January 28, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Any Person, Any Study: In Defense of the Excellence in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology

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If university leadership were to implement the recommendation to disband the College of Human Ecology, they would lose a center of interdisciplinary, community-engaged and diverse research excellence.

After months of deliberation, the Social Sciences Implementation Committee issued its final report. The ten voting members of the committee were narrowly divided with a 6 to 4 majority favoring the “re-envisioning” of the College of Human Ecology into a College of Public Policy and the creation of “super-departments” in economics, sociology, and psychology.

This recommendation, though, ignores issues reiterated during numerous public listening sessions by stakeholders within the college as well as the broader Cornell community.

Three quarters of CHE faculty are not in Policy Analysis and Management and have made it loud and clear that the switch to a policy college would not reflect their research interests, professional expertise and teaching.70 percent of current CHE students are not in a policy-related major and have voiced similar concerns. Relocating these faculty and students or leaving them to scrape by in a college that no longer considers their scholarly goals as a priority would severely disrupt a thriving hub of excellence in research and teaching. It would also run counter to the implementation committee’s charge towards “maintaining important academic connections and successful academic programs, respecting the intellectual contributions of all our faculty, and minimizing unnecessary disruption.”

More importantly, abandoning the current model and vision of the college would directly counteract three major academic initiatives aimed at fostering radical collaboration, community engagement, and faculty diversity that were announced by the provost’s office in recent years.

Since its inception as the College of Home Economics in the 1920s and its renaming as the College of Human Ecology in 1969, CHE has been a center of inter- and multi-disciplinary research excellence, guided by the radical vision that people’s relationships to their natural, social and built environments play a critical role in shaping their health, wealth and happiness. To this end, the college has been a trailblazer in transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries to support cutting edge research that translates basic science into real-life outcomes. Forcing faculty members who currently reside in multi-disciplinary units to align their research and teaching with “super-departments” will stifle such innovation. In fact, I just heard from a colleague who is abandoning a planned collaboration with Weill Cornell because it doesn’t clearly align with disciplinary boundaries and is therefore “too risky” in light of looming changes.

Similarly, since the college’s founders Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose first reached out to local farmers’ wives in the early 1900s, CHE has been a hub of community engaged research and extension programs. Not surprisingly, CHE is a key player in the Engaged Cornell initiative. CHE features the largest enrollment in community-engaged learning courses anywhere on campus per faculty member, with the majority of opportunities offered outside of PAM. In recent years, numerous CHE faculty and graduate students were supported through Engaged Cornell research grants, often collaborating with undergraduate student researchers. Such community and outreach initiatives would be severely hampered in a policy college model and — with the loss of lab-based scientists — the college’s record engagement of undergraduates in faculty research would suffer.

Finally, with respect to diversity, CHE currently leads Cornell in the percentage of underrepresented minorities (15 percent) and women faculty (48 percent). In contrast, the current composition of PAM (which offers a tentative prediction of what a public policy college might look like) is significantly less diverse. The current CHE student body is diverse as well, and the college’s pre-med majors attract high numbers of transfer students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend university. In part, CHE’s success in fostering diversity may be traced to the college’s century-long tradition of female leadership and long-standing support for minority scholars (Flemmie Kittrell ’36, Ph.D. Nutrition, was the first African American woman to receive a doctoral degree from Cornell). More importantly, however, CHE offers a hub for the kind of interdisciplinary, community-engaged and context-aware research that is known to attract both women and minority researchers. Though equally influential (in terms of citation ranks and other analytics) and perhaps more impactful with respect to real-life outcomes, such research is still systematically undervalued by the scientific establishment. Cornell would be well-advised to follow the lead of the National Institute of Health and other major players in addressing such biases rather than forcing the diverse research community in CHE to revert back to twentieth century disciplinary silos.

In summary, I urge university leadership to preserve the College of Human Ecology in its present form and find a way to promote public policy at Cornell that doesn’t gamble with the careers of individual CHE faculty and doesn’t risk a century-long record of interdisciplinary, community-engaged and diverse research excellence.

Corinna Loeckenhoff is an associate professor in the College of Human Ecology. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to [email protected].