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Mechanics Move Foreshadows Future Changes on East Hill

Our Bucharest bureau recently wrote in to direct our attention to last week's Inside Higher Education article on the consolidation of the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at Cornell. We had noted the announcement a couple weeks ago in the sidebar, but the IHE article goes into a little bit more detail:

The merging or closing of departments is often attributed to cost cutting, but that’s not the primary driver at Cornell, according to Kent Fuchs, the former dean of engineering who took over as provost this month. Tough economic times have forced the college to slow hiring, but Fuchs said he would have wanted to “reinvent” TAM absent any financial pressures.

“The primary move is looking at what our priorities will be for the future,” he said.

The college aims to invest in its mechanical and aerospace programs, in part by adding faculty slots to those areas when TAM faculty leave or retire over time, Fuchs said.”

Interestingly, two of Cornell's most noted individuals have been associated with the Mechanics department -- Steven Strogatz, an authority on chaos and synchronous order who wrote the prize-winning book Sync, and Duncan Watts, who earned his PhD at Cornell before going on to be a professor of sociology at Columbia, famed for his work on networks and small world effects.

Fuchs tries to explain why the move isn't due to cost cutting, and why the decision stands on its own laurels, but I have a hard time believing the argument, especially with such a specious assertion as "Cornell is the last of the top-ranked colleges of engineering to maintain a TAM department." (Okay, but how many of those non-existent departments have had people of Watts or Strogatz's caliber? None.) For those interested, some engineers have made the case for TAMs continual existence on this blog, where it is suggested that Fuchs never actually understood how valuable TAM has been to Cornell.

At the same time, one MetaEzra confidant, an '06 Engineering alum who is currently pursuing his PhD in engineering at Michigan had the following to say:

TAM doesn't have any undergrads and the distinction between studying applied math in the math department, or OR department, or this department for graduate work is subtle. I always thought of TAM as a interdisciplinary program cause they seem to have a lot of overlap with Mechanical, Aerospace, and other areas of engineering.

So it may really be water off of a duck's back in the grand scheme of things.

But what's done is done, and I think what we can take away from the experience is that the Cornell administration will not be afraid to reorganize departments and alter funding lines against political considerations. And David Skorton has suggested back in the fall that he is eager to start cutting through the Big Red tape.

With this in mind, what other academic departments might be up for possible merger, consolidation, or even elimination across the university?

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on January 17, 2009 (#)

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