January 19, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Keep HumEc, Policy Is Just One Part of Our Identity

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Like any true fan of young adult literature, I wanted to go to Hogwarts but had to settle for Cornell. I set out to make this idyllic campus my mystical academic home, and after four years here, I have to say things have gone according to plan … for the most part. I’ve watched Quidditch practice on my way to the A.D. White Library while listening to Hedwig’s Theme blasting from McGraw Tower, but I never thought I’d find myself engaging in a Dumbledore’s Army-like feat: opposing the illogical proposal to turn the College of Human Ecology into a College of Public Policy.

To those unfamiliar with Prof. Urie Bronfenbrenner, human development and psychology, the professor who brought acclaim to my College through his work in creating the Head Start program, the human ecology college might seem vague, but it’s not. The College of Human Ecology encompasses our various environments, contexts and communities’ impacts on us, and in turn how we can impact and improve them. It is derived from Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, which encapsulates the idea that any level of interaction (with other people, societal messages, goods, institutions and even the time period in which we are born) impacts individual development. With this in mind, The College of Human Ecology’s hodge-podge of majors makes a bit more sense: They all capture different environmental spheres of influence that affect our development and whose development we affect. This theory is, by definition, interdisciplinary, and equally highlights the relevance of each of HumEc’s majors. I associate public policy with government and law; it’s less inherently interdisciplinary. Human ecology isn’t easy to explain, but once you get it, it’s easy to understand and see in application. Instead of changing the name of the school, the University should do a better job broadcasting this meaning to current and prospective students, helping them understand how they fit into our human ecology.

Changing the whole college would isolate applicants as well as alumni. Those without an interest in policy would be thrown to the wayside and left unrepresented in the wake of this change. What student interested in studying design and environmental analysis or fiber science and apparel design (the only fashion major in the Ivy League, making it all the more worthy of representation) would look for these majors within a College of Public Policy? It was explicitly and repeatedly stated during the Social Sciences Review Committee’s listening sessions that the goal is to raise the prominence of policy scholars at Cornell to equate that of other elite institutions — not students’ requests. A simple name change will not reap those effects. Even if it does, it would be to the detriment of scholars of other disciplines. HumEc’s pride in its unique identity is a major selling point to past, present and future Cornellians. Students apply and transfer here for a one-of-a-kind education, and doing away with the essence of this education would make Cornell just like every other university.

Not even every policy, analysis and management student is interested in policy, with counter-inclinations towards business, statistics, economics and law. I’ve spoken to some in favor of streamlining resources, but not at the expense of their peers’ academic identities. PAM professors’ interests haven’t shifted away from these fields and towards public policy, resulting in a much smaller proportion of PAM students in HumEc. This trend isn’t changing. PAM is a highly transferred-out-of major; it was said during the last SSR listening session that PAM comprises less than 14-17 percent of HumEc’s student body. We shouldn’t put the cart before the horse and change the name of the College to fit faculty’s interests. We should hire new faculty whose interests align with those of the students.

We can distinguish Cornell’s policy scholars without destroying a historic college’s academic identity and ostracizing scholars of other equally relevant disciplines. Food for thought: There’s a relationship between public policy and ILR, but perhaps ILR is not being targeted given their more prominent opposition to last year’s proposed merger with HumEc. I’m attempting to emulate that commendable resistance. The alternative to a college, a public policy school that sits in between Arts & Sciences and HumEc, has received so little air time that some students feel it’s a conciliation option. This model, however, would please HumEc policy scholars by centralizing resources and easing faculty collaboration and non-policy HumEc scholars by allowing our departments to maintain their integrity. The college model was framed as a natural evolution for HumEc, but it’s inorganic and superficial: its primary aim is to up Cornell’s policy clout. The SSR committee, the most informed party and the only one directly fielding students’ concerns, have no real decision-making power. They are now aware of students’ distaste for the college model, but lack executive power, they can’t say how our input will affect the actualization of any proposal, if it will at all. I encourage you to write to Provost Michael Kotlikoff and President Martha Pollack with your opinion. Progress for the sake of progress (without precedent and buy-in from student stakeholders) must be discouraged. I urge you to recognize the lack of merit in changing HumEc into the College of Public Policy, and the potential for immense detriment such a move would bring.

Gaby Kubi is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. Comments may be sent to [email protected].