March 29, 2009

Who Said Agriculture is not the Backbone of Cornell, U.S.?

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At a time when Ann Coulter ’84 and Keith Olbermann’79 are butting heads over the legitimacy of the Ag School and the value of a communication degree, it seems appropriate for scientists to ask: Are there any facts in Ms. Coulter’s claims? I invite you to look at another (maybe, the third) side of the coin, what we call the narrative of science: Imagine Cornell without Agriculture, without the Life Sciences, without Communication (especially, in the life sciences)…

Founded by the farmer Ezra Cornell, in 1865, Cornell University was to become the land-grant institution of New York State on the condition that Ezra designed a multifaceted agriculture instruction program (among other things) to rejuvenate farming, an occupation viewed by its contemporaries as the loser’s lounge. It was time Ezra reminded the people of the 19th Century that: If only you knew, a nation without agriculture is destined to perish of starvation, nudity and homelessness.

Enter: Agriculture, Life Science, and Communication.

One hundred and forty-three years later, Coulter — a beneficiary of Ezra’s dream — would use ad hominem fallacies to attack a college without which “the first American university” wouldn’t have been founded; without which Barbara McClintock — assuredly one the most prominent geneticists of the 20th century — couldn’t have discovered the jumping genes (thus, earning the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine); without which the synthesis of Bt-eggplants for cultivation in the pest-rampant farms of South Asia wouldn’t have materialized; without which one of the best vet schools in the world will be non-existent; without which salmonella will be puzzling; without which vaccines for lyme disease wouldn’t have flourished; without which the first human gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease is yet to be determined.

… without which Ithaca would be 10-square miles surrounded by (un)reality.

To put Coulter’s claim in perspective, Cornell takes pride in the newest addition to the biology quad, the snow-white, sinless, state-of-the art research facility, Weill Hall that wouldn’t have been at the pinnacle of academic research if not for its CALS forebearers — the New Life Sciences Initiative and the Genomics Initiative. Need I say that nothing less than a 142-year old dream of “any person, any study” would have created such a focal point for agriculture and life science research?

To Coulter’s credit: Granted the social sciences are better means to earning good grades relative to the pure sciences, it’s worth pointing out that a biology, chemistry or physics major would not discriminate between a course in communication (in the Ag School) and economics (in the Arts School), as both courses are rooted in departments that hardly challenge the average science pupil whose mind is boggled with dy/dx, epistasis, and Wolf-Kishner reduction equations.

Still, everyone is entitled to an opinion; even Thomas Midgley, Jr. ’11 (20th Century, by the way) — “the human being in history who has done the most damage to the environment.” While, in the long-run, Cornell University cannot do away with either CALS or A&S, members of the community can ask: Is Coulter by any means the 20th-century Midgley?