On October 2, ILR Dean Kevin Hallock shocked the ILR community by sending out a mass e-mail announcing that he had sought and received an appointment as the Dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, an apparent promotion over his position at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. As Dean Hallock goes on to what he and Cornell’s senior administration believe to be bigger and better things, he leaves behind an ILR school at an important crossroads. Will the ILR school be reduced to a niche business school and a stepping stone for promising business leaders or will it fulfill its potential to be the world’s leading institution for the study of work, workers and employment?
The ILR school was founded in 1945 during an era of massive change in the American labor market. Enabled by New Deal legislation and fueled by a wave of post-depression left-wing militancy workers across the United States were joining unions by the millions and organizing bold and confrontational strikes to demand a bigger share of the economic fruits of their labor. While much of this conflict was certainly a product of workers stepping up to demand a fairer share of the profits they were generating, many labor, business and political leaders suggested that at least some of this friction was caused by labor and management leaders lacking common methods, skills and practices to facilitate orderly collective bargaining relationships.
To address this challenge the ILR school was founded, “to improve industrial and labor conditions in the State through the provision of instruction, the conduct of research, and the dissemination of information in all aspects of industrial, labor, and public relations affecting employers and employees.” While the founding challenge of the ILR school may have been navigating the emerging relationship between unions and management, over the past seven decades the ILR school has been at the leading edge of research and education human resources management, emerging models conflict resolution, compensation studies, and most recently, technological change and evolving models of employment.
At various points in the school’s history, institutional forces have attempted to push ILR away from its focus on the world of work. In 2005, while I was an undergraduate at ILR, then-President Jeffrey Lehman sought reposition ILR as a business and pre-law program by offering Jan Svejnar, a business professor from the University of Michigan who had served on the supervisory boards of multiple public companies an appointment as dean.
Throughout the public search process, students, faculty and alumni expressed an overwhelming opposition to Svejnar’s appointment, seeing it as a move to shift the school away original mission and towards offering a more generic education in business administration. Having been ignored in the formal search process, dozens of students and alumni contacted Svejnar directly to discourage him from accepting the controversial appointment.
Recognizing the commitment of so many stakeholders to upholding ILR’s mission to promote study of work, workers and employment, Svejnar turned the offer down. Cornell appointed Professor Harry Katz as dean and the ILR school not only continued the work of studying and teaching industrial and labor relations, it redoubled its efforts by expanding programs in conflict resolution, compensation studies and evolving models of workplace organizing.
More recently, the ILR school survived yet another existential threat to its unique identity when Provost Michael Kotlikoff announced that he had set aside the widely panned proposal to merge ILR and the School of Human Ecology.
With the sudden departure of Dean Hallock and the upcoming search for a new dean, the ILR school finds itself at a crossroads once again. Will ILR’s next dean see leadership of this unique school as a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the world of business or will the administration appoint a dean with the experience and commitment to lead our school and our society in understanding and creating the jobs of the future?
Decades ago the ILR school set out to help our country to navigate the tumultuous relationship between manufacturing workers in labor unions and the country’s massive industrial employers. Now fewer than ten percent of workers are members of labor unions and employment in the manufacturing sectors is a shell of what it once was. While the study of traditional union-management relations will certainly always be a core part of the study of industrial relations, the ILR school is faced with the daunting task of making sense of employment relationships in today’s economy.
Today, the world of work is changing every bit as rapidly and dramatically as it was in 1945 when the ILR school was founded. The rise of the gig economy, platform capitalism and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning are all dramatically re-organizing the labor market and transforming the relationship between people and their work. Employers, workers and policy makers are all faced with important and challenging questions about the status of independent contractors, the role of employment arbitration, technology’s uneven impact on the workplace and new models of collective representation. The ILR school is uniquely positioned to help our society navigate these questions.
Now, more than ever workers, employers and policy makers need a top-flight institution dedicated to studying the world of work and developing the tools that we need to create productive, healthy, and equitable workplaces. With the upcoming dean search we will have an important opportunity to rise to that challenge by choosing a dean with a serious track record in the study of labor and employment relations and a commitment to helping us understand and create the workplaces of the future.
Patrick Young ’06 MILR ’20 is a graduate student in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.