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September 2007

What Should The Sun Cover?

The Sun reached an extraordinary milestone in its 127-year history this week, when it published an op-ed criticizing its news coverage -- by President David Skorton, who now writes a monthly column on the opinion page. Since the implosion of the noble Sun ombudsman in 2005, a few people have temporarily taken up the mantle of criticizing the paper they care about in its own pages -- me, for one, and just a couple of weeks ago, columnist Rob Fishman -- but never Cornell's president.

Skorton's criticism, delivered in soothing tones available only to the polished jazz flutist, gently wondered (not whined) whether The Sun should be opining on matters as weighty and complex as the College of Architecture, Art & Planning without reporting on it in the news pages first. He disregards the general separation between opinion and news in making the criticism but touches on an important point. Why hasn't the paper written any substantive coverage on the issues surrounding the college in recent memory? We've got a dispute with the city, students being relocated downtown, a proposed Milstein Hall with ballooning costs, a departing dean, and who knows what else. When I covered that beat, the big question was whether Provost Biddy Martin would divide the place up into separate departments. There's always something going on in Sibley Hall; why don't we know what's happening beyond official pronouncements and spin?

The larger question of what exactly The Sun is covering in its news pages was forced yesterday by a post on IvyGate implying that the paper has been "paraphrasing" articles from Inside Higher Ed in an attempt to "localize" them for the Ithaca campus. I wrote one of the pieces in question, and I noticed the Sun articles that were clearly inspired by them a couple of weeks later. What caught my attention at the time wasn't that the paper was looking for ideas at IHE (which many papers do, and I hope they continue to do), but that there was such a half-hearted attempt to adapt the themes to Cornell. When you try to localize a story but your Cornell sources tell you it doesn't really apply, they're negating the trend, as in this example about a professor who used Jon Stewart's America: The Book in class. ("Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, said that she would not use the book as an official text," but shockingly, students interviewed would.)

A paper's always going to need filler and opportunities for compets to write enough stories to make the news board. (Recent examples: "Groups Address African Flooding", "Museum Makes Science Fun for Everyone", the requisite annual Jim Maas sleep feature, "Students Hunger for Diversity") But instead of forcing stories that don't work, or cribbing ideas without developing them further, The Sun should look more into its own backyard. What are professors saying in the lounges at AAP? What kind of money is Cornell pulling in from its ventures in China? What's with the variable admit rates for men and women in these statistics?

In fact, enterprising Sun editors and reporters looking for story ideas could start right here. (As they sometimes do.) For almost two years, Matt has been pointing out (before anyone else) significant trends in Cornell's admissions race, financial aid, and endowment, not to mention a potentially budding fiasco with Milstein Hall. We try to elaborate on issues that are important to alumni, but they're important for those on campus, too -- and not nearly exhaustive. Who knows what revelations other investigations could yield?

Andy Guess | September 28, 2007 (#)

Cornell's Endowment Return: 24.2 Percent

A quick glance through today's New York Times will reveal an article about the the skyrocketing endowment returns at colleges and universities across the country. Yale continues to lead the world with a 28 percent return between July 2006 and July 2007:

The Yale Endowment has had a 17.8 percent average annual return over the last decade, beating Harvard, its nearest rival in size, by 2.8 percentage points. During that 10-year period, Princeton came closest to Yale, with a 16.2 percent return.

The second-best-performing school last year was Amherst College, which generated a 27.8 percent return, to raise its value to $1.7 billion. Generally the larger university endowments do better than the smaller ones, according to data compiled by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Among the top 10 performing endowments last year, Notre Dame, Duke, Michigan, Virginia and Northwestern all had returns over 25 percent. Notre Dame came in third behind Yale and Amherst at 25.9 percent.

