April 17, 2009

New Transparency Website Appeases Faculty Concerns Over Construction

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President David Skorton’s launch of a website on Wednesday that tracks the slew of approved building projects appears to have quelled the storm of discontent from some faculty members, who have been pushing for greater University-transparency.
The website comes at a time when budget expenditures are being tracked more than ever, and allows any member of the Cornell community to view approved building projects.
Skorton’s commitment to greater transparency is a response to a faculty senate resolution passed March 11, which asked for complete disclosure of all building projects in advance of the construction starting, as well as for all current building projects to be assessed for financial feasibility and environmental sustainability.
The promise also comes in the wake of debate over Milstein Hall, which showcased an apparent rift in communication between administration and faculty. Milstein Hall was not included as an approved capital project on the website, and Tommy Bruce, vice president for university communications, told The Sun Wednesday that the University has not finished its review of the project. Several professors responded to the new website initiative favorably.
“In general, transparency leads to the most effective decision making,” Prof. Abigail Cohn, linguistics, said. “It’s a very important time to have transparency … financial impact on many earlier projects was much greater than had been expected.”
Prof. Valerie Bunce, government, agreed with her colleague’s sentiment. [img_assist|nid=36986|title=Construction Controversies|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
As a fellow member of the Faculty Senate, Bunce said the resolution was a result of the general sense of frustration amongst faculty.
“We just wanted to have more information about scheduling, and how they make decisions,” said Bunce.
The announcement from Skorton, issued April 15, declares that 13 new construction projects will be reviewed and approved. As the projects are approved, they will be posted to the CUinfo website, under “budget resources.” Though the 13 new projects come in the face of numerous facility and department cuts, the funding for many of the projects had been previously provided and some are already relatively far along in the planning process.
Although the website is a potential step forward in improving administration transparency, many faculty expressed a desire to continue to ensure that building projects are approved by all facets of the University community, not just upper level administration.
“I think the website is a great first step, but ultimately, the University would benefit from a more consultative project in the planning stages,” said Cohn. “I had raised a question about increased representation for faculty in certain decision making.”
President Skorton’s statement referenced the Faculty Senate’s resolution, stating, “The review is proceeding apace so that decisions to move forward with selected projects can be made on a case-by-case basis and in a timeframe that is appropriate for each specific project while continuing careful discipline to control expenditures and the use of debt … To ensure that the campus is kept well informed on the status of Cornell’s capital program, and in response to the recently passed Faculty Senate resolution, we are instituting a new process to present information about projects that emerge from the review process and are approved for implementation.”
Despite the website apparently appeasing the calls for transparency, the sustainability issue is one still yet to be addressed in a concerted statement from the administration. The Faculty Senate has emphasized sustainability in building projects as a necessity.
“One additional area addressed in the resolution is … sustainability,” Cohn said. “We really hope that issues of sustainability will play a role in future building projects.”
Prof. Martin Hatch, music, also emphasized the importance of sustainability, saying that it is another issue to be dealt with altogether.
“The thing to emphasize is that none of us are against using resources to meet the needs of students,” he said. “Rather, Hatch emphasized that the faculty senate wants the administration to be fiscally responsible in doling out its resources. He noted that though environmentally sustainable buildings may be more difficult and more expensive to build at this point, they would be less expensive in the long run due to the energy they save.”