April 7, 2010

Committing to Teaching: An Admirable Strategy

Print More

On March 25, Provost Kent Fuchs released a second draft of Cornell’s Strategic Plan for moving our university forward during the recession — a central component of the “Reimagining Cornell” campaign. The goals outlined in this plan include promoting excellence in faculty, education, staff, research and outreach. Of these five areas, excellence in faculty is perhaps the most important: The decisions regarding the hiring and management of Cornell faculty will have lasting implications on the quality of teaching and research at Cornell for years to come.

Faculty recruitment represents a complex interplay between departments, college deans and Cornell’s central administration. In the recently released strategic plan, the administration has endorsed a strategy of supporting small pockets of excellence within each broad area of the University. For example, faculty recruitment assets may be diverted from comparative literature to philosophy, in an attempt to strengthen the general reputation of the humanities at Cornell. Day Hall has decided to identify excellent departments on the “cusp” of losing their reputation, as well as up-and-coming departments, both of which could use additional resources to recruit “rising stars” in their field.

We applaud this approach for its mixture of equity and strategic concentration of capital. By recognizing the need for targeted development, Cornell has reconciled the recession’s dark realities with its aspiration to be considered a top-10 research university throughout the world. And by identifying departments in broad fields from fine arts to the physical sciences, Cornell has resolved to stay true to its motto: “any person … any study.”

In the coming decade, a broad swath of faculty hired in the 1960s and 70s are expected to retire. This rapid turnover means today’s faculty have unprecedented control over determining the make up of tomorrow’s University.

In its drive towards top-10 status, Cornell may find it tempting to blindly recruit star researchers without considering their commitment to the classroom. Too often, we find ourselves in a lecture hall with a brilliant researcher who seems to have little interest in, or capacity for, educating undergraduates. The strategic plan addresses these concerns, by imploring departments to implement robust forms of teacher assessment, reward teaching excellence and properly convey expectations to faculty of excellent teaching throughout their careers at Cornell. In other words, take today’s researchers and develop them into good teachers.

While we find these measures admirable, we feel they do not go far enough. The strategic plan ought to emphasize the importance of hiring new faculty who will pursue innovations in the classroom as well as the laboratory; it must seek enthusiastic young doctorates who wish to churn out tomorrow’s leaders, in addition to seminal papers. Hiring naturally gifted, talented instructors must be a top priority in the coming decade.

This University will never gain prestige it covets on research alone. For that, Cornell must also commit to excellence in undergraduate education.