November 4, 2010

CALS Holds Forums To Discuss Dept. of Education Closure

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Seeking to calm the anger produced by the elimination of the Department of Education, Senior Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Max Pfeffer affirmed the University’s “continued commitment to a broad set of educational possibilities” in two student forums Wednesday and Thursday — a commitment some students said they doubted.

In front of approximately 60 to 70 students at each event, Pfeffer reiterated the college’s commitment to allowing all current students to finish their planned education programs. If faculty leave, “we’ll hire someone else to teach the course,” Pfeffer promised a worried student.

Assured of this protection, students repeatedly expressed their concern for the future of education instruction at Cornell, worrying, as Marie Gooding grad said, “for future students in my shoes.”

Citing the college’s promise to relocate all education faculty to other departments, Pfeffer stressed that closing the University would continue to offer “discipline-based knowledge” in education.

Yet some students, like one undergraduate, questioned “to what extent [the] research and teaching of relocated faculty will bend to the needs” of their new academic homes.

Meghan Gregory grad said she wondered if these departments would continue to value education faculty once the relocated professors retire.

“Not questioning [their] goodwill,” Gregory said, but she asked why departments would use their resources to hire new education faculty, rather than faculty more closely related to the department, once the relocated professors retire.

Gregory said he hoped the college could commit to “institutional support” for promoting the instruction of education in other departments, since the “very, very high priority of publication in journals,” although generally a “good thing,” contributes to the “marginalization of community involvement.”

Joining Pfeffer for Thursday’s meeting with graduate students, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Prof. J. Ellen Gainor, theatre, said the University would “talk about ways to create some kind of structure … to make education visible and central.”

Many students were not satisfied with Pfeffer’s answers, and Pfeffer was pushed into heated exchanges during Wednesday’s forum for undergraduates.

Pfeffer explained that since University funding operates “just like any other business,” the department’s elimination was necessary to cut CALS’ “rising expenditures.”  He added that the University-wide financial crisis was exacerbated for CALS, which has faced steady reductions in New York State funding and is bracing for another reduction, which Pfeffer said could be as high as 20 percent, later this year.

On Wednesday, one undergraduate asked for the department’s chief expenses. Pfeffer responded its biggest costs were in faculty and staff.  The student then asked, if CALS is keeping the department’s faculty and staff, “where are the savings coming from?”

Pfeffer began to respond that the department’s elimination “will focus our funding …” when the student interjected, asking, “But aren’t those departments becoming more costly over time?”

Pfeffer responded that eliminating the department would allow the college to make “long-term strategic moves” in changing the size of its faculty.

“I’m confused why this decision was made without set plans or answers,” a student said, adding that this uncertainty was “really uncomforting as a student.”

“Why weren’t students involved in this process?” she asked.

Pfeffer replied that the “process just started this week” — a response met with laughter from students.

Some students said they were worried about the broader implications of cutting the education department.

“What kind of a message do you think that’s sending to the community?” another student asked. “It’s coming off as: when you run out of money, cut education.”

“Then the question is, what else do you …” Pfeffer started to respond, before the girl interrupted him.

“I find it baffling and very funny, to me personally,” she said.

Pfeffer responded, “That’s your opinion … I’ve given you the rationale and can’t tell you anymore.”

Bob Hockenbury ’13 asked if “it was ever considered” that education is “a global issue with a growing need.”

Talia Biker ’12 told Pfeffer that cutting the department hurts the University’s land grant mission of “giving back as our New York civil service.”

Pfeffer responded that the college “in terms of Agriculture education, [is] committed to providing students with a sound knowledge base in science…[and is] committed to providing teacher certification in [agriculture] science.”

Pfeffer also said the college is looking at providing accreditation through SUNY Cortland and Ithaca College, though adding “things like logistics will be a problem if we go down that route.”

When one student asked if Cornell-enrolled students would receive Cornell degrees if taking classes through SUNY Cortland, Pfeffer said this was “a valid concern.”

“Most people would want a Cornell degree …” Pfeffer started when a student interjected, “well, we paid for it!”

Students dismayed by the news repeatedly asked if the college could reverse its decision.

One student asked if the department could be “downsized and moved” instead. Another asked if “the endowment change [could] affect the closing of our department?”

“We’ve made the decision, we’re moving forward,” Pfeffer said at one point.

“No way you can go back on it?” one student pleaded. Pfeffer shook his head.

“What if we get a Dyson?” another student asked.

Pfeffer smiled and again shook his head before adding in jest, “Get to work right away!”

Original Author: Jeff Stein