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February 2009

Convocation Selection Needs to be Reformed

I will let others reserve judgement on the selection of Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, as this year's Convocation speaker. But I think its patently obvious that the entire process, nay philosophy, for selecting a Convocation speaker should be re-considered.

For quite some time, the process of selecting a speaker can be best compared to the way in which a new pope is chosen. The entire graduating class waits around, breaths held, until some self-important and all-assuming members of their class come to a seemingly random decision and decide to let some white smoke emit from their chamber. And look where it has gotten us:

-- Wesley Clark (2005)
-- Danny Glover (2002)
-- James Carville (2003)
-- Martin Luther King III (2006)
-- Soledad O'Brien (2007)

Admittedly, Bill Clinton in 2004 and Maya Angelou last year were bright spots and many thought that Soledad's speech was touching and insightful. But the norm for Cornell's convocation speakers is overwhelmingly a D for disappointment.

And I must say, I will forever be embarrassed by the fact that my parents and I had the privilege of hearing Wesley Clark's stump speech -- almost verbatim -- a year after he had dropped out of the Democratic primaries and six months after John Kerry lost the 2004 election. Nobody seemed to clue him in on to the fact that a decent percentage of the graduates he was addressing were not Americans, either.

There's an unfortunate, overwhelming tendency to chose liberal figures of marginal political importance in lieu of compelling candidates in the fields of medicine, engineering, business, journalism, comedy, literature, art, or education. It's not like my politics stand in opposition to the political speakers that have been selected, but II could never understand such a politically liberal inclination on a campus that is as diverse and as multifaceted as Cornell's.

So either reform the process so that there is a more diverse set of voices from around campus influencing the decision -- perhaps the deans can select a handful of students from each college instead of putting it in the hands of the campus politicos -- or do away with the practice of inviting a random speaker all together.

One interesting resolution to the problem would only allow a Cornell faculty member -- chosen by the graduating class -- to be chosen to speak. The Mortar Board Honor Society has never had trouble finding faculty members to provide interesting, entertaining, and insightful speeches to student as past of their Last Lecture series -- including the likes of Ron Ehrenberg, Harry Segal, Michelle Moody-Adams, and Jim Mass. Still another option would be to limit the selection process to Cornell alumni -- it shouldn't be news to anybody that there are a wealth of Cornellians out there in the real world leading very interesting and motivating lives.

I suspect that either option would not only result in a much more content senior class, but also be much cheaper to boot. And that's something that's important to keep in mind these days.

Matthew Nagowski | February 27, 2009 (#)

Moody-Adams Tapped as Dean at Columbia

You read it here first...

Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of philosophy at Cornell University, will become Columbia College’s next dean, assuming the mantle from Austin Quigley and becoming the first woman and first African American to hold the post. She will begin her tenure on July 1, 2009.

Moody-Adams will also take on an additional title, vice president for undergraduate education. In the newly created position, she will be the spokesperson for undergraduates to the senior administration. She will also hold an appointment in the philosophy department, where she eventually hopes to teach.
Moody-Adams’ role will extend beyond the college, tying her into the central administration as part of Columbia’s emerging vision for greater integration. In an e-mail notifying undergraduates of the appointment, University President Lee Bollinger lauded Moody-Adams for “ensuring the integrity and coherence of undergraduate curriculum and instruction at Cornell and overseeing a number of academic and residential initiatives.”

The appointment of a new dean comes at a time of administrative flux for the University. The choice of Moody-Adams speaks to Columbia’s direction towards further internal unity. The execution of Bollinger’s long-term goals and upcoming plans—such as the impending expansion in Manhattanville—require cooperation across Columbia’s many decentralized units.

And the Sun actually seems to be running an article as well, although it isn't immediately accessible on their webpage:

Though Moody-Adams has had a long and illustrious career at Cornell, there were numerous factors that contributed to her career decision to move from Ithaca to the Big Apple. Among them were the unique aspects of the Columbia curriculum, which she hopes to streamline and maintain. Moody-Adams cited the specific two-year general education aspects of Columbia College’s curricula that intrigues her.

