January 26, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A Lack of Transparency

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Re: “Alumni Threaten to Pull Donations Over Proposed College of Business,” News, Jan. 24

To the editors:

Congratulations to The Sun for its excellent and timely coverage of the University’s controversial decision to create a new College of Business. The articles discuss concerns of the alumni of the Hotel School especially and the fact that there were no “courtesy calls” or prior warning before the official announcement that the matter would be put to the Board of Trustees.  The Sun also refers to a unanimous resolution of the Faculty Senate to request that the Trustees table the proposal rather than approve it. It quotes President Elizabeth Garrett’s response to the Senate resolution but does not provide much context for the resolution itself. As a member of the Faculty Senate, I thought I could offer my understanding of that context.

Article XIII Section 2 of the Bylaws of Cornell University states that one of “The functions of the University Faculty shall be to consider questions of educational policy which concern more than one college, school or separate academic unit, or are general in nature.” The Faculty Senate, as representative of the University Faculty, interprets this provision to require consultation between the administration and the faculty in advance of major decisions such as the one to establish a new College of Business, not simply at the implementation stage, as President Garrett’s comments suggest. Aside from the merits of the decision, this is a fundamental matter of university governance. The previous administrations took many major decisions — such as the establishment of Cornell Tech in New York City — without following our norms of consultation, as the Senate pointed out in a resolution passed last spring. The Senate’s concern is not a matter of overly legalistic interpretation of the bylaws. The purpose of involving the faculty in major decisions is to improve the quality of those decisions by engaging knowledgeable people whose interests are affected.

For the past decade or more the Cornell administration has made a number of consequential decisions in an opaque and high-handed manner that has frustrated and demoralized the faculty, students and members of the Cornell community. Many of us attribute the ongoing economic crisis to this decision-making style with its lack of consultation on ventures that seem in retrospect ill-considered and risky. That Cornell is still struggling financially long after the rest of the economy and most of our peer institutions have revived indicates to us that this highly centralized and secretive form of administration not only violated Cornell’s norms of governance, but produced flawed outcomes. We hoped that the inauguration of a new president and new provost would mark a change of course toward a more democratic and consultative approach to major decisions. The decision on a new College of Business suggests those hopes were misplaced, but with the support of the Board of Trustees we believe that the administration could still reconsider its course.  The faculty look forward to genuine consultation in the interest of improving our great University.

Prof.  Matthew Evangelista, government