March 6, 2008

Provost Delivers State of University Address

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In a speech that was at times solemn and at others lighthearted, Provost Biddy Martin discussed Cornell’s role within higher education yesterday afternoon in Call Auditorium. Her second annual Academic State of the University focused on how Cornell stacks up against the trends in what she called “the golden age” of higher education.
Last year Martin focused on many of the challenges that Cornell faced, including the replacement of retiring faculty, making innovative changes to the curriculum and insuring diversity in all facets of the University. While noting that she has worked on these issues extensively over the past year, she decided to take a broader approach to her address this year.
“The opportunities and challenges we face at Cornell are shaped to such a great extent by forces that we should try to influence but cannot control,” Martin said in an interview following the speech. “I also think it prioritizes and puts initiatives in perspective when we look at things using a broader frame.”
She began with a reference to an article in The Economist called “Brains Business” that she said did an excellent job of telling the story of where higher education is in relation to the rest of the world.
“We are in the midst of a golden age for three reasons,” Martin said. “Massification, which is the amount of people attending college, globalization and the emergence of a knowledge economy.”
It was on this note that Martin began to focus on Cornell, bringing up one of what she called her least favorite subjects: U.S. News and World Report Rankings. Though Cornell ranks 12th on the list, it has the smallest endowment per student out of the top 15 schools.
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“Does wealth influence ranks?” Martin asked.
She noted that Penn’s rankings have steadily improved over the last 15 years, while Cornell’s have stayed relatively stagnant, adding that the steps Penn has taken are not necessarily indicative of improving the quality of education. Martin made a list of the initiatives Cornell would need to take in order to raise its place on the list so that the audience could see how meaningless the rankings are. Among them was the need for 35,000 additional alumni to donate, 44,000 more high school students to apply and the business and law faculties to increase by 250 members, she said jokingly.
“Rankings are based on wealth and manipulating data,” Martin said. “We can worry about our ranking or we can be who we are and take advantage of what makes Cornell unique.”
Prof. Ron Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations, a trustee and expert in higher education, agreed that the issue of rankings is one that has always been debated in higher education.
He stated in an email that “there always is a tension that administrators in higher education face between doing what is socially optimal versus doing things that enhance the perceived prestige of the university (such as the USNWR rankings).”
In keeping with the comparisons to other schools, Martin brought up the key changes Cornell has made to its financial aid plan in the last few months. Cornell has vowed to get rid of all loans for students whose families make less than $75,000 per year and limit loans to $3,000 for families who make less than $120,000 per year.
Martin advocated that this plan, while it was not the first of its kind, is better than Harvard or Yale’s new policies. She conveyed that Cornell is helping families in need while still forcing wealthy families to pay what they can. The other two schools, on the other hand, are giving away education to those who may not need the price break.
“Will this make higher education affordable overall?” she questioned.
Ehrenberg agreed that Cornell’s policy makes the most sense.
“Students and parents who can afford to help pay for their education should,” he said. “So we specifically kept a work requirement in our aid packages. Similarly, our [new] program makes it easier for students from middle class families to come to Cornell and much easier for students from low-income families to do so.”
Overall, Martin stressed the importance of focusing Cornell on its own priorities, rather than those set out by others.
“Competition is not a bad thing, she said. “Competing on strength of vision and values is good … [but] I would like to see less externalization of values. There is a lack of attention to our relationship with ourselves.”
Mike Zak ’75, a member of the Board of Trustees, agreed that Martin was on track in describing what the University needs.
“I think that she showed that Cornell isn’t caving into popular culture, but will focus on strengthening the things that traditionally make us strong,” he said.
At the end of the speech, one of the few students in the audience asked Martin what Cornell was doing to help push education in Ithaca and Upstate New York forward. While Martin explained the work that e-Cornell is doing to provide online certificate programs, she admitted that the University could be doing more in this regard.
“The last question was an important one,” said Prof. Ronnie Coffman, plant breeding, director of international programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We need to be making more of an investment in transnational learning.”