And what about our fair Cornell? A recent publication by the University's investment office reports that Cornell's endowment returned 24.2 percent for fiscal year 2007, up there with the rest of the pack. Cornell's endowment now stands at 5.12 billion dollars. And it beat Harvard's endowment in terms of percentage growth:

Harvard, which has been in the news lately because of the sudden departure of its investment chief, Mohamed A. El-Erian, posted a 23 percent return, bringing its endowment to $34.9 billion.

Still, it's important to remember that even though Cornell's endowment grew at an impressive rate, Harvard and Yale's endowment are so much larger that their endowments grew by an amount equivalent to Cornell's entire endowment.

Of course, these are all returns as of June 30th, 2007. How any of these endowments have performed during the financial roller-coaster ride of the summer months remains to be seen... I hope that none of them have made some foolish investments in the subprime mortgage backed-securities market...

Matthew Nagowski | September 28, 2007 (#)

Behold the Cantilever!

A picture is worth 1,000 words:

Says the soon to be resigning Dean:

"A lot of us have been really excited by the cantilevered version of the project from the very beginning. It's great to see this design being pursued now," said AAP Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, noting that the cost of the cantilever will need to be added to the $41 million total Milstein project cost.

Matthew Nagowski | September 28, 2007 (#)

Skorton Outlines a Land-Grant Vision

This week President David J. Skorton has essentially laid out a comprehensive vision of where land-grant colleges fit in the 21st-century landscape. Some have criticized the idea of the land-grant mission as out of date, a vestige of the post-Civil War industrial boom, but Skorton suggests that critics haven't considered the broader possibilities for American colleges and universities whose collective research expertise lies in agriculture, livestock and health.

The answer: a new Marshall Plan for the 21st century, focused not on rebuilding Europe but making higher education accessible to the developing world and providing technical assistance. He's suggested this before, but writing in this week's Chronicle Review, which requires a subscription, Skorton elaborates:

No single college or university, acting alone, can achieve what will be needed in tomorrow's world. Together, however, the nation's great research institutions -- public and private, land-grant and Ivy League, working with the U.S. government, businesses, foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and, most important, our academic colleagues overseas -- can offer a more focused application of our own resources to reach out, materially and directly, to assist and improve the quality of life.

Then Skorton picks up on this summer's Congressional testimony and appears to make a pitch for an increased American university presence abroad (which skeptics would also attribute to a strong profit motive):

The reality is that there is not enough capacity worldwide to satisfy the spiraling demand for higher education, which is fueled by the needs of an exploding global middle class -- particularly in China and India -- and the collapse of Africa's higher-education infrastructure. That leaves a growing number of capable students with no options to pursue their education. Simply put, we cannot handle tomorrow's students and the demands for advanced skills with the resources that exist today.

The solution? Build on the land-grant model!

In the United States, we can tap the strengths of higher education to develop a new kind of plan to deal with this challenge. First, the many research and land-grant colleges and universities should coordinate their current efforts in capacity building in the developing world, perhaps through intercampus agreements or professional associations like the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

... Then hope Congress backs a massive financial push to expand higher education abroad, like it did this month (kind of) with the passage of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. It's worth noting that Skorton is, so far, putting his money (or at least, willing donors' money) where his mouth is: Cornell is supporting a new doctoral program in plant breeding at the University of Ghana in addition to sending faculty to Ethiopia to start the university's first degree program in Africa, a Master of Professional Studies in international agriculture and rural development.

Andy Guess | September 19, 2007 (#)

Does Cornell Make You Dumber?

It's the second year of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's report card on college students' civic aptitude, and things aren't looking great for our elite colleges. The report, "Failing Our Students, Failing America," ranks colleges and universities based on the mean score of a 60-question test given to random students on campus.

Cornell doesn't fare well. In fact, out of 50 colleges and universities profiled, Cornell is ranked dead last in the "value added" category, meaning that the average senior gets a score that's about 5% lower than the average freshman. Students are actually losing the civics knowledge they came in with, which they probably learned in high school.

