think it even more important that public service be made a value that the Cornell community encourages, supports and recognizes.”

Lehman said that the second set of questions, “How should we be teaching?,” drew an intriguing parallel. Students and teachers were eager to embrace technology and all its classroom benefits, its immediacy and availability, but they still were adamant about the importance of personal contact, such as casual conversation over a meal.

“New technologies enable a different kind of interaction between teacher and students through electronic ‘polling,” wrote one faculty member.

A student cautioned about the potential for substituting technological flash for intellectual depth, writing “I agree with Professor X, who said, ‘PowerPoint is the death of human knowledge.'”

On the topic of personal interaction, one alumni wrote that “the educational quality of Cornell would improve dramatically if faculty spent more time talking with undergraduates outside the classroom about academic, professional and personal matters.”

Questions three and four addressed “whom should we be teaching” and “where should we be present.” The answers covered everything from outreach programs throughout New York State to establishing “stations” throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

One student group highlighted the value of diversity: “geographic diversity … cultural diversity … ideological diversity.”

An alumnus said that an “educational extension service” geared toward freshmen at other colleges could help inspire qualified transfer students.

Still others highlighted Cornell’s leading role in “rural development” and research in the poorest parts of the world and the University’s international status.

Other responses were careful to temper this outward-seeking attitude with cautions not to dilute the core of the University’s values, and to “keep the heart of Cornell in Ithaca.” Question five dealt with Cornell’s mission as a land grant college and its duty to “extend the fruits of our research in the fields of agriculture and home economics beyond the campus to the larger community.”

Most quoted respondents agreed that this duty had changed in application, if not in purpose, significantly since 1865 when Cornell was given the grant.

A staff member suggested Cornell had a duty to give “practical retraining for the economically disadvantaged such as displaced farm and factory workers.”

A faculty member agreed with this broadened scope of the land grant’s mission, writing that the “land grant stands for engagement, commitment and responsibility to society and human needs.”

Another staff member challenged the University to make its outreach “meaningful to all New Yorkers — 19 million of them.”

Questions six and eight dealt with collaboration and the organization of the University, respectively.

Lehman emphasized the “possibilities of synergistic collaboration,” both within the University and throughout the country and world.

One student suggested a study abroad program — except one aimed at other American universities.

Several faculty members suggested that the school focus on collaboration within its own boundaries, especially between different Cornell campuses.

On that note, several people responded to the Call’s question about organization by saying that the boundaries between colleges needed to be more fluid and cross-departmental programs should be encouraged.

One student complained of the difficulties students at Cornell’s state school had in enrolling in Arts and Sciences courses.

A Weill faculty member complained that he and his peers were left out of the loop, so much so that they weren’t even allowed “Faculty ID’s.”

Question seven asked the community what “domains of special emphasis the school should focus on?”

Lehman wrote that the overwhelming response was not nanotechnology or international relations, but sustainability.

A visiting scholar wrote that “we need, as a university, to come to an understanding that the primary solutions to the major problems we confront will be found by modifying the way we live our lives — as individuals and society.”

He wrote that a Cornell education should be based on that understanding.

Others expressed similar sentiments, including one alumnus who asked special focus be put on “wine-making [and] sustainable agriculture.”

Other faculty and staff were more specific, with “game design” and “Vladimir Nabokov” studies singled out for University focus.

Lehman’s reflections and the included excerpts of feedback are sure to raise lively debate about the direction Cornell should be headed over the next decade and beyond.

Copies of the reflections are available at http://www.cornell.edu/president/engagement.cfm

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun Senior Writer