November 17, 2011

CALS Plans Overhaul of Plant Science Departments

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The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences announced Wednesday that it is entering the planning stages of a potential consolidation of the five departments related to the University’s Plant Sciences major — Horticulture, Crop and Soil Sciences, Plant Breeding and Genetics, Microbe-Biology and Plant Biology and Plant Pathology.

According to CALS administrators, combining academic resources into larger units would improve the presence and scope of the plant sciences at Cornell, as well as provide more flexibility in responding to future budget challenges.

“Our intent is really twofold: one is to reduce the number of academic units around which we structure plant sciences,” CALS Senior Associate Dean Jan Nyrop said. “Secondly, [we aim] to continue to be one of the preeminent institutions that is involved in a wide range of research, from discovery to translation to application.”

Under the leadership of Nyrop, a committee will be assigned to restructure the department in early 2012, with goals to develop a structural model by mid-2013 and implement the plans occur by mid-2014.

Between now and January 2012, chairs and associate chairs of the plant sciences departments will formulate questions to gain feedback from faculty members about what the objectives of the committee should be moving forward, according to a statement from the college.

The reorganization will also have a significant impact on faculty hiring. Nyrop said CALS currently has 16 faculty searches underway, but the number of new hires will likely shrink in the future as part of the reorganization.

“That is very aggressive hiring. It’s far more likely that we’re going to be hiring in the range of five to eight per year,” Nyrop said about the new system. He said that the size of the plant science faculty would not grow under the proposed system.

“Right now we have somewhere between 360 and 375 faculty [in CALS]. … We’re probably going to have closer to 330 faculty. I think it’s pretty safe to say [the number of plant science faculty] will not grow … under those models,” Nyrop said.

Nyrop said, however, that having fewer departments would allow the college to add new faculty to each academic unit more frequently.

“One of the goals is that if you have fewer departments into which you are going to place plant scientists, you can’t put more new plant scientists into the broader discipline. But into each unit, if you have fewer units, you can more frequently put a new faculty member there,” Nyrop said.

According to Nyrop, the consolidation will not have an impact on the plant sciences curriculum because it is entirely planned by the faculty.

“There is an effort underway to evolve the plant sciences curriculum, but that is not at all dependent upon the departmental structure. Those concentrations or specializations [within plant sciences] will be there as long as our faculty continue to provide that expertise,” Nyrop said.

Administrative staffing levels in the plant sciences will not be reduced following the reorganization, according to CALS administrators. Nyrop described staffing as a critical issue for the college.

“We want to provide faculty with staff and resources so that they can be successful. There’s no doubt that when you have larger academic units that you can more efficiently use staff,” Nyrop said.

According to Bill Crepet, chair of the Department of Plant Biology, departments have already begun to share support staff to maximize efficiency. Crepet said support staff are not currently strained due to budget cuts.

“I think that efforts that have been underway to share staff have worked successfully. I think the college is mindful of a need for adequate support staff to keep the dollars flowing from national grant agencies,” Crepet said.

New units within the Plant Science program will most likely be complementary and provide balance between foundational, translational and applied plant science, CALS administrators said.

In addition to undergraduate and graduate teaching, these units will collectively have strong extension outreach and international agriculture development programs, they said.

Nyrop said that the consolidation efforts are in part a response to Provost Kent Fuchs’ 2008 call in the wake of the financial crisis to increase efficiency throughout the University. Many of the recommendations of a CALS strategic plan following Fuchs’ call have already been implemented, such as the integration of academic units at the Ithaca campus and New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y.

While Nyrop said that University administrators had been consulted about the consolidation, he emphasized that CALS faculty would be the driving force behind the changes.

“This is really a college initiative. This is something that’s being driven within the college, in collaboration with the departments and in consultation with the provost,” CALS Senior Associate Dean Max Pfeffer said.

Many students majoring in Plant Sciences supported the college’s efforts to reorganize the program.

“Science is forever changing, and I think the college needs to keep reevaluating the program so that it doesn’t become stale as the science behind it keeps advancing,” said Paige Roosa ’14, a plant science major and a writer for The Sun’s science section. “New trends come up and you need to constantly have those changing trends in mind.”

Other students stressed the need to attract new faculty to revitalize the Plant Sciences program.

“All of the professors in the Plant Sciences department are all very well-respected individuals in their fields and are well respected, but I don’t know how many new faces that I’ve seen recently at my three years at Cornell,” said Chris D’Angelo ’12, a plant sciences a major and president of Hortus Froum. “When time finally comes for some of the older faculty to retire, they will be really sorely missed, but in the meantime, it would be nice to see some new faces and revitalize the program in that sense.”

D’Angelo raised concern about the restructuring and questioned whether consolidating the program into fewer departments would allow students the necessary specificity in their studies.

“The way the department is set up right now, there’s sort of a spot for everyone — you can get as focused or as general as you like,” D’Angelo said. “My concern is that if they’re going to restructure the program, undergraduates may become less focused on the applied and more on the theoretical.”

Original Author: David Marten