October 25, 2011

Building Up the Humanities

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At his State of the University address last year, President David Skorton announced his intention to launch a national campaign to increase federal investment in the arts and humanities. The news was welcomed, but treated with some skepticism. The University had just announced major budget cuts and staff layoffs in the Theatre, Film and Dance majors. It overhauled the Cornell Council of the Arts, consolidating the number of grants it allocated; while smaller-sized language programs, including Modern Greek, Dutch, Swedish and Russian, had all seen their funding threatened or eliminated entirely.

Since then, the administration appeared to direct its attention to other academic areas. The University announced that it would consolidate economics courses across colleges and focus on a fundraising campaign to strengthen the department; Provost Fuchs set plans in motion to potentially establish a new School of Public Policy; and, of course, all of the current buzz has surrounded the proposal to create a tech campus in New York City dedicated to science and engineering. Lost within it all were the humanities and many, privately and publicly, began to doubt the University’s true commitment to the field.

That all changed this past week. The president’s announcement on Friday that the University would construct a $61 million building dedicated to the humanities affirmed Cornell’s commitment to the discipline now and into the future. It was a large step forward toward one of President Skorton’s stated goals since his inauguration –– that the humanities should be treated with the same importance as any other field at the University, and developed as such — and it brought tangible results back to Cornell amid the president’s nationwide campaign for the humanities.

Cornell is a career-driven school. The majority of students here consider early on how their coursework will translate to career prospects. Most shy away from majors that are not perceived to be attractive to employers after graduation. But the importance of the humanities should not be understated. Former Cornell Provost and Prof. Emeritus Don Randel, music, may have articulated it best on Friday in a speech to the Board of Trustees: “The single most powerful and useful justification for the humanities [is] their contribution to leading a richer and more meaningful life. About this assertion we must not apologize or even be hesitant.” The humanities offers an appreciation for life on a deeper level that goes beyond the day-to-day.

As for the building itself, we believe that the current plan is a smart design. On one side of the new building will sit the Arts Quad, with its unique historic architecture, while on the other side lie the modern glass facades of the new Physical Science building and Milstein Hall. The new humanities building –– which will not be visible from the Arts Quad –– will fit in nicely with the University’s trend toward more contemporary architecture on campus, while maintaining Cornell’s character and appeal.

A building for the humanities has not opened since 1905. This initiative was long overdue, and we commend President Skorton for taking a major first step. Now it is time for the administration to commit the resources necessary to restore the humanities to where they once were –– and grow them further –– in order to ensure that the new building will indeed be filled with genuine learning.