October 17, 2011

Randel on Arts in a Research University

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Don Randel, President of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, led a well-attended lecture about the role of the arts in a research university on Friday, October 14 in Lincoln Hall as part of the Musicology Colloquium. Randel has extensive insight into Cornell’s art programs since he worked for Cornell’s Department of Music as a musicology professor for thirty-two years and later as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Provost. Adding to his academic experiences, he was the President of University of Chicago. Despite having been out of academia for several years, he is still able to teach music, quipping, “I was not asked to speak about music … although if the meeting begins to lag, I could talk about most Arabic chants … and I could even talk about the songs of Robert Schumann.”

Randel’s main argument was against the concept of the two cultures: one culture for the sciences and social sciences and a second culture for the humanities and arts. He said, “We need to understand that scientists, humanists and artists are fundamentally engaged in the same enterprise. This enterprise is at the heart of what the university is across all of its research and teaching in all of its disciplines.”

In designing the undergraduate curriculum, he conceded that  “Doing science is hard. So don’t make it too easy for the non-scientists. Making art that matters is hard. So don’t make it seem like fooling around when you don’t have anything else to think about. All of these things require some level of direct and personal intervention in the lives of students. In the arts, it is absolutely crucial, for there is no such thing as looking up the answers in the back of the book.” He cited Cornell’s freshmen writing seminars as a crowning achievement in bringing students from diverse fields together.

The discussion of the role of the arts in higher education naturally leads to the great debate of the role of the arts within our society as a whole. Randel sadly noted the Mellon Foundation’s grant-giving in any given year is greater than the combined grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. He further observed that the United States has no real commitment to higher education and, unlike most other developed countries, has no national commitment to arts.

Randel also argued that the common defense of the arts as stimulating the economy “essentially places the arts in the domain of entertainment.” He posed important questions: “How do we ensure that the arts are a crucial part of the intellectual fabric of an institution? We must not take refuge solely in the instrumental arguments that seem to justify our existence as humanists, artists, and scientists, to a society with a deep anti-intellectual streak. We must vigorously assert that we are all one in our pursuit of the mind; first of the life of the mind … for its own sake, and then for the enormous benefits to society of that pursuit.”

He argued convincingly against the attitude that research is “the evil in the Academic Garden of Eden … By research … we mean the exercise of curiosity, imagination, reflection, the life of the mind, the life governed by reason or contemplation. The scientist, the scholar, the artist, is steadily engaged in making sense of things in some new or better way, in finding or making order in which there was none at first sight.”

After he finished his speech, he invited the audience to ask questions. When asked about Cornell’s commitment to the arts after drastically cutting the Theater, Film and Dance department, Randel passionately said, “I regret it deeply. Personally, I’m an emeritus professor, so I can say whatever the hell I feel like. I frankly don’t understand it. A great pity, partly of course I have to say because I put substantial number of years of my life into getting that theater built … I fought long and hard to get that building built because my belief in the importance of it … because I happen to believe that … theater teaches you things that you can’t learn by any other method, at least not half as well. It has the power to take you by the lapels and shake you. And that is a hugely valuable activity in a university.”

Giving career and hiring advice, “I remember when I was on the rubber chicken circuit trying to sell this project to alumni around the country, I gave an after-dinner to the Cornell Club of Houston, Texas. I said, ‘You know, if you wanted to build an oil refinery … you would certainly want to put as the executive in charge somebody who had worked long in the theater. Because that would be a person who would know how to get all kinds of different talents to cause something to happen such that at eight o’clock at a date certain, the curtain goes up and this thing has to happen.”

Despite his extreme disappoint with Cornell’s cuts to the Theater department, he praised Cornell’s music department for not separating the performance and creating of music from the academic study of it. The Music Department did not support “this old German thing where you had the university and you had the conservatory. Musicologists and performers hated each other. They wouldn’t talk to each other. Cornell was maybe the single greatest leader in American universities in overcoming that. When you think about how Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are performed today, it has everything to do with what Neal Zaslaw [Cornell Musicology professor] and Malcolm Bilson [Cornell Musicology professor] and others did. That’s why for a time we were more famous in Vienna than we were in Tompkins County. So, Cornell led the way in that.”

Original Author: Liza Sobel