August 31, 2009

Inevitable Changes Lead to Skepticism

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Neoma Mullens ’98, director of Cornell’s Internal Transfer Division, sighed as she pulled out a modest stack of confidential documents outlining possible reductions in her department of two people. She did not disclose the documents to The Sun.
“Honestly, I think there is still some waste [left in the University], but it’s hard to pinpoint without pointing fingers. Self-examination is important, but not everyone has the courage to do so.”
 Although faculty, students and alumni agree that “Reimagining Cornell” is a necessary project to assure the long-term health of the institution, the uncertain future of teaching, research and student life at Cornell is leading many to view the changes taking place around them with an air of skepticism.
 “I really don’t like the term ‘reimagining’,” said Prof. Theodore Lowi, government, who has taught at Cornell for exactly 50 years. “It’s a soft, superficial, public relations term that says ‘let’s take a look’ when it really should be ‘reconstitute’ or ‘rebuild’.”
 But whatever the term, no one is questioning that with a $215 million budget deficit, a comprehensive self-examination could not come at a better time.
 “I think strategic planning is essential,” said Michael Walsh grad, graduate student trustee.
 “The leadership I have seen from [President David] Skorton, [Provost Kent] Fuchs, and [Deputy Provost David] Harris to date leaves no doubt in my mind that the fundamentals of a Cornell education are being upheld,” Matt Nagowski ’05, president of the Cornell Club of Buffalo and editor of the alumni blog Meta Ezra, stated in an e-mail.
 Even though it has been almost one year since Cornell began experiencing fiscal difficulties, Nagowski still believes the timing of this self-examination effort is reasonable given its circumstances, and expressed understanding for the confidential nature of the planning process.
“Any attempt to streamline and rethink a large bureaucracy’s operation is welcome,” Nagowski said. “Unfortunately, sometimes budget crises are the only times these types of opportunities become available.”
 “The gravity of the situation and the type of proposals being considered dictates that there needs to be a certain level of privacy, so that the administration can foster the necessary trust and goodwill among the colleges, department chairs, and trustees,” Nagowski explained.
 Yet, many cannot help but feel concerned about the implementation and outcome of the impending cutbacks due to their unprecedented scale and complexity.
 “I am optimistic about the efforts but it would be overly optimistic to say that we will not [see an] impact on research and education. We will have to do some things in a different manner,” Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, who has been teaching at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations for more than three decades, stated in an email. 
 “We are hopeful that [after the projected nine months] the University could move to a more routine mode of operation, but some [negative outcomes of the cutbacks] could be fundamental,” said Kent Hubbell ‘67, Dean of Students and a member of the Student and Academic Services Task Force. “Some of the [proposed] cuts might be permanent with no repairs possible.”
 “It’s hard to imagine the University not be hurt by such a big cut, some parts will be in jeopardy given the sheer magnitude [of the reductions],” said Walsh from the Board of Trustees. 
 Walsh cited the availability of educational resources as a major concern. Eliminating teaching assistant positions, for example, will force graduate students to seek alternative sources of funding, while negatively impacting the quality of undergraduate education by necessitating larger discussion sections. Increasing enrollment in revenue- generating professional graduate programs, a possibility listed by the Student Enrollment Task Force, will bring revenue for the University, but departments such as those in the Johnson school are already struggling for space.
 Graduate students in PhD programs may stay longer due to diminishing job opportunities in academia. The Cornell endowment and funding from the state are the main sources of support for graduate students; since both are drained by the recession, Cornell may consider cutting back on the number of research graduate students as well, according to Walsh.
 “There’s just so much uncertainty and so many variables,” Walsh said.
 At the moment, Vincent Andrews ‘11, vice president of the Student Assembly, is the only student representative in the task forces. Both Walsh and Rammy Salem ‘10, president of the S.A., agree that more student involvement is necessary to adequately represent student needs.
 “After all, students are the ones for which these services are intended,” Salem said. “A more direct line of communication by giving students [seats] at the table would have impacted whatever outcomes the task forces conclude for the better.”
 Although the final reports will not be submitted to the Provost until October, students and faculty already see potential changes they believe would make Cornell a stronger and leaner institution.
 “My concern is that there is a lot of duplicative effort to recruit and educate ‘pre-business’ students across the University and that the different colleges and budgetary units are often wasteful and competing in this regard,” Nagowski said.
 Similar to the standard practice of cutting 20 percent to 25 percent of middle management in corporations, enormous reduction should come from the administrative offices at the Dean and Associate Dean level which have ballooned over the past 25 years, Lowi said. 
 Lowi also recommended selling land owned by the University that is not conspicuous to Cornell campus. According to Lowi, when Cornell was founded, Ezra Cornell and A.D. White convinced the government to concentrate all New York State land grants in one university instead of 20 or 30 smaller ones, giving Cornell more land than any other land grant university in the U.S. Much of this land is not connected to University operations, and sales of this “unnecessary property” could bring in at least $1 billion, Lowi said.
 Improvements in the financial aid system is also urgent, according to Salem.
 “Twice so far I have had good personal friends forced to transfer schools for this reason, one of whom I have no doubt in my mind would have been the president of the S.A. right now had he not been pressed to leave,” Salem said. “I shudder to think how many more unsung, unheralded students have no choice but to quietly leave this campus by making this life-changing decision every year.”
 Salem would also like to see more fiscal transparency, which would help the administration save money by effectively identifying expenses that are not necessary, such as dining hall forks that cost $11 each.
 In the life sciences, Walsh proposed a centralized core facility for analytical and research tools to replace the current scattered, inefficient distribution between departments.
 Hubbell wishes student health and welfare services could receive more attention.
 “If you ask [Director of Gannet Health Services] Janet Corson if Gannet needs more funding, I think she would say yes.” Hubbell said. “Resources are finite and there is only so much to go around, that’s why planning is so important.”