February 28, 2010

Taking Strategic Planning Seriously

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Recently, a few of the nation’s top colleges and universities have begun to adjust their need-based student aid programs to reflect difficult budgetary realities. Despite our own budget pressures, Cornell is resisting this trend because providing an extraordinary academic environment for the most promising students from all backgrounds is one of our foundational principles and fundamental values: along with a diverse faculty and staff, a diverse student body enhances the Cornell experience for all.

But make no mistake: our recently greatly enhanced financial aid policy, which has maintained our position as one of the most economically diverse schools of our caliber and helped us enroll the most racially diverse first-year class in Cornell history, is one of several commitments that intensifies our need to look at both our day-to-day functions and our long-range aspirations through a new lens. In addition to student financial aid, other “people-centric” goals critical to our immediate and long-term excellence are to return as soon as possible to a healthier pace of faculty hiring and, as much as possible, protect our staff workforce from layoffs as we bring the budget into balance.

As I shared with the campus in my message on Feb. 4, we have reduced our current-year budget deficit to approximately $68 million, but we still need to deal with this substantial shortfall and maintain our fiscal discipline so that the deficit does not grow over time. How will we accomplish this and what will be the effects of our actions on our people, Cornell’s most valuable asset?

Unfortunately, the coming year will see further postponements in faculty hiring and more staff layoffs. We need to balance the need for budget equilibrium, and the programmatic flexibility it brings, with the need to protect the sources of our excellence — a diverse student body, faculty renewal and a stable workforce. To achieve this delicate balance, Provost Fuchs has designed a comprehensive, thoughtful and humane approach to planning.

You are probably aware of the 20 academic task forces, the faculty strategic planning group and the administrative restructuring initiatives that we are designing with the help of an international consulting firm. But what we all must focus on with discipline and tenacity is a University-wide view of what’s good for Cornell.

What does that mean? Don’t individual students come to Cornell to seek education in specific disciplines within colleges, schools and programs? Isn’t it excellence within departments, fields, programs, laboratories and studios that makes Cornell what it is? Of course. Abundant opportunity linked to individual dreams and passions is what makes Cornell great.

However, we are in a time and facing a set of circumstances unlike any seen since the Great Depression. Don’t be lulled into thinking that this is just another cyclic financial downturn: this Great Recession will affect the lives of individuals, families and, yes, universities for many years to come. Large endowments and the philanthropy that feeds them are beginning to recover, but it will still take at least several years for our endowment to return to anything approaching its prior strength. Support from New York State for its institutions of higher education is down and will continue to be so. Federal science funding is robust this year as a result of the stimulus package, but all signs point to more modest growth in the next few years. And tuition cannot continue to rise at the rates of prior years and decades.

The answer is to take strategic planning seriously and to think as Cornellians first and as members of our particular colleges or schools or programs second. As faculty, staff and student leaders conceive of ways to continue Cornell’s excellence with fewer resources, we must be open to novel and even radical ideas and not reject them solely because they threaten the status quo. Whether a new procurement system, restructuring of support services of all kinds, consolidation of departments or reprioritization of expenditures to academic and nonacademic units, the choices we make over the next few months will define Cornell for the next several generations. Let’s be equal to the task.

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at [email protected]. From David appears monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton