September 19, 2012

New Dean of Faculty: Cornell Profs ‘Are the University’

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The Sun sat down with new Dean of Faculty Prof. Joseph Burns Ph.D. ’66, astronomy, on Wednesday to talk about his goals and outlook for his term. Burns, who began serving as dean on July 1, has been a student, professor, parent of a student and, now, an administrator at the University.

The Sun: What do you hope to accomplish as dean of faculty?

Prof. Joseph Burns: I hope to get the faculty a little more proactive … to get them out ahead of issues rather than being reactive. I think that, too often, the administration has come to us and we’ve complained, and I don’t think that’s really a good use of our time. But by the same token, I think the faculty have an enormous understanding of how the University works; they’ve got more history than the current provost and the current president.

Sun: Do you think that the general atmosphere has changed at Cornell since you first came here in the 60s?

J.B.: There’s just the general view that all universities are becoming much more corporate and top-down. Certainly, when I came to join the [University’s] faculty, I viewed it as a smoking-[a]-pipe and leaning back type of place. This was, of course, the late 60s, with all of its upheaval and faculty meetings filling Bailey Hall …

Sun: What about the faculty’s role in the University? Were professors much more active back then too?

J.B.: There was a lot more involvement when I first arrived at Cornell. As a junior faculty member, it seemed like a lot of faculty would go into the administration and then come back to [work as] faculty, and now you see administrators making [administration] their life work.

Sun: In the spring, when you were elected, you said that you were disappointed at the lack of dialogue between the administration and faculty on the [NYC] tech campus. Do you still feel that way?

J.B.: It’s certainly better now. Faculty are certainly very heavily involved in choosing what courses will be involved [and] getting a curriculum together, and that’s what we ought to be doing. I still feel that the whole NYC tech campus will be another topic for one of those faculty forums because, last year, everyone in the administration was saying, “We can’t tell you [about it] … It’s all confidential.”

Sun: The recession forced the University to make several budget cuts that merged some departments and closed others altogether. Looking back, what are your thoughts on the cuts today?

J.B.: The University has been facing enormous cuts and they’ve been handling them pretty well. The staff has maybe suffered more than they’ve needed to and that hurts many of the faculty … I’ve had many excellent administrative staff who’ve made me really efficient and more productive and they’ve vanished. But on the other hand, the budget is largely people here, and faculty are mostly tenured. So who is going to take the hit? Some people were cut who shouldn’t have been.

Sun: In the spring, President David Skorton announced that he wants no less than 50 percent of undergraduates to have some experience abroad — whether it is through volunteerism, work or classes. How do you feel about the initiative?

J.B.: I think it’s terrific. I’ve been away on maybe 12 leaves of absences, three or four of which were overseas. I traveled extensively as a student, even worked on a cargo ship for a few months … and you learn so much. I think it’s something that every person should have an experience of — leaving Ithaca.

Sun: You have a long history here. Can you tell me a little bit about your ties to Cornell?

J.B.: I probably came here as a graduate student 50 years ago to the week. I also had two brothers who went here … [and] my wife graduated from here – we actually met here. My son got his degree here three years ago and now works for the University.

Sun: What do you see as the role of the faculty in the University?

J.B.: They are the University. I know you’re paying our salaries … but nonetheless, I think they define what the University is about. I [also] think Cornell has been remarkable about the people they attract. [Carl] Sagan was important to me in my career; he was just terrific, a good lecturer and what he did [is] sort of what I do today. Having somebody like Sagan lecturing when he was alive in undergrad courses … I think it’s fantastic.

Sun: And what about your thoughts on Cornell as a whole?

J.B.: The breadth of fields you see here … incredible. I would hate to see us try to turn into Harvard or Yale. Harvard and Yale would probably accept that, but we have so much more variety than them, so much more breadth in the global community, local economy and things like that. We are unique and we ought to trumpet it around that we are unique.

Original Author: Akane Otani