Additionally, Moody-Adams said she hopes to incite continued debate about the importance of a liberal arts education in an increasingly vocational-directed world. She noted that she wants to prove that it is possible to be well-versed in classic works and still obtain a good job.

A professor since 2000, Moody-Adams has had a lot of time to build up her resume. She said that one of her most enjoyable experiences has been her involvement with building a literary repertoire of the incoming classes.

“Absolutely the most fun thing is the book project,” Moody-Adams said. She has been involved with the New Student Reading Project since its inception in 2000 and helps narrow down the possible selections each year. The book project, however, is only one of many luminous accomplishments for the former Marshall scholar at Oxford.

“The things I feel proudest of, I’ve helped to create a Center for Teaching Excellence and worked with the West Campus housing system,” Moody-Adams said. She helped develop the live-in faculty member program on West Campus and cultivate the “living-learning” atmosphere.

I have a couple of immediate thoughts:

-- The announcement shouldn't come as a surprise. A black woman with administrative experience is a hot commodity in academia these days. Let's just hope that the University can hang on to David Harris.

-- It's unfortunate that Moody-Adams left so soon after Biddy, as it would have been nice to have a bit more continuity of leadership in the Provost's office with regards to undergraduate education. Fuchs will understandably be much more concerned with the nuts and bolts of the University over the coming year, and I hope that undergraduate education doesn't get short-changed in the interim.

-- By all accounts, Moody-Adams was universally well-liked by administrators, faculty, and most importantly, students. My strongest memory of Moody-Adams will always be her heartfelt and moving "Last Lecture" sponsored by Mortar Board in the fall of 2004 -- not only did she present an impassioned argument for the role of philosophical inquiry and humanity in daily life, but I will always remember how touched she was when students offered her a token gesture of their appreciation. She actually teared up.

-- Had she stayed at Cornell she could have easily become the next Isaac Kramnick on campus.

-- Some folks over at Columbia's Bwog are being hilariously immature about the news. One claims that "anything that moves you from Cornell to Columbia is a step up." Another suggests that "the fact that she was at Cornell freaks me out even more. It's probably the only other ivy with as miserable an undergraduate population as Columbia, save Harvard perhaps." Insecure much?

-- Most importantly, it will be interesting to see who Fuchs taps as the next vice-prvosot for undergraduate education, and whether or not they will bring a new philosophy to the position. The first two, Moody-Adams and Kramnick, were largely there to support University-wide "quality of life" initiatives -- like the Tatkon Center, the reading project, and the West Campus System -- while leaving the "real" undergraduate education to the deans. There's been very little talk, for instance, of consolidating economics coursework across the colleges, or encouraging upper-level seminars for all students. That could change, but I doubt it.

Matthew Nagowski | February 27, 2009 (#)

Faculty Attrition

Yesterday's ruminations on how the University can better leverage the abilities of its strongest asset could not have come at a better time, as the Sun is running three excellent articles today on how the University is dealing with its faculty:

On encouraging faculty to retire and managing budgets through attrition:

“Encouraging incentives is something you can do if it’s their choice,” Opperman said. “The downside of that option is one of few things you can do when you give choice to a person, [it] slips into seeming as though you don’t need people who are older. They are some of your most talented workers. You don’t want to braindrain your organization and lose your most valuable people.”

Another aspect of this method of attrition is hiring. Thus far, initial efforts have focused on instituting an external hiring pause – extended to June 30, 2009, internally hiring staff dislocated by program cuts, and providing resources those adversely affected by the cuts, according to Skorton’s report on Jan. 25.

“Some faculty searches will proceed, but significantly fewer across the entire university,” Fuchs told the University. “We need to manage the reduction in the number of faculty strategically, so that high-priority areas don’t lose critical faculty.”

