February 1, 2011

Prioritizing Undergraduate Research

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The University recently opened an Office for Undergraduate Research to provide required data to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditation report. We hope that the office was not simply created to comply with the review and that Day Hall is prepared to commit the necessary resources to ensure that this new initiative reaches its full potential.

Administrators have a unique opportunity here. Never before on this campus has a unified office for undergraduate research existed that can devote less energy to the day-to-day bureaucracy of managing particular projects and more attention to bigger picture initiatives. If done correctly, this can draw a greater number of students — from a broader range of disciplines — to take on research.

Up until now, each college has operated its own office, often taking a passive approach and relying on the work of individual professors to recruit students. The results have been less than desirable. According to a Cornell study that examined data between 2008-2009, only 15 percent of students in the College of Arts and Sciences, 8 percent in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences and approximately 6.5 percent in the School of Hotel Administration participated in any research as an undergraduate.

These numbers are far too low and especially ironic for a university that touts research as a major selling point to prospective college freshmen. The College of Arts and Sciences declare on their admissions website that “students work closely with faculty in research and independent study.” Likewise, the Hotel school displays a picture of their faculty mentoring students, with a description underneath that asserts that their professors “stay on the defining edge and bring that edge to you.” CALS too hails their research as “cutting-edge,” offering their Research Portal as an example of a “comprehensive project which brings together and disseminates information about research activities.”

If the University is serious about involving undergraduates in research opportunities — which it should be — the new office can serve as a powerful vehicle to make it happen.

The University cannot be passive. It must be a priority to obtain grants and fundraise, which will further enable professors to reach out and engage undergraduate students in their research. Administrators in the department can no longer rely on the individual initiative of a handful of professors, but instead need to take a leadership role in encouraging all faculty members to introduce their students to research opportunities.

At Cornell, it is often far from easy to interact with professors. Involving more students in research will offer them valuable time with experts in their field of interest, the opportunity to participate in real-world work and the ability to explore potential career paths.

We call on the University not to take this office lightly. Day Hall must commit the necessary staff and funding to ensure that this initiative makes an impact for both faculty and student research well into the future.