November 1, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Let’s Get Down to Business

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The Cornell College of Business (henceforth referred to as “the College”) is the academic manifestation of what a New York dumpster fire looks like. Everyone knows it’s burning, no one’s doing anything about it, but there’s still a group of students using it for warmth because they were rejected from The Wharton School (which for the viability of this analogy, will be represented as a space heater situated in the lobby of a marble corporate building on Park Ave). The basis for this radical imagery is simple: two years after its feeble announcement, the College has failed to both produce results and a coherent path forward. Instead of giving us cross-school collaborations and world-class opportunities, the administration has sent us meaningless update emails, built a business center virtually inaccessible to undergrads and approved a logo that is depressingly unaesthetic. The consequences from the lack of change should be lucid for the administration: without passionate graduates, it will be troublesome to ensure a steady pipeline of donations to revive the moribund endowment. For students, the consequences are worse: we have been wasting tuition on a program that doesn’t deliver on its promises.

Pulse checks color in the flaccid narrative: students and faculty alike are unable to explain the mission or vision of the College, let alone name any actual benefits from its implementation. This is truly shocking; with an unending plethora of issues of to solve, even a slightly effective administration would have been able to produce some quick wins. Yet, we are still left empty handed. The College website claims that our program uses a “reimagined model for business education” that “take[s] on real global challenges.” These long-term goals are certainly unattainable — if even the short-term benefits are non-existent, how could anyone expect the administration to reconcile for these blatant long-term lies?

Now assume for a moment that the administration has been making progress. Even if the College has moved the needle forward, the opacity from the top has thorny implications. Either: one, the administration is making controversial decisions that it wants to conceal; two, the administration did not thoroughly think of a way to communicate its decisions (indicating a lack of preparedness for the transition); or three, the administration has no cohesive way to represent its progress (revealing a scattered future roadmap). It is difficult to believe that the new college is making positive leaps and bounds. If this were the case, wouldn’t the administration want to signal this information? Instead, the most positive message we received was from Soumitra Dutta, founding dean of the College, who reminded us about riveting information like class sizes and administrative hires. The failure to communicate, regardless of the behind-the-scenes reality, furthers the exasperating public narrative that The College is at best, benign, and at worst, detrimental to the student experience.

The present problems in the College are upsetting, and, more frustratingly, they can be viewed as symptomatic of a deeper problem: the program’s long-term strategy is the result of wishful and juvenile thinking. The website brags that the College has united The Dyson School, The School of Hotel Administration and The Johnson Graduate School for Management for the purpose of collaboration and innovation, all while miraculously preserving each school’s individual excellence and, by extension, identity and autonomy. This paradoxical unity is likely a result of the hotelies’ incessant whining during the transition, and it is also why the College will, at its present state, continue to be carried by the Cornell brand as opposed to its own. By maintaining the independence of each school and segmenting the departments, the administration has misaligned incentives between the three schools. The School of Hotel Administration will maintain its perceived superiority, The Dyson School will continue with its identity crisis and The Johnson Graduate School of Management will still function parallel to the other two schools. To achieve collaboration and success, these schools must work together on common ground for common goals to fulfill common ambitions. Instead, the administration has given too much leeway for independence, preventing full cooperation between all involved. Therefore, the future of the College is exposed to risks of inefficiency and dissent.

Even if flawlessly implemented, the College will still remain at a disadvantage. There are not many factors differentiating the College from other similar umbrella organizations, nor are there many factors differentiating the component schools from their respective competitors. Storied institutions such as The Wharton School, the luxurious space heater to our displeasing dumpster fire, easily maintain the upper hand when it comes to traditional business education. Wharton, alongside many other business programs, has been around in a far more cohesive manner — for much longer. Thus, it has a first mover advantage in wealth, prestige and connections. These advantages are a positive feedback loop; each factor amplifies the other factors until infinity. The College will have trouble catching up and the administration seems to have missed this point. Instead of pursuing “blue oceans,” which are unexplored opportunities that lead to competitive advantages (e.g. orthogonal curriculums or extra-curricular enhancements), we are steering straight into “red oceans” stained with the blood of overcrowded markets.

There is an intimidating but necessary bulk of corrective work to be done. While a complete restructure or shift in the College’s trajectory may resemble short-term failure, stopping and rethinking the purpose, direction and execution of the program is critical to prevent a future rife with descriptive verbs like “languish” and harsh adjectives like “unremarkable.” The program is undoubtedly headed by some accomplished and decorated academic leaders. For the sake of Cornell’s business future, the administration must successfully turnaround and revive an initiative that has since failed to capture the hearts and minds of its constituents.


Charlie Liao is a senior in the Dyson School at Cornell University. He currently writes for Sunspots, The Sun’s blog section. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.