November 1, 2010

Students Decry Department of Education Cutbacks

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Following last week’s announcement that the Department of Education will be eliminated, worried undergraduate and graduate students are questioning the University’s continued ability to train teachers and fulfill its land-grant mission.Director of University Press Relations Claudia Wheatley “could not say at this point” which parts of the department will be kept, but said the University hopes its folding will cause “as little disruption as possible.” The University has said the department will be phased out over two years and “all current students, graduate and undergraduate, will be able to finish their degree programs as planned.”Some students in the education program, like John Armstrong grad, said that closing the department would hamper Cornell’s ability “…to question the purpose of our education” and “to critically question ourselves.” Others, such as education minor Rachel Bukberg ’11, criticized the University for potentially phasing out its teacher certification program amidst “constant news of the failure of the American school system” and a “constantly widening” achievement gap that Cornell-graduated teachers could help close.  Still others echoed the claim of Tim Shaffer grad that closing the department betrays Cornell’s “explicit public mission of engaging the world around us.”“We need to be able to study directly how information becomes knowledge,” Shaffer said, faulting what he called an academic version of “trickle-down economics.”Tom Archibald grad, another education graduate student, said it was “incredibly ironic” that of the $80 million donation announced last week to create the David Atkinson ’80 Center for a Sustainable Future, “not a single education faculty member was involved, despite the tag on the Cornell Chronicle … promising outreach and engagement.”He said without education faculty, $80 million “might not be enough” to accomplish the Center’s outreach goals.Particularly concerned with the impact of the department’s closing were students in the department’s only major, Agricultural Education, who expected their major to be eliminated with the department.Agriculture education major Tedra McDougal ’11 said that if the cuts go through, “SUNY Oswego will be the only other N.Y. school with Agricultural Education,” adding students would first have to go through two-year programs at other schools before attending Oswego.Cornell is “getting away from its land-grant mission,” Kaylie Ackerley ’12 said. Ackerley lamented that at a National FFA Organization conference in Indianapolis the week before the cuts were announced, Ackerley told young students to come to Cornell for agriculture education.“We basically lied to them,” Ackerley said.Like the others, Ken Quick ’14 came to Cornell for its unique agriculture education program through The National FFA Organization, which encourages the farming profession in high school and middle school youth.“I always truly believed in Cornell’s ability to provide agriculture education, [it’s] disheartening to find that might be in jeopardy,” Quick said.Agriculture education major Chris Smith ‘11 said the program was “the only reason he came to Cornell” after attending Oklahoma State. Smith said the program gives Cornell a cultural diversity not present at other Ivy League schools.Nearly all professors and staff members contacted for this story declined comment, citing their job security. Department of Education Chair Prof. Arthur Wilson, education, also declined comment.“While not a surprise, this decision will have lasting implications for students across this campus,” said Prof. John Sipple, education, in an email. Sipple called the announcement a “disappointment,” adding, “It is hard to imagine how Cornell’s Land Grant mission is furthered by these changes necessitated by the current budget constraint.”Sipple also pointed to the Science and Mathemetatics Teacher Imperative signed by President Skorton last year, promising to “substantially increase” the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers.“It is very unclear to me as to how Cornell will fulfill this commitment,” Sipple wrote.Wheatley responded that “President Skorton’s commitment to the STEM discipline is long-standing and there for everyone to see,” citing two years he spent “on a higher education alliance focusing on STEM disciplines.”Wheatley said CALS is “exploring partnerships” with SUNY schools to “create more opportunities for Cornell students,” echoing a suggestion made by Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch dean of agriculture and life sciences, in her letter to CALS students last week.Kaylie Ackerley ’12 rejected this as a viable solution. “We’ve made it clear that we’re not paying for a Cornell education to take SUNY Cortland classes,” Ackerley said.Prof. Scott Peters, education, did not speak extensively about the changes, but said they gave Cornell a “fabulous opportunity to rebuild its work and research around education.”He stressed that “education does not just happen in schools” and that his department “has included research about education in community settings.”Yet Sipple said the department’s dissolution marks the culmination of its slow decline.Sipple said if “you look at the broad trajectory of my department over the last 20 years, I don’t think this would come as a shock,” citing a steady decline of employed faculty — from “upwards of 40” around 30 years ago to 11 this year.“I think at some level [the department’s closing] reflects the strategic priorities of the university right now, the University Strategic Plan and … the narrowing of the focus of the university,” Sipple said.

Original Author: Jeff Stein