October 20, 2008

Kent Fuchs Replaces Martin as Cornell's 15th Provost

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As Cornell’s highest ranking officers gathered in Ithaca this weekend, President David Skorton announced to a standing ovation that Kent Fuchs has been appointed as the University’s 15th provost. Fuchs, who currently serves as dean of the College of Engineering, will take the reins as Cornell’s chief academic officer and second-in-command to the president in January.
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Skorton chose Fuchs nearly five months after Biddy Martin decided to vacate the position to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently David Harris serves as interim provost.
“We are blessed with wonderful leadership across the University, and I will devote all my energy and time to helping those leaders enhance Cornell’s stature, scholarship and teaching,” Fuchs stated in a press release. “The next few years are strategically important, and it is therefore a particular honor to be asked at this time to help guide the academic mission of our beloved Cornell.”
Fuchs came to Cornell in 2002 after serving six years as professor and head of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University. As dean of Cornell’s College of Engineering, he initiated a new department of biomedical engineering as well as a redesign of the undergraduate curriculum.
“I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a person who has a tremendous amount of patience and he makes sure he hears a lot of perspectives,” said Prof. Ken Birman, computer science, who worked under Fuchs and also considers him a personal friend. “He came to Cornell when there was a lot of anger and stress in engineering about a lot of silly things. He did an astonishing job of getting people to calm down and work together again.”
Fuchs holds degrees in both engineering and divinity, which members from across the University have said will allow him to take cross-disciplinary action in both the humanities and hard sciences.
“I have no great fears that with the two top people being from the sciences, that the humanities is going to get short shrift,” said Prof. Isaac Kramnick, history, who, as a vice provost worked closely with Fuchs. “Both President Skorton and Fuchs have made it clear that humanities are central to the University. Fuchs has a divinity degree and knows the central place humanities have to a liberal education.”
Martin stated in an e-mail that disciplinary backgrounds make little difference in effectiveness as provost. Instead, she said that it was Fuchs’ combination of decisiveness and openness to different viewpoints that would make him a strong leader.
“What matters is that administrators be intellectually curious; aware of the needs, opportunities and challenges that arise in difference disciplines; and open to the expertise of their colleagues,” stated Martin, who hired Fuchs during her tenure as provost.
Going forward, many have speculated that the most difficult task for the provost will be managing the University during a harsh economic climate. The provost is responsible for “strategic planning and budgeting, tenure and promotion, academic and research initiatives and academic oversight of the Ithaca campus,” according to the University.
“The great issue facing the new provost is how to maintain the upward trajectory of the University in everything that we do in face of a very bad economic climate,” Ronald Ehrenberg, labor economics, and member of the Board of Trustees, stated in an e-mail. “The provost and the president have to make the difficult balancing decisions relating to resource allocation — how much to go to undergraduate financial aid, how much to building (literally) the science enterprise, how much to faculty salaries, how much to raise tuition, etc. We are very fortunate at Cornell to have such talented and thoughtful leaders as [Skorton and Fuchs] to worry about these issues.”
When Fuchs officially begins his job as provost, Harris will resume his previous duties as executive provost. The University has yet to announce Fuchs’ successor as dean of the College of Engineering.