November 4, 2008

Fuchs Prepares for Term as Provost

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In less than two months, Engineering Dean Kent Fuchs will take over as the University’s 15th provost. In a meeting with The Sun yesterday, Fuchs (pronounced Fox) spoke about the state of the University, his focus on rankings, his plan to ensure diversity at Cornell and his background in divinity.
The Sun: What do you see as the responsibilities of the provost?
Kent Fuchs: Part of it is traditional, so the provost has thesame responsibilities as at other universities, but part of it is quite different. The part of it that’s typical is that the provost has responsibilities for all academic programs. That includes curriculum, teaching, hiring and promotion of faculty, and recruiting of students both undergrad and graduate. Anything academic the provost is ultimately responsible for. And the part that’s not traditional is that here the provost is also responsible for deciding the budget across the University.
Sun: As the longest serving provost, Biddy Martin has left quite a legacy at Cornell. How do you plan to continue with her initiatives and where do you plan to depart?
[img_assist|nid=33272|title=Contemplation|desc=Newly selected provost Kent Fuchs speaks in his Carpenter Hall office yesterday about plans for his new role.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Fuchs: She’s been an exceptional provost and had a lot of new initiatives. She was provost while the University was expanding rapidly and growing. Endowment increased, tuition went up and there was a lot of philanthropy. In the past few months the budget has changed because of the financial world. So it’s likely that the next five years will be ones in which we continue to invest in important priorities. And that would be the academic departments and the teaching and scholarship in those departments. [Secondly,] focusing on faculty recruiting and hiring — we still have to do that. And thirdly on students, making sure we continue to have the best students. ­­­­President Skorton actually wants to grow financial aid even though we are in the midst of some challenging financial times. There won’t be as many initiatives, but they will be much more focused.
Sun: It seems like the University is taking some time to look holistically at itself. What opportunities does this present?
Fuchs: What we want to do is take advantage of the fact that all universities are in similar economic times. Even though we may reduce our expenditures, we can actually increase our relative academic standing to other universities.
Sun: How do you see the University and colleges relating in terms of giving students the ability to study whatever they want?
Fuchs: That’s been the hallmark of Cornell, that we have this incredible breath of courses, faculty, colleges, departments. I’m not sure but it may be that we offer too many and in some areas we don’t offer enough. In the past we would just let all the flowers blossom, and we can’t do it now. If we are going to offer economics or statistics classes, do we want to have many colleges offering it or just one college, and give other students the opportunity to take it? So we have to do that — to get deans, department chairs, faculty and input from students to decide. Sometimes there might not be budget savings — sometimes we have to invest more — but the budget challenge will drive us to make those decisions.
Sun: An issue on campus is that a lot of students feel like the administration in Day Hall is separated from the rest of the University. How do you propose to deal with this?
Fuchs: I’m going to do what I’ve done in our college and that is to create a provost advisory council, just so I can stay in touch with students. It will be a very small way to interact with students and bounce ideas off of them. Otherwise, as you move into Carpenter Hall or Day Hall, you really lose touch with the students. I want to [have an advisory council] with faculty as well.
Sun: The College of Engineering has gained a reputation for academic rigor, high donation rates and good industry connections. Have you identified any major changes to apply to the University as a whole that will achieve similar results?
Fuchs:I don’t want the University as a whole to become just like the College of Engineering, but there are some experiences I’ve had that I can learn from. I’ll give as an example that we’ve been pretty good in the last few years in measuring whether we’ve made progress. We say we have a goal, then change our strategy if we don’t make progress. For example, we’ve invested a lot in the Life Sciences Initiative, and I’d like to see what impact that’s having. Are research grants going up? Are we graduating more students in that area? Is our reputation increasing?
Sun: You and President Skorton are both scientists. What do you plan to do for the humanities and social sciences at Cornell?
Fuchs: It’s interesting, when we had a president and provost that both came from the humanities, I think it was the time of the largest investment in sciences and engineering ever, so maybe it will be the opposite now, I don’t know. But I do know that President Skorton decided before I was selected as provost, that the humanities and the arts are central to the University and we have to be excellent in those areas.
Sun: How does your divinity degree inform your career as an academic and as an administrator, and what was your initial reason for going to divinity school?
Fuchs: Some of it’s by accident. I was an undergrad in engineering at Duke. In my studies there, I thought I wanted to work in a field that was more people-focused than technology, so after I graduated, I went off to this divinity school. It was a three-year program of languages and history and theology. But there was one part of it that I was not good at, and that was homiletics — that’s writing and giving sermons. My homiletics professor said that I should change my field and become a teacher. I decided that I would do that, and that combined my interest in people.
The three years of seminary was a good experience because I learned a lot of history and theology and even counseling and public speaking, which has helped me, and certainly added to my undergraduate education in engineering. But if I had been a better public speaker, I’d probably have been a minister instead of a provost.
Sun: What are your plans to ensure that the school reflects our “any person, any study” motto, in terms of recruiting economically and racially diverse students?
Fuchs: We are not where we need to be as a University in the area of students of color. We just aren’t. We have not made much pr­­­­­ogress in the past 15 years, and that’s an area you can track. Again, you need a goal; you need to make sure you are making progress each year. We’ll set a goal, and each year you’ll know how we’re doing on that goal, and whether we’re making progress. Some years we won’t, and we’ll have to be frank about that.
The socio-economic target is one in which we were leading many of our peers in having students of a very diverse economic background, but we’ve lost ground in the past few years. President Skorton committed to the trustees last month that he would correct that. He increased the financial aid goal in the campaign by 50 percent, adding over $100 million just for financial aid.
Sun: What are your first goals for when you take office in January?
Fuchs: One for the University is that the economic situation has changed so dramatically in the past three months that we have to, as an institution, understand the state of our budget and have a five-year plan to put us in an even better economic situation than we were a year ago.
Second is a personal goal — to visit every academic department on campus. We have nearly 100 departments, so it’s just to go visit and learn about Cornell.