February 10, 2011

Cornell’s Major Problem

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This past week I had to complete an online form outside of the University that asked for my major. Needless to say, the list did not include “Industrial and Labor Relations” among its options. Even if I was able to include it, I doubt the recipient of the form would be able to understand the major and its applications. For ILRies and Cornellians in other academic programs unique to East Hill, explaining our majors to the outside world is a daunting task we face on a daily basis. As many students pursuing these majors are choosing more traditional post-graduate plans, it is important to focus on some of these programs and question their relevance given the modern economy.When I began my college search, I was not enthusiastic about the prospect of attending a School of Industrial and Labor Relations. I assumed the program was for students interested in careers directly pertaining to unions and organized labor — I wasn’t about to commit to being a union man at 17! In my defense, creating such individuals was the original purpose of ILR. The School was founded in 1945 with a mission from the New York State legislature of improving “industrial and labor conditions in the State through the provision of instruction … in all aspects of industrial, labor, and public relations, affecting employers and employees.” The original curriculum featured two years of prescribed technical courses and a focus on labor relations.Of course, in ILR this is (thankfully) no longer the case. I examined the curriculum over break after one of my fraternity brothers texted me asking how I described the major to friends and family. I think it’s fair to say ILR is an applied social sciences program that uses the workplace as a focus to connect and study various related disciplines in depth. The admissions site says as much, and goes to great lengths to avoid using the School’s legal name. In fact, the School prefers to be identified as simply the ILR School. According to ILR’s Office of Career Services, two percent of 2009 graduates entered labor relations and five percent were hired to work with labor. Comparatively, 21 percent went directly to law school, 27 percent were employed in HR fields and 15 percent got jobs in business. Clearly ILR isn’t the School of Industrial and Labor Relations mom and dad may remember. Other majors at Cornell face similar identity crises. My friends in the Hotel School look forward to careers in finance, law, real estate and restaurant management, but not necessarily hotel administration. In fact, the Restaurant industry, the financial sector and real estate firms each hired 12 percent of Hotel graduates in the Class of 2010. Combined, those totals well exceed the 22 percent that got jobs in hotels and six percent working in corporate for hotel companies. So much for Hotelies actually becoming, well, Hotelies.Moving to the Ag Quad, we find a sign on Warren Hall that still bears AEM’s pre-2002 title — Agricultural Economics and Management. The only vestiges of the newly titled Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management’s past appear to be a biology requirement and an Agribusiness concentration that don’t exactly appeal to aspiring investment bankers from Long Island. A statement on the HumEc website reveals that PAM (Policy Analysis and Management) is focused on “family and social welfare, health, and consumer policy,” but over a quarter of graduates go onto careers in finance. Many other departments at Cornell are also taking on new roles to match the changing economy.What does it mean to be an undergraduate studying Industrial and Labor Relations, Hotel Administration, Applied Economics and Management or Policy Analysis and Management? Despite the evident discrepancy between the historic missions of these programs and their current roles, their respective curriculums are unique to Cornell. I personally value my ILR education highly and couldn’t imagine a better program to study and focus my various interests in the social sciences. I have no intention of becoming a union leader, but understanding the dynamics of the workplace has proven beneficial and rewarding. I know plenty of Hotelies, AEM students and PAM majors who feel the same way about what they are studying. The question then becomes how we translate the inherent value in our courses of study to the outside world: employers and graduate schools in particular. At least one critic, Bain & Company, feels many of these programs are superfluous. The renowned consulting firm, hired by the University as part of the Reimaging Cornell initiative, suggested consolidating departments and creating more traditional schools in order to reduce costs and increase efficiency, thus eliminating unique programs. Cornell essentially said thanks for the (expensive) advice and carried on its own way. I’m happy the University chose to maintain its current curriculum options, but am also concerned that outsiders, like Bain, might not appreciate the programs’ educational values and missions.I believe that a proper marketing and rebranding effort on the part of Cornell could bring its seemingly redundant and obsolete programs into the 21st century. Perhaps renaming programs and reorganizing them could go a long way toward addressing identity problems. The unique offerings need to retain autonomy (and not lose courses or faculty), but could benefit from combining their resources. I wouldn’t be opposed to attending a School of Workplace Studies within a College of Applied Social Sciences and Management. Alternatively, majoring in Endless Reading and Campus Domination would be acceptable too. A name and image that reflect what we study seems logical, efficient and beneficial to Cornell — and Cornellians tired of explaining their majors day in and day out.

Jon Weinberg is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected] In Focus appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg