May 12, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Valuing Our Interdisciplinary Programs

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Over the past few weeks, many students from around the campus have expressed their support for programs that have as their core mission the interdisciplinary study of human difference and inequality.  Most of the programs named by the students — including Latina/o Studies, Africana Studies, Feminist Gender and Sexuality Studies, Asian American Studies  and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies — are housed in the College of Arts & Sciences. Furthermore, students have conveyed their concern that the programs are not being supported by the college, and have expressed their desire for a demonstrated commitment to these programs. These are important issues to address.

I believe deeply in the value of these programs. As research enterprises and educational units, these programs greatly enrich the College of Arts & Sciences. In the context of the curriculum review we are currently endeavoring in the college, our faculty have affirmed the value of such considerations with the proposal to add a “human difference” category to the breadth requirements. If we are to prepare our students to be good global citizens and navigate an increasingly heterogeneous world, then we must prepare them to understand how social categories are created, and the implications that this has for our society more broadly. As Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor contend in their edited volume, Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society: “We argue that a true democracy depends on individuals from different communities being presented with informed and intentional opportunities to learn from one another.” Doing so is in all of our interests, since while “unfettered inequality can destroy democracy, embracing diversity can spur creativity, productivity and prosperity.” If enacted, the human difference requirement would both call attention to these programs and increase awareness of the value of the courses that they offer.

It is fair to ask then, how well are we supporting these interdisciplinary programs and what more might be done to strengthen their ability to fulfill their research and educational missions? Some have suggested that funding and support for the programs has been cut in recent years. By way of context, over the last decade there have been two periods of significant budget shortfalls at Cornell (2008-2010 and 2014-15), in which staff and faculty positions in many parts of the college (from theater to math) were scaled back or not immediately refilled . Yet the numbers show that even as the college’s budget has experienced constraints, overall funding and support levels for these programs has held fairly steady or even grown over the past decade. That said, there are differences among the programs that matter. The overall budget for FGSS is about the same today as it was 10 years ago, albeit with a smaller discretionary budget for programming than in years past. The budget for ASRC has grown considerably over the decade. The budget for LSP has grown as well, but at a slower pace. The budget for AAS currently is smaller — that program has  been particularly affected by an unfilled faculty line in the last couple of years. The LGBT program did not exist 10 years ago, so funding there represents a new college commitment in this area. Similarly, while the college did have a Center for the Study of Inequality 10 years ago, it was much smaller and less robustly budgeted than it is today (a development due in significant part to  foundation support). Today, CSI offers a minor in Inequality Studies that enrolls over three hundred students.

Another area of concern involves the number of faculty associated with these programs.  Faculty can be involved in interdisciplinary programs in two ways:as direct (sole or joint) hires, or as affiliated faculty. The story of faculty presence and strength for these programs is mixed — it depends on the program and whether we consider only direct hires or also affiliated faculty. In the nearly four years since I became dean, in terms of sole or joint hires, there have been two new hires in ASRC, two new hires in LSP, one new hire in FGSS and no new hires in AAS. LGBT, like many other interdisciplinary programs in the college (e.g., the Center for the Study of Inequality or American Studies), is staffed entirely by affiliated faculty. We have also hired a number of faculty in recent years who are affiliated with these programs. There  have been losses as well — for a faculty member who asked to have her line transferred out of one of these programs, and another who left Cornell for whom a replacement has yet to be hired. While the overall portrait on faculty engagement is one of continued support for and belief in the value of these programs, it also shows that some of the programs have shared in the budgetary constraints experienced by the broader college over the last decade.

Looking forward, the college will continue efforts to support and strengthen these programs. In particular, we commit to the following actions over the next few years:

  • Working with the programs and affiliated departments to hire into vacant lines. We will prioritize such a hire in AAS this coming year.
  • Developing agreements between the programs and affiliated departments that would better enable affiliated faculty to teach in these programs.
  • Encouraging the programs to explore the development of new curricular options and to strengthen existing curricular options, either independently or in collaboration with each other.
  • In academic years when a line remains unfilled, endeavoring to provide temporary funding as needed to allow the programs to fully staff their curricular offerings.
  • Working to strengthen diversity focused hiring efforts in the college overall, in ways that will likely increase the number of affiliated faculty associated with these programs.

These commitments may not be radical, but they are realistic, meaningful and reliable. I am hopeful that over time, an appreciation for the value of diversity related educational and research efforts will continue to strengthen — among our students, faculty and in the larger public.


Gretchen Ritter ’83 is the Harold Tanner dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester. Comments and responses can be sent to [email protected].