February 24, 2010

Retooling Red: Turning Toward Process

Print More

In presenting its strategic plan outline to the campus community, the University seems to be striking the most realistic tone yet (at least publicly) about the future of Cornell: Fewer resources will necessarily force the University to stop some of its work in a number of areas. The mantra seems to have shifted from a pledge to “do more with less” to the understanding that the University will have to “do less with less.”

The University’s strategic planning outline is a first step in moving forward with limited resources. However, it is just that — a first step. The planning document does a good job of describing the fundamentals and core values of Cornell. That was the easy part. Common purpose and institutional goals are useful to point out in the strategic plan, but how the University plans to meet these goal is really the issue. The University will now have to decide which areas deserve investment over the next five to ten years and what areas should be consolidated or eliminated.

Provost Kent Fuchs said yesterday that the University will consider both the strength and the importance of departments and units in making those decisions. This is an crucial distinction. It’s the difference between a rankings-obsessed restructuring and a reorganization that appropriately weighs which fields are vital for future generations of Cornellians to study.

Determining the areas in which Cornell excels appears somewhat straightforward. There is already some framework for measuring how departments and programs stack up against their peers and within the University. Some departments and programs may already have benchmarks and criteria on which they judge themselves.

On the other hand, the metrics for determining which departments and programs are “important” are much less clear. How will the University go about such a subjective assessment? It’s unclear how this process will develop. Administrators say they are not yet sure and we do not profess to hold a one-size-fits-all solution.

What is clear is that the specific criteria for the University’s self-reflective assessment will be determinative of its success in planning for the future. It also seems that a subjective University-wide self-assessment of what is “important” includes significant room for members of the community to offer input. We urge the University to formally involve more than the one student who currently sits on one strategic planning working groups. At the same time, however, students ought to demonstrate a sense of urgency and step up to the plate in formulating the future of this institution.