On how ILR has placed the burden of most of its cuts on the extension division:

ILR will make most of its reductions within its extension division, which is responsible for conducting workshops, seminars and courses for alumni and professionals interested in the school’s fields. The cuts will include some lay-offs effective in June.

“[Our cuts] included 17 employees in the ILR extension division…” Katz stated, “They were a mix of professionals and support staff, not faculty.”

In addition to off-campus cuts, the school also plans to create major savings on-campus.

“We’ve left open some staff positions that have been vacated through attrition. Some of those are in the library, some are in administrative support …” Katz noted. “In some cases, we’ll hire lecturers instead of tenured track faculty, which is less expensive.”

Lee Dyer, chairperson of the Department of Human Resource Studies, reiterated that although the school would focus on reducing excess administrative payments, none of the cuts would impact classes.

“Our [department’s] part is to reduce administrative expenditures such as supplies, copying, and the like,” Dyer stated in an e-mail. “Dean Katz is committed to working through this challenge in a way that minimizes its effects on the core mission of the School. Consequently, teaching assignments, classes and staffing — and more specifically the quantity and quality of our course offerings — have been and (absent some cataclysmic turn of events) will continue to be unaffected.”

Yet in spite of the school’s efforts to limit the impact on the types of courses offered, there will be some changes. In an attempt to reduce expenditures, ILR cancelled two of its three faculty hiring searches for this year. In addition, although the number of students has dramatically increased in the last 10 years, the number of faculty has remained constant at 50. While this has aided the school’s ability to run a balanced budget, it has also increased certain class sizes.

“We are concerned in the sense that we’re looking for ways to ensure that students don’t face dramatic increases in class size,” Katz explained. “Some of that we’ve accomplished with more lecturers, some of that we’ve gotten rid of classes that have less than five students.”

And the ongoing calamities in AAP:

In addition to the search for a new department chair, the department’s faculty was a source of discussion. Mulcahy responded to concerns over the lack of tenured professors and the uncertainty some students are feeling regarding how long professors may be staying at Cornell.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve replenished the well in terms of tenure track design faculty. The reality is that we want that to happen and for one reason or another that hasn’t happened. We’re looking forward to a chair that can make that argument for us,” Mulcahy said.

Another issue highlighted in the discussion was visiting faculty. Cruvellier explained that there will be fewer visiting faculty next year as a direct result of budget cuts, but the quality of education will not be compromised.

“I am absolutely committed to this place and to providing a world class program … We’ll cut back on many other things before we cut back on who’s teaching here and the education offered,” Cruvellier said.

On the topic of visiting faculty, Mulcahy also commented on concerns over a separation between permanent and visiting faculty.

“Visiting faculty and permanent faculty haven’t been that synergistic. I don’t think its good for you or us. There needs to be more interaction and exchange between the people coming through and the people that are here. I’m hoping that with this new leadership and initiatives can change that,” Mulcahy said.

Matthew Nagowski | February 26, 2009 (#)

Bargaining With The Faculty

Earlier this week we speculated on the possible growth in transfer students to offset revenue declines. But just as important as managing Cornell's student growth in the midst of our severe recession will be managing the number of faculty on campus.

Provost Fuchs spoke a bit about this challenge in his recent interview with the Chronicle:

"Some faculty searches will proceed, but significantly fewer across the entire university," he said. "We need to manage the reduction in the number of faculty strategically, so that high-priority areas don't lose critical faculty."

Fuchs said he will initiate an institutional planning process across the campus in March to establish priorities and to develop strategies for enhancing excellence even as expenditures decline.

It's good to hear that the University isn't planning on stopping all faculty searches. There will be a lot of extremely talented PhD candidates over the next several years, and it will be much easier to bring them to Cornell in the current environment.

It's often been said that the faculty are the heart of the university, and I see no better time to leverage this resource than in the face of the present financial calamities. So I wonder if the University can't explore some creative policies with the faculty to help embolden the university during the present financial situation.

