September 11, 2009

Outgoing CALS Dean Henry Discusses College’s Future

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College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Susan Henry announced that she would step down last month, leaving the college’s administration at a challenging time. Like all other colleges, CALS must work to streamline its budget, as well as cope with a plethora of other obstacles. The Sun sat down with Henry this week.

The Sun: What were some of the biggest changes that you saw with CALS while you were in office?
Susan Henry:It has been 10 years since I came [in] as dean in July 2000. Since then there have been a series of financial shocks. The entire time the budget has been under sever restraints. After 9/11 when the stock market crashed, we had lost state money and the budget situation grew worse. When I was first recruited, there was a structural deficit that I knew, coming into the position, I had to fix. We also had to hire new faculty for the AEM program [for accreditation].
If the undergraduate business program had not been accredited there would have been losses at the Johnson school and the masters programs at Cornell would not have been accredited. To do this, we had to hire five new faculty members and at the time already had a deficit. This is what I faced when I came in.
Basically a large percentage of the time that I have spent at Cornell has been focused on putting things back in order. I don’t mean to paint a picture that nothing but the finances were put towards gaining accreditation for AEM, which was a success that came in 2002. Now the program is in the top 10 of many national rankings and is one of the most selective programs at Cornell in terms of [acceptance rate]. Now we are trying to expand the faculty make it more accessible to students not majoring [in AEM].
We are also revising for the first time in 30 years the undergraduate Biology department to hopefully reduce class sizes in the freshman and sophomore years. We are aiming to now make programs more flexible for students; where they start they will now have a sequence of courses that they can take over the freshman and sophomore year to cut the class sizes, which is a major improvement in the curriculum. There will be a lab course and other things that will be more attractive to students.
Sun: What do you see as the biggest challenge in reconciling the CALS budget over the next few months?
S.H.: We have made budget cuts in a way that has been strategic and not effected the quality of instruction here or our programs. If anything, programs have strengthened. We have done this in a way that has not had any noticeable effect on instruction despite the financial issues we face we have managed keep our ranking.
All of the deans and provosts are doing [all we can] to make sure we put our resources where they will be most effectively used. In CALS, we are working very hard internally on the pieces we can make sure we make the best use of what we have.
Sun: In a letter over the summer, you wrote that some CALS departments will need to be cut or merged. What do you think is the best way for the college to go about that process?
S.H.: The college has a strategic advisory committee that’s working under the direction of Co-Senior Associate Dean Jan Nyrop who is overseeing this committee composed of some of our best faculty department chairs and staff members. Currently, there are no student representatives because it was operating over the summer. I have a student advisory council and I have been reporting back to them on things that have been discussed. This group is discussing ways in which we can economize and save mostly from the administrative structure.
We can merge and save on administrative parts and are looking for other ways to economize with other sources that won’t impact the number of teachers per classroom. The faculty lines cannot be immediately cut because faculty are on tenure or long term contracts. To the largest extent, we want to protect the faculty and we want to protect our teaching programs. Yes there might be some mergers but this can be a good thing. For example, we have another campus –– one here in Ithaca and one in Geneva that is devoted to research and grad departments. We do research there on behalf of agriculture [and] we are merging their departments with the departments in Ithaca so that they are led by one main department chair. We can get better strategic planning to cover what we all need between the two campus. Some faculty are nervous. However overall we have seen more approval.
Sun: Many consider CALS’ investment in AEM over the past few years to be your brainchild. Was there priority placed on AEM over other departments, and if so would you have done that now considering this economic climate?
S.H.: We had the obligation to increase the faculty in AEM because of the accrediting team that came when I first assumed my position in July 2000. In order to achieve accreditation, one thing that we had to improve was the student-to-faculty ratio. In essence we did both because we restricted the students coming into the course from outside the major and also took five new faculty. We explained this to the college and had to hire the faculty as soon as possible because the accrediting team was coming back. Yes, for an interval of time we had to favor hiring in AEM to achieve accreditation. Without accreditation it would have been catastrophic for the University because the Johnson school and master of hospitality management had to be accredited. Subsequently, all three have been revisited recently for re-accreditation and at this time it seems that there is not a problem.
Sun: CALS is by far the most disparate college, encompassing a range of contrasting departments such as communications and dairy science. Why is this?
S.H.: CALS is only unusual if you look at it from the point of an Ivy League university. Cornell is distinctive because it is both an Ivy League university and land grant. Remember this was the original plan by A.D. White and Ezra Cornell. That it would encompass both aspects giving the college program’s of study and outreach of the community. That’s the basis of the University and motto.
It’s the basis of our University and one of the factors that make us such a distinguished University that we have this diversity at the University. It’s all very relevant to the foundations of the land grant mission of Cornell. Cornell is excellent both areas today.
Sun: Do you see it as a priority to make the mission of CALS more focused?
S.H.: No, there are ways in which we can concentrate our resources in a more interdisciplinary fashion. We used to have a series of smaller majors. However students want to see a perspective of a broad discipline at the undergrad level. Thus we are broadening majors and making them more inter-disciplinary in general.
Sun: There is a wide range of majors that CALS has to offer . In your opinion what are the boons and banes of this aspect of CALS.
S.H.: Students can study much broader topics and then focus or specialize in their choice of concentration. We aren’t eliminating things; we instead are taking things that are more narrow to make sure we are using all of our resources efficiently. Especially in the sense that it is possible for students to collaborate across majors to offer more accessibility to students.
Sun: As the biggest contract college, would you say that CALS is in a very precarious position because of the budget cuts in the upcoming months? What would you like to see happen with the school?
S.H.: We are not in a precarious position because we have been under pressure for a long time. The college, faculty, and students have adapted over time and evolved and this college is arguably the strongest and best known of its type. In the world we have strong support from our stake-holders. We have international programs that reach out across the world. We have skilled faculty obtaining external research dollars, externally sponsored research portfolio because the faculty are open to having students. In fact, most have students included in their research. It’s a tough time for everyone, and I don’t think our college is in a more precarious position than any other college. We are all working together to figure out what’s most important to our mission to find ways to economize on things that aren’t our priorities. If we all work together, Cornell will emerge as a whole a lot stronger. In the end we have researchers and a great staff helping us with all of these things and can emerge a lot stronger.