I didn't learn much about civics at Cornell; most of my education about the topics covered by the survey -- America's history, government, international relations, and economy -- came in addition to or despite my formal education. I suspect that institutions with core curricula, like Columbia and Chicago, and small colleges like St. John's and Hillsdale, which are humanities-focused or Great Books-centered, produce students who are more knowledgeable about political philosophy, history, and the political process. Still, college-educated people tend to vote, volunteer and participate in society in more beneficial ways than others.

This report is clearly intended as a call for greater "accountability" and mandatory core courses. Or maybe this just means more people should major in government and history.

The findings seem relevant, now that on the 20th anniversary of former Cornell professor Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, the book's renewed call for a Western canon (and a related push for increased relevance for the humanities) is being celebrated, reviled and debated.

So why isn't there a single set of knowledge and skills that students can all demonstrate once they come out of college? Says Tony Judt in the Times Book Review piece:

"It’s much more like a supermarket -- kids can take pretty much any courses they like: Jewish kids take Jewish studies, gay students gay studies, black students African-American studies. You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves."

Andy Guess | September 18, 2007 (#)

Big Brother Ezra

U.S. News and World Report is running an article on the steps that colleges are taking to make their campuses safer in a post-Virgina Tech world. Cornell is referenced heavily in the piece:

At Cornell University, where foreign students tend to avoid the campus counseling center, a counselor now staffs an outpost in the international dorm so the isolated and struggling can drop in for an impromptu chat…The ratio of counselors to students at the University of South Florida is 1 to 3,500… Some, like Cornell and Wisconsin, are adding counseling offices in dorms and academic buildings so students have ready access; at Cornell, there's a counselor for every 800 students… Cornell has two counselors on staff whose sole job is to talk with faculty and staff and pick up the first inklings of trouble...

I think it is important to differentiate here between reactive and proactive policies. Reactive policies attempt to weed out the “problem students” before they cause havoc. This appears to be what Cornell is doing. Proactive policies, meanwhile, would attempt to limit the possibility that a student could ever become a “problem student” in the first place.

Granted, Cornell’s role in a student becoming a “problem student” is a small one, and there is nothing that Cornell can do to influence the demeanor and attitude of a student in the first 18 years of his or her life.

But could Cornell also be a little bit more proactive in it’s risk mitigation efforts? Would less “programming” and simple changes to Cornell’s student experience help, like replacing a stressful nighttime prelim schedule with a week of midterms? Or how about putting an end to the nickel-ing and dime-ing of the student body?

I should be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that these types of simple changes would stop a VT-like scenario from developing, but that they might help to make Cornell a happier, healthier place for all students to live and learn.

Matthew Nagowski | September 14, 2007 (#)

A Cantilevered Milstein?

Apparently now the University is prepared to spend even more money to build a newly reconfigured Milstein. The new design lacks structural supports on the Fall Creek side of University Avenue and raises the "bottom" of the now-cantilevered portion of the building conveniently out of Ithaca's jurisdiction.

As the Ithaca Journal reports:

Rem Koolhaas, the building designer for Milstein Hall, had originally called for the section of building that juts out over University Avenue to be supported by a cantilever, an architectural design where a structure is supported on only one side. For example, balconies are often built with cantilevers.

This design will cost the university millions more dollars than the proposal it took off the table Wednesday night, but it will avoid the problems that have kept members of the Board of Public Works from granting approval for months: University Avenue will not need to be straightened, so the university and BPW will not have to negotiate trading land or easements; there will be no support beams in the sidewalks in the public right of way so the university will not need BPW approval for their placement; and the cantilever design will put the building four inches higher off the ground — 15 feet — which meets all existing state requirements.

Superintendent of Public Works Bill Gray wondered aloud about the financial ramifications of Cornell's decision, for the university and the city.

“Shirley's passing this off as something they can do, and they can do it if they want to pay for it, but to me, this is a much bigger change in the structural arrangement of the building than this conversation indicates,” Gray said. “If they end up spending an awful lot of money that they don't get to use other places on campus, and we don't get the benefit from the road construction and other things, I'm not sure it's the best use of the combined assets of the community.”