Mainly, the provost should ask faculty -- particularly full professors -- to volunteer to increase their course load. Faculty should also be encouraged to take a 10 percent pay cut in step with the one that Skorton has already taken.

The benefits of this should be fairly obvious. Not only will it free up some money that can be invested elsewhere throughout the university -- including funds for research and more junior faculty, but it will also help to alleviate crowded classrooms and even help the University's revenue stream by allowing more students to be educated.

Why do I suggest targeting full professors, you may ask? Well, they are the most sheltered from the demands of research and publication, and while some may be fully engaged across the country and the world within their various professions, others may find they can spare an additional four contact hours with students a week in courses they already feel comfortable teaching. And senior faculty are often attached to Cornell through lifelong bonds, so it would only be natural that they would want to help an institution that has been so vital to their own career.

They also have the highest salaries -- salaries which have appreciated measurably over the last decade, and are often in line with salaries at institutions in higher priced metros -- like Chicago (Northwestern) or Baltimore (JHU).

Now, before I start receiving hate-mail from my former professors, I should stress that my proposal is a voluntary one, and I don't mean to suggest that there isn't bloat in Day Hall, the administrative offices of the colleges, and the different student service divisions that shouldn't be heavily scrutinized. But a little bit of charity on the part of established faculty might help to bolster their own departments and help to stem further drastic actions down the road.

Matthew Nagowski | February 25, 2009 (#)

The Posthumous Wisdom of A.D. White

The guys over at Kitsch have come up with a gem of a Cornell-related news tidbit...

In writing about the current economic scene, a recent op-ed contributor for Toronto's Globe and Mail references A.D. White's history of monetary collapse in pot-revolutionary France -- Fiat Money Inflation in France. What's amusing, though, is that he claims the book was written only fifty years ago -- well after A.D. White's death. But thankfully a loyal alumnus, Trineesh Biswas '01, comes to the rescue:

As a Cornell University alumnus, I must point out that Andrew Dickson White died in November of 1918. The university's first president and author of Fiat Money, Inflation in France was thus in no position to have written his treatise on inflation in revolutionary France (or, indeed, anything else) 50 years ago, as Avner Mandelman claims (U.S. Stimulus Package Threatens To Let History Repeat Itself - Report on Business, Feb. 14).

We can only hope that Mr. Mandelman's gloomy prognostications about the futility of debt-fuelled fiscal stimulus will prove to be equally inaccurate.

At any rate, I'm not an economic historian of monetary collapse -- not by a long shot -- but it strikes me as comparisons of the present situation to post-Revolutionary France is a bit of a stretch, especially given the incredibly strong demand that the United States is currently enjoying for its debt. Put another way, we're not printing money to satisfy our deficit spending, and bolstering aggregate demand today through government investments in this country's future productivity can go a long way towards improving our abillity to pay down our public debt in the future.

But reading through White's work, though, it kind of makes you wonder what era and nation he was referring to:

Even worse than this was the breaking down of the morals of the country at large, resulting from the sudden building up of ostentatious wealth in a few large cities, and from the gambling, speculative spirit spreading from these to the small towns and rural districts. From this was developed an even more disgraceful result,--the decay of a true sense of national good faith.

Matthew Nagowski | February 24, 2009 (#)

Expect Transfer Enrollments To Increase As Well

As reported in the Daily Sun two weeks ago, and reiterated in the Chronicle last Friday, part of the University's response to the world's recent economic calamities will be to increase undergraduate enrollments as a method to bolster tuition revenue.

So far, Provost Fuchs has reported that the University has increased its target freshman class size by 100, to 3150. However, given that University has historically over-enrolled by as many as 150 students, don't expect this change to make any big differences to undergraduate campus life.

The bigger question in my mind is how many additional transfer students Cornell will enroll in the coming years. Transfer enrollments tend to be a bit more volatile than freshman enrollments, but the University enrolled a modern-era record number of transfer students this past fall -- 616. This compares to a low of 470 in 2006 and an average for the past decade of 540.

