September 1, 2009

Arts College Task Force Suggests Extensive Cuts

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Downsizing the College of Arts and Sciences over the next few months will no doubt be a tough task, especially considering that the academic unit already endured a 6-percent cut to its operating budget this spring. With challenges fully laid out, the task force charged with proposing ways to streamline the college as part of the recently announced “Reimagining Cornell” is considering ideas that could lead to merging departments, abandoning some areas of study and further decreasing the number of faculty. Master planning initiatives faced that challenge head on by thinking of ways to envision the college with a 15-percent smaller budget.
All colleges were asked to cut at least 5 percent of their budgets last semester, but with the spreadsheets still not balanced, colleges and other units will be finding ways to save more money. On Sept. 30, all colleges will be submitting suggestions to the provost noting where future cuts can be made across the University. The Sun recently obtained a draft of the College of Arts and Sciences’ task force report prepared by 11 faculty members of the college for the Ad Hoc Committee for Academic Planning. The report suggested hypothetical ways to realign the college to alleviate the budget shortfall.
The recommendations contained in the report — circulating among some faculty — are in their most preliminary stages. The suggestions contained therein may not be deemed worthy of consideration once the suggestions are fully analyzed by top administrators.
“To be honest, there are a lot of options being discussed and a lot of them are contradictory to each other,” Provost Kent Fuchs told The Sun in a previous interview. “Within each of the academic units, we are asking the dean to look at how they can become more academically focused. [It] usually means merging or eliminating academic departments.”
The report had foreboding overtones as it presented what the reduced college could look like.
“Perhaps the main conclusion from our analysis,” the report read, “is that reductions on the scale anticipated by the University, however judiciously chosen, will do major damage to A&S.”
Peter Lepage, the Harold Tanner dean of Arts in Sciences, wrote in a letter that accompanied the report: “While all of the recommendations and discussions are up for debate, it is important to understand that reductions themselves are unavoidable.”

Picking and Choosing
Cornell may consider its vast range of departments to be one of its biggest selling points, but the report suggests that focusing more on the college’s greatest strengths could help save money at the same time.
The report reads: “Individual departments may find that the strongest program is achieved not by being comprehensive but by selecting specific topics for emphasis. Indeed, some departments that are significantly smaller than their peers (for instance, Psychology and Sociology) have already achieved prominence in sub-fields by being deep in those areas while abandoning others.”
This notion of putting the most resources into the top programs could lead to the prioritization of some departments over others. Certain departments were identified as “cornerstones of the liberal arts,” including biology, chemistry, economics, English, government, history, math and physics. While the report did not suggest that these departments be free of the forthcoming budgets cuts, it said that “any reconfiguration of the college must strive to sustain its current strength in these departments.”
Astronomy, linguistics, music and philosophy were also identified as “excellent” departments whose strong reputations deserve to be kept intact. The remaining departments were relegated to the category of “very good,” for which the report did not suggest cuts in quality, but only stated: “we should strive, at the very least, to preserve the ability to teach essential undergraduate courses.”
Later in the report, the authors write: “the earlier discussion in Section II — which divided A&S’s programs into cornerstone, excellent and very good departments — should provide guidelines for any reductions. The regrettable, but unavoidable, result of these priorities is that cuts must fall disproportionately to the third tier. In the case of large cost reductions, some departments — particularly those that could no longer sustain a high standard after reductions — would have to be eliminated, reconfigured, or combined with other existing departments.”

Faculty Reduction
Though Lepage noted in his cover letter to the report that the College of Arts and Sciences has already lost 1 out of every 20 faculty in the college during the last round of budget cuts, the report concluded that the number of faculty would have to continue to shrink. A hypothetical model produced by the committee found that cutting the number of faculty in the college by 15 percent would mean that more than a fifth of the departments in the college would shrink by at least 25 percent.
Less faculty with the same number of students means more students in each class. One section of the report reads: “As a result, many departments will be encouraged to teach larger courses. This increased demand means that all faculty should be expected to teach undergraduate lecture courses on a regular basis.”
The report suggested that the University should still continue to keep smaller sized classes, even if the average class size will grow altogether. “In other words,” the report read, “rather than having 40-50 students in each class, the College should aim to enroll 75 or more students in some classes, and 15-25 in others.” Furthermore, departments should attempt to get top faculty to teach the largest classes, in order to bring more prestige to bigger classes.
Reducing the number of faculty and increasing overall class size will have a reciprocal effect on teaching assistants. According to the report: “Even if graduate TAships are protected from further cuts, the projected lack of growth in (or cuts to) faculty and instructional staff will increase the teaching demands on faculty and graduate TAs, and make it harder for them to attend adequately to individual students.”

Merging Departments
With a shrinking number of faculty, the committee next proposed a number of suggestions that brought disparate departments together into larger academic units by emphasizing interdisciplinary activity. One suggestion was the creation of a division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages that merged literature and language subjects. Another was to create an Ethnic Studies Unit that brought together Latino Studies, Asian American Studies, American Studies and the Africana Studies Center and American Indian Program. A last idea was to implement “Joint-Appointment Interdisciplinary Departments,” in which different departments are members of both disciplinary and interdisciplinary units.
Reducing the “waste” means looking at collaboration across colleges, not just within Arts and Sciences. The report concluded what many have previously criticized the University for — that there is a lot of subject-specific repetition between the different colleges, especially in economics and sociology. Collaboration between film and visual studies departments is also encouraged, as well as a new structure that encompasses architecture, landscape architecture and design. Physics, which is currently taught in two different colleges, was another area rife for consolidation.
However, the report specifically mentioned the division of the study of biology between Arts and Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as a separation that needs to remain. “A basic foundational approach to biology flourishes best in an environment unconstrained by a strong applied mission,” the report’s appendix reads.

Academic Scheduling
One section included a suggestion that could fundamentally change the structure of the University: changing the academic calender year. The report reads: “One possibility would be an adaptation of Dartmouth’s successful D-plan … In such a plan, undergraduate students might be required to enroll for one Summer semester (out of four), while taking one Fall or Spring semester off. This plan effectively increases educational capacity, and thus tuition revenue, by 14 percent.”
However, the report noted that there are potential risks to such a plan, including the unknowns of whether the new program could attract top students to Cornell. Scheduling problems could also become an issue, and the technicalities of implementing a plan would likely require a number of years, the report concluded.
Another suggestion proposed relaxing the current Arts and Sciences requirement mandating all students take 34 courses to graduate. The report proposed either eliminating the requirement altogether, or reducing it to 32 courses.­­
The finalized version of this task force report — along with the reports for the rest of the colleges and units — will be submitted to the provost at the end of the month, at which point suggestions will be narrowed down and colleges will begin to implement chosen suggestions.