Courtesy of Cornell University

Dean Ray Jayawardhana will leave his position July 13 in order to take a new position as provost of Johns Hopkins University.

September 16, 2019

Dean Ray Jayawardhana on His First Year at a ‘Non-Stuffy’ Ivy and His Vision Moving Forward

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Now with a year under his belt as the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ray Jayawardhana has a list of accomplishments: a college-wide advising seminar, a newly revised curriculum and renewed goals to serve students.

The Sun sat down with Ray Jayawardhana to reflect back on his first year — and to discuss what might be next for Arts and Sciences.

Housing over 4,000 undergraduate students and offering nearly 2,000 courses, the arts college faces a great challenge: its sheer complexity and diversity, according to Jayawardhana. As a result, when he first arrived in Ithaca to replace outgoing dean Gretchen Ritter ’83 last September, Jayawardhana’s first move was to quickly meet with as faculty members as possible, who offered him key insight into the school’s vast landscape and their priorities.

“I call Cornell the non-stuffy Ivy League institution,” Jayawardhana joked. “People are very open, supportive, collegial, and incredibly collaborative … It’s been really fun to partner with colleagues to generate ideas and identify priorities, but then also to actually work together to advance them.”

Most of Jayawardhana’s work over the past year has centered on addressing and implementing priorities identified by the faculty, including, most notably, the curriculum review. The two-year-long review, which began before Jayawardhana started, initially aimed to propose “substantial restructuring” of Cornell’s liberal arts program, The Sun previously reported.

Under Jayawardhana’s stewardship, a number of reforms stemming from that review have or will soon be put into place.

For instance, students now have the option to take American Sign Language to fulfill their language requirement, and all incoming students will now participate in a college-wide advising seminar — a class fully rolled out this fall in order to give freshmen more comprehensive faculty advising and mentoring.

Another more “modest” achievement was increasing the Summer Experience Grants, “which allow students to take on unpaid or low-paid opportunities or internships that they might not be otherwise able to afford to take,” according to Jayawardhana.

“We’ve been able to double the funding given out this last summer,” he said. “It makes a difference because it helps level the playing field for our students. It really allows our students to combine a curiosity-driven liberal arts education … with developing skills that may be relevant for work after college.”

In the next year, Jayawardhana hopes to expand opportunities for undergraduate research and to evaluate and alleviate gaps of access. Having previously served as Dean of Science for one of Canada’s largest universities, one of the most exciting parts of his job is being able to see student-faculty relationships and a shared passion for their work.

“I find it really satisfying when I visit faculty labs, [and get] the sense of how passionate our faculty members are about their work and their research and working with their students,” Jayawardhana said. “This is not just something we talk about and boast about, but it’s actually a reality that’s experienced by the students.”

In addition to student opportunities, Jayawardhana is excited to continue the process of hiring faculty to “build on excellence which already exists.” In the last cycle, the arts college has made 31 faculty appointments, adding to the school’s existing roster of over 600.

But faculty expansion is only one component of Jayawardhana’s broader strategy for evaluating room for growth and new initiatives.

“It’s not so much of growth in numbers,” he explained. “It’s both quantitative, but also qualitative. It’s raising the bar, raising the impact.”

As Jayawardhana asks his faculty to reach out into the community, he said they’ve taken this to heart and organized meaningful interactions.

One memory that stood out most from the past year was the 12-hour public reading of The Odyssey’s latest translation. Seventy people — Jayawardhana included — read throughout the day in Klarman Hall’s atrium. In the afternoon, the dean brought his five-year-old to the event.

“I thought, ‘This is going to seem unusual’ — but there were three other children playing around,” he recalled. “This is what it meant to be there … It was an intellectual event, but it was also a community event.”

That kind of collaboration and community are what have inspired Jayawardhana most in the past year, as he worked with associate deans, faculty and students to improve the College.

Reflecting on some of the most memorable moments of his past year, Jayawardhana shared a common experience of stepping back from his busy schedule.

“[I’ll] look down at a red sunset behind the clock tower,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful view of campus, and I walk across, thinking, ‘Wow, I get to work here.”