February 14, 2018

LAM | Mismanagement Case Study: Cornell SC Johnson College of Business

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Six days into the Spring semester, founding Dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business Soumitra Dutta resigned, after a little more than a year and a half in the post.

Weeks later, still not a word from Cornell on the reason. A Sun reporter even went to the former dean’s home to find some answers, to no avail. Of course, as a private nonprofit institution, Cornell has no legal obligation to be transparent about personnel movements. A stench of mismanagement, however, stinks to high heaven. Most, including myself, had initial doubts about the endeavour. As the dean’s departure and that of his deputy imply, the SC Johnson College of Business is running into problems. Here are some of my misgivings for the project.

To begin with, the name is unfortunate. Right out of the gate, the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business rings clunky and awkward to my ears and, I’m sure, to those of business leaders, students and H.R. recruiters. Nothing is wrong with “Johnson,” which honors a generous family of Cornellians. Rather, the “College of Business” attachment sullies the initiative. When I first heard of the project, I immediately associated it with “business colleges,” archaic secretary schools in the ’50s and ’60s where people learned typewriting and shorthand. A simple Google search confirms my suspicion. A business college, according to Wikipedia is a “school that provides education above the high school level but could not be compared to that of a traditional university…business colleges typically train the student for a specific vocational aspect, usually clerical tasks such as typing, stenography or simple bookkeeping.” Perhaps I had remembered the term from reading Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Amanda, matriarch of the Wingfields, had registered her daughter at a business college so she could become a secretary: “AMANDA: No, dear, you go in front and study your typewriter chart. Or practise your shorthand…I put her in business college — a dismal failure!” Cornell’s business schools obviously do much more, but this new name fails to reflect it and even emanates connotations of low quality.

One of the main goals of this project was to push our business offerings among the ranks of Wharton, Stern, Harvard, etc. So why did we not take an obvious page from their books? They are all business schools: Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. New York University Leonard N. Stern School of Business. Harvard Business School. The reason is probably because of a technicality: our new program, being a combination of three schools, would grant multiple degrees, rather than one in business. But honestly, no one cares.

Business students want to put reputable, elegant names on their résumés and recruiters want to recognise them while skimming the paper. The name may be trivial, but as all good business students know: H.R. throw resumes with misspellings in the trash. In the corporate world, the stakes are high. Details matter.

Even more troubling is the project’s structure. No one knows what it is. Not Cornell students, professors, and certainly not a corporate recruiter who sits in New York, Boston or Chicago. Even employees of the combined college I’ve spoken to don’t fully understand what it is. To begin with, there is an obvious logical inconsistency. Johnson, Dyson and Hotel are going to be combined in a “College of Business.” But as Provost Michael Kotlikoff and former Dean Dutta have insisted, they remain distinct entities. This logical discrepancy leads to much confusion.

So are they together or separate entities? What about the 14 colleges that make up the University? So, with this new college that combines the three, will there officially now be 14 – 3 + 1 = 12 colleges? But Cornell’s website still says it has 14 colleges. If I were a prospective undergraduate student looking to study business, which school should I apply to — Hotel, Dyson, or SC Johnson? If I were a job-hunting senior, which name should I put on my resume?

Furthermore, what is it supposed to do? The major advantage this college purportedly brings is a bridging of fractured programs by connecting faculty and research within the three schools. A noble task, but one that could have been accomplished for perhaps less than $150 million and without a new college. Maybe a “Cornell Business Collective” or “Connection” programme where faculty and students can network, or the Registrar combining overlapping classes would have done the trick. Instead, with this new college-esque entity, they have hired a slew of deans and staff and built an entirely new office in the middle of Collegetown.

In response to Dutta’s resignation, Dyson Professor William Lesser commented that the new college’s finances are “suspect,” with insufficient revenue. Low revenue. That’s not quite surprising, because the college of business is not really a college in its own right, it does not admit students and charge them tuition. Instead, Hotel, Dyson (within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) and Johnson still do, and I would wager that they have been loath in sharing their revenues with this nascent, strange entity.

Most problematic of all is the college of business’ lack of direction from the start. This time last year, Provost Kotlikoff proposed that step one in the project would be for the Board of Trustees to create “an empty vessel” and step two would be for students, faculty and alumni to fill in its details. We don’t have time for “empty vessels.” Wharton and Stern are light-years ahead in reputation, and to this day, the project’s leadership has been as silent on its direction as it has been on Dean Dutta’s resignation. Quite frankly, the provost’s proposal sounds like that of a Shark Tank contestant or an unscrupulous startup begging for venture capital funds. Take the money; we’ll figure it out later.

It pains me to publically castigate our new business program. Cornell, like any other decent university, should offer quality business education. And we do. Dyson, Hotel and Johnson are reputable, distinct programs, with strong alumni bases built over decades. But seeing our new business college meandering around as an “empty vessel” like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and having its founding dean suddenly resign, I cannot help but voice my criticisms as a concerned Cornellian. Dutta’s resignation is a sign of the initiative’s complications. In turn, the SC Johnson College of Business’ ills are symptoms of Cornell’s strange expansionist mantra that has no subtlety of thought and design. If you’d entertain one last business metaphor, we are perhaps turning into the GE of higher education: bloated and devoid of direction. At the naming ceremony of the business college last year, interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III touted that it will help “develop synergies among the three schools.” But buzzwords can only get us so far.

Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]The Dispatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.