If you forgive me for treating students simply as tuition dollars (as opposed to eager and enterprising young minds questing to sip from the cup of Ezra's knowledge) transfers students are particularly attractive to the University's coffers for a couple of reasons. This includes the fact that they don't need to take the often over-crowded introductory courses, nor the labor-intensive writing seminars, so they can easily fill into the often under-enrolled upper-level courses.

Then there's the budgetary considerations that exists between Cornell's undergraduate colleges. Most students probably don't realize this, but, as an example, every time a student in Ag takes a course listed in the Arts college, their home college needs to pay Arts for the cost of said class. Most of the colleges have agreements whereby some of the classes are free to "share" (e.g. biology or economics), but, for instance, the philosophically inquisitive Human Development student will force HumEc to pay Arts for the privilege to take a class on Hegel.

That's where the budgetary miracle of transfer students comes in -- because transfers have to satisfy their major's requirements in a shorter amount of time -- they are "cheaper" for any individual college to enroll, because the will enroll in less out-of-college courses.

So that little foray into Cornell's budgetary minutia aside, I think it's safe to expect transfer student enrollments to increase as well in the next year -- perhaps by as many as 100 students as well. Right now the undergraduate transfer population comprises no more than 10 percent of the entire student body -- or each year's graduating class -- and I think it would be hard for the University to increase this percentage to over 15 percent without significantly affecting the character of the school.

What does this mean for tuition revenues? Relatively little, actually, in the grand scheme of things -- Cornell can maybe expect $25k in revenue from the average student after discounting financial aid considerations, so we're talking about a possible net increase in revenue of $5 million. That number is dwarfed by Ithaca's $2 billion budget, but at the end of the day it could probably support a dozen or so entry-level professorships.

All said, these policy changes may amount to an additional 200 students on campus next year, and if such trends continue for another couple of years, we could easily see Cornell's on-campus undergraduate enrollment to surpass 14,000 for the first time ever. Only time will tell what effect, if any, this will have on the undergraduate experience at Cornell.

Matthew Nagowski | February 23, 2009 (#)

I Never 'Got' The Discipline of Architecture

The Sun is running a laugh out-loud interview with architect Peter Eisenman ’55 today. Eisenman is perhaps best noted for his Berlin-based Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a worthy -- if not inappropriately named -- monument chastising Nazi transgressions.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm perhaps not the most well-prepared to comment on matters of architecture or other artistic concerns. Keep in mind that I'm someone who actually likes the external appearance of Uris Hall. But Eisnman's designs seem worthy of consideration and possible artistic merit, even if like most works of modern architecture they fail to appreciate the role of human form and function. Consider the City of Culture in Galicia.

That said, I know pure academic drivel and bullshit ego-boosting when I see it:

PE: I haven’t been critical of function; I mean, I think architecture is about being critical of function. In other words, how does society advance if we don’t rethink function?

Sun: Now, you said “advance.” That points toward a tension I wanted to get at: On the one hand, you seem critical of function. On the other hand, you seem to want to disavow a narrative of progress. You said the word “advance.” I’m trying ...

PE: I didn’t really mean “advance.” OK, let’s take this chair. Do you need this chair? Somebody needs to sell a product, so they have this dumb chair. I can’t do a chair. I wouldn’t know what to do if you told me to do a chair.

In contrast, this makes Rem Koolhaas's description of his Milstein Hall design sound like the epitome of sane:

“The box is always an isolated thing. But here, we use the box as a connector. You could say it’s a postmodern use of the box.”

He said he had entered the “apparent warfare between blob and box” in contemporary architecture, and that he was “trying to short-circuit that dialectic.”

Which brings us to the latest Milstein Hall controversy: That upon receiving its final green light from the City of Ithaca, some University faculty have called for a moratorium on its construction due to concerns about adequate programmatic space, sustainability, and cost in light of the recent budget shortfalls.

