February 7, 2010

Putting the Arts Cuts in Perspective

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Because The Cornell Daily Sun is an influential news source on campus and beyond, I was troubled to see several factual errors in last week’s reporting on the Theatre, Film and Dance budget reduction. Those errors, as well as conjecture in the two articles, seem to have informed much of the reasoning in last Thursday’s editorial on Reimagining Cornell. I feel compelled to write about Cornell’s critical challenge to honor excellence and breadth in our offerings, but within the financial constraints recently imposed on universities across the country. It is essential to start by clarifying the request to Theatre, Film and Dance.

The college has asked the department to imagine new ways to be successful while reducing their budget by $1-2 million (to be achieved over two years). My goal is for a robust, sustainable Theatre, Film and Dance Department to emerge from this process. The Sun inaccurately reported that the department’s budget cut is one-third of the Arts and Sciences cut. The department reduction, spread over two years, should be compared to the college reductions being made over several years. Last year’s Arts and Sciences cut alone was $9 million, and we expect significant cuts in the future. Last Thursday’s editorial paints our request as a drastic measure, when in fact, we have given the department a broad range and an extraordinary amount of time to realize the savings.

The experts are the department members who practice, research and teach theatre, dance and film, so we will rely on them to devise proposals that will retain the department’s vigor and creativity, and accomplish its most important goals. Our only requirements are to meet the needs of at least the current number of undergraduates and to preserve the resources devoted to professorial faculty. We have laid out the challenge, as we have with everybody else, to imagine themselves excelling while having reduced resources.

I realize this op-ed would be much more satisfying if it provided details, but that is not possible until Theatre, Film and Dance proposes models for their future. Once we hear the results, we certainly will have opportunities for public discussion of their ideas.

Theatre, Film and Dance and our other arts programs are highly valued components of the liberal arts education particular to Cornell. They enrich the community and, most importantly, they touch the lives of thousands of undergraduates. But please remember, the university is in the process of implementing a 10 percent correction in its annual operating budget over the next several years. In that context, the Arts and Sciences deans decided to invest strategically across our departments because we will emerge stronger than we would if we uniformly reduced everything we do. The college must remain competitive. Most important is our core mission of teaching and research, and it is critical to both parts of our mission that we maintain the quality and number of our professorial faculty. A strong faculty is essential to providing our undergraduates with an exceptional education. Consequently, the college decided early in the fall to commit funds for hiring new professors, despite great uncertainty about next year’s budget. We approved only one quarter as many hires as usual, but the majority of those are in the arts and humanities.

For the college to be excellent while using fewer resources, we must become more sharply focused in what we do, and that includes Theatre, Film and Dance. It also is true for the rest of Cornell. Perhaps some programs will be combined, some will be reconfigured, and no doubt our unusually broad range of offerings will be reduced to some degree (but also made stronger, as it is refined). The process will have many dimensions — sometimes initially painful, when we must do less than before; at other times creative and invigorating, when we discover exciting ways to teach, collaborate or do research. By acting strategically, we will be in a position to grow to our best advantage when our finances start to improve.

The Sun plays a role in Reimagining Cornell, too, as it reports on this complex endeavor and provides a forum for opinions that inform our thinking. I am encouraged by the passionate interest in the university’s future that I see so often in the articles and essays printed here.

G. Peter Lepage is the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at gpl3@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: G. Peter Lepage