From astrophysics to industrial and labor relations, from a “crappy apartment” in Collegetown to the dean’s office in Ives Hall, Alexander Colvin Ph.D. ’99 has plans to reinvigorate the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Colvin — who has worked at Cornell since 2008 — has served as interim dean of the college since October when Kevin Hallock, the previous dean, was selected to head the SC Johnson College of Business. Colvin’s new role will allow him to continue his work and draw on his past 11 years of experience.
“I know a lot about the school,” Colvin told The Sun. “I’ve gotten to know the faculty well here. I’ve taught students here for a long time. It’s really valuable to get to know more and more what their experience is like and understand the curriculum and the classes well.”
Those years also include various administrative roles for Colvin, including interim dean and associate dean for academic affairs, diversity and faculty development.
“The last few years have given me a lot of knowledge about how the school runs,” Colvin said. “To make sure we can deliver really good classes and do great research, there’s a lot of things that have to happen well … A lot of what I’ve been learning is how all those parts of the operation work to make things really work well for the students.”
One of Colvin’s biggest projects was overseeing the hiring of seven new faculty members from schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Columbia and Rutgers.
“I think that’s a really important part of what we do in an administrative role is try to make sure that we have the best possible faculty, who do great research and who can teach good courses for the students,” Colvin said of the new hires and his role in the process.
Colvin predicts that hiring will continue to be a challenge facing ILR, as a number of faculty are set to retire in the coming years.
“We need to do a lot of faculty hiring to … keep operating our programs well,” he said. “But it’s a real opportunity, because when you’re hiring, you can increase the diversity of the faculty. There’s a real chance to reinvigorate the school.”
A big part of Colvin’s leading philosophy and approach to problem-solving stems from his research and teaching focus of conflict resolution.
“I like addressing issues by trying to understand interests,” he said. “You figure out what everybody’s interests are and have everybody express them. Then, you figure out with that, what’s the best solution … You get a better solution if you really understand what everybody’s different interests are.”
Colvin’s interest in ILR only started after his first two degrees: a B.S. and a J.D., both from the University of Toronto.
“I went a more roundabout route than most academics will typically go,” Colvin said of his original studies in astronomy and astrophysics. “I went to law school next, because I wasn’t sure exactly what direction I wanted to go in. But then I really enjoyed labor employment law.”
With a new interest in labor issues, Colvin continued his studies with a master’s degree in industrial relations and eventually a fourth degree — a Ph.D. at Cornell. He said that his years as a student at the University gave him a better understanding of all the aspects of the student experience.
After receiving his Ph.D., Colvin taught at Pennsylvania State University from 1999 to 2008. When he eventually returned to East Hill, he was “happy to come back.”
“ILR has a nice combination of focus,” Colvin said. “It’s really the world’s leading school focused on work, labor and employment … But at the same time, it’s broad in an interesting way. It cuts across different fields and different perspectives.”
In the coming years as dean, Colvin hopes to better define ILR to the world and interact with the ways in which it’s changing.
“Every place has an English department, but not every place has an ILR school,” Colvin said. “I think an important part of the job of dean is to try and explain the school to the wider world what it is exactly that we do.”
What’s his definition? Colvin described ILR as “a multi-disciplinary school focused on all aspects of the world of work, labor and employment … well-placed to think about the [issues involved].”
As the workplace changes and new issues arise, ILR will be at the forefront of those discussions and solutions — with Colvin leading the way.