I've refrained from commenting on the controversy because I don't have all that much to add. Others have provided much more adequate commentary than I have.

Still, I commented last summer that I would prefer the building not to be built, but in light of the accreditation pressures the school faces, going forward with construction with the money in hand seems like the best option. And I would even say that I have somewhat warmed to the design in the two and a half years since it has been released, even if I think the idea of an outdoor plaza behind Sibley Hall will result in a terrible joke of a wind-tunnel. Not to mention the cost-per-square foot for the project is outrageous!

At any rate, Milstein Hall will most likely get built, but it's a shame that the Sun didn't take the opportunity to ask Eisenman his opinion of the design. We do know, however, that he is not interested in sustainability:

I am not interested in sustainability, I’m not interested in green architecture. I think these are charades, I think they don’t get at the fundamental issues. I think those are the people who are immoral, because they’re selling something that closes off the real possibilities of doing something in the environment.

Matthew Nagowski | February 20, 2009 (#)

The Hydraulic Lab Is No More

The Sun reports that the Hydraulic Laboratory collapsed last week. What I find amusing is that none of the powers-that-be seem to have known about the development, even though the building had collapsed a couple of days ago:

As of last night, Simeon Moss, director of Cornell Press Relations, said he had not heard about the collapse of the building, and could not provide any details of the incident. Cornell University Police and the Ithaca Police Department also both said they were unaware of the incident.

The freeze-thaw cycle in Upstate New York can be quite the nuisance.

The building was built in 1897, designed to blend in with the gorge wall. I always thought its presence on campus was a significant reminder of the larger purpose of Ezra's University -- integrating the man-made and the natural world to harness change and improve the quality of life for all. Its demise is an appropriate reminder of our own transient and fleeting role in this world.

Here's how the laboratory must have looked when it was in its glory:

Matthew Nagowski | February 17, 2009 (#)

But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

With a heartfelt apology for the dearth of posting recently, I should note that the Sun in running a great article updating us on the ambiguously merit-based financial aid policy that the University adopted last fall. The choice quotes:

“We implemented this new financial aid initiative in order to become more competitive in our recruitment and enrollment of all students, particularly students who are a university enrollment priority,” Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, stated in an e-mail.

A student becomes a University “enrollment priority” based on several criteria, including academic excellence, athleticism and race, Davis explained.

“Some of the students who are selected will be ‘college scholars’; the selection of college scholars is done by each college … Other students may be selected because they are an enrollment priority, such as students of color, athletes, and students from farm families –– these are just a few examples,” Davis stated in an e-mail...

Cornell administrators maintain that the University does not offer scholarships either, since students who are receiving this merit-based aid are students in need of financial assistance.

“Cornell does not award financial aid based on merit, and neither does any of the other Ivy League schools,” Davis stated in an e-mail. “Any student who qualifies for financial aid receives need-based financial aid. Again, we do not award merit-based financial aid.”...

In terms of the new program’s adherence to the bylaws of the Ivy League, which regulates the athletic competition amongst the Ivies, states, “Athletes shall be admitted as students and awarded financial aid only on the basis of the same academic standards and economic need as are applied to all other students.”

Davis, however, asserts that Cornell University’s new financial aid policy does not violate the bylaws of the Ivy League since there are other students who are not athletes being selected.

It's going to be interesting to see how this plays across the Ivy League. I could imagine some of the other Ivy Presidents throwing a fit over Cornell's new policy. But I suspect that Cornell is not the only school following such policies -- they are just doing it more publicly than others. Remember what David Harris said last fall:

There are a number of our peer institutions who are matching Harvard, Yale and Princeton on these terms in ways that are hard to reconcile with Ivy League rules in many cases.

I would be interested to hear other's thoughts on this issue.

Matthew Nagowski | February 17, 2009 (#)

Uris Library: Cutting Edge

Matthew Nagowski | February 04, 2009 (#)

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