Cornell had agreed to repair at its expense a large portion of University Avenue, from the Johnson Museum to the Thurston Avenue bridge. Egan said it is unclear how much if any of the road Cornell will repair with the new design.

When I think of a cantilever, I think of the obnoxious part of Duffield Hall that sits out over the Engineering Quad that undoubtedly cost an extra couple of million dollars to build when the money could have gone to far better uses: like biomedical nanotechnology research to cure cancer.

There's an interesting aspect to the word 'cantilever' -- the words can't and ever are embedded within it.

And with the way both the University and the City of Ithaca are behaving like grown-up babies, it's not surprising that a majority of Cornell community realizes that Milstein can't ever be built.

But MetaEzra would love to hear from some structural engineers on this. A year ago we asserted that building Milstein so close to the lip of a gorge was a dangerous, costly idea. Doesn't a cantilevered design make it even more so? It's not like the University hasn't had experience in this department, what with Court Hall sinking and the north wing of Martha Van needing to be demolished.

Matthew Nagowski | September 13, 2007 (#)

Getting History Right

There is a really interesting article in the Daily Sun today about the houses and history of Collegetown. The author includes all of these wonderful historical gems about the houses that Cornellians walk by each and every day on their way to classes:

For instance, Nabokov wrote (and almost destroyed) Lolita at 802 E. Seneca street. I walked by this house every day for two years, and never realized the significance of the structure.

But there is unfortunately also some misinformation. The article asserts:

The Sages are another notable Collegetown family. Henry Sage, who donated the Sage College for Women (presently the Johnson School of Management), built a home for him and his son between East State and East Seneca Streets. Today, most Cornellians know this house as Sage Place. Many member of the Glee Club live here, so the house frequently plays host to a capella after-parties.

But the house referred to as 'Sage Place' (103 Sage Place), now home to members of the Glee Club, was never a residence for the Sage family. Rather, the lot it (and it's greenhouse and carriage house) stands on was purchased by Liberty Hyde Bailey from the Sages. The house was designed by Liberty Hyde and resided in by Bailey until his death in the 1950s and his family until the 1970s. Bailey, as you know, was the first Dean of the New York State College of Agriculture and botanist extraodinaire. The much more grandiose building across the parking lot/street from the Bailey homestead, now home to Cornell University Press, was the residence for the Sage's.

I should know. I lived in the former Bailey homestead during my senior year, and myself and my house mates became somewhat obsessed with the esteemed botanist. The house was littered with his books (which should really be in the University archives), and we incorporated the spirit of Dr. Bailey into seemingly every aspect of our lives. We all read a biography of Bailey and visited the fantastic exhibit on him in Kroch library. Our two house pets, a fish and a tarantula, were named 'Liberty' and 'Hyde', respectively. And we held two different formal, black-tie events; 'The Liberty Hyde Bailey Ball' in the autumn, and in May: "La Pasiflora Caerulea: A Springtime Soiree" (named after one of Bailey's favorite plants).

Ah, college.

Matthew Nagowski | September 07, 2007 (#)

Recent Cornell Grad Dies, Lives

One of Ezra's finest is counting his blessings this weekend:

Ryan O'Gorman wasn't breathing Monday night. He had no pulse, and his heart hadn't beaten in 20 minutes. For all intents and purposes, he was dead. Yet on Friday afternoon, O'Gorman, 22, pulled a Cornell University baseball cap over his mop of dark curls and walked out of Mercy Hospital with a full future in front of him.

An improbable -- many say miraculous -- past few days will always accompany O'Gorman, even though he has little recollection of them.

The recent Cornell graduate survived a freak accident in which he was severely shocked into cardiac arrest, while trying to rescue a dog that had jumped into an Eden farm pond.

Is there anything a Cornellian can't do?

Matthew Nagowski | September 01, 2007 (#)

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