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Sun: University Needs More Planning and Strategic Follow-Through

The Sun ran an excellent pair of articles this week on the University's need to engage in more strategic planning, and perhaps more importantly, to follow-through on the plans that it has already made for itself.

The first article, an anonymous editorial, encouraged the University to plan more thoroughly for contingencies if and when the state further cuts funding for the contract colleges:

If these trends continue, it will only be a matter of time until tuition for the contract colleges resembles Cornell’s private ones. Tuition increases for the former are already disproportionately higher than the latter, and the alternative actions of laying off faculty, increasing class sizes or cutting departments will greatly reduce the overall quality of the colleges. Neither would be a satisfactory solution.

It is absolutely imperative that the University develop a strong plan now to confront what will likely be increasing budget difficulties in the coming years. The University has given no indication that developing a plan to minimize the effects of state budget cuts into the future is even a priority for the administration. Administrators must approach this problem with urgency. With the integrity of academic programs at stake on the one hand and educational opportunity on the other, it is absolutely necessary to find an informed and balanced approach to buffering the state’s budget cuts.

The second article comprised a well-researched exploration of the idea, now two years old, that Cornell needed to develop a school of public policy to harness synergies that currently exist across decentralized academic departments within many of Cornell's colleges:

Since the report was issued, the University has not taken any definitive steps to enact any changes in its social sciences departments, according to Ronald Seeber, vice provost for land grant affairs, who is overseeing activities stemming from the Social Sciences Task Force.

“We have to change with the times,” he said. “But the University is focused on different things. We’ll get around to this when it’s appropriate.”

Seeber gave no indication, however, of when the University intends to act upon the recommendation.

“The fact that there hasn’t been any significant action yet does not mean it’s unworthy of action,” he said. “To create one thing, you must tear something else apart. That’s not easy.”

Prof. John Cawley, policy analysis and management, described potential competition between social sciences departments.

“Unfortunately, there’s sometimes parochialism in the University where people worry about another unit moving ahead and they would prefer to stop that from happening,” Cawley said.

Some professors emphasized that the task force’s recommendations could greatly benefit the University.

Prof. Richard Burkhauser, policy analysis and management, said that, if the recommendations were acted upon, Cornell “could have a top 20 program in public policy.” The University’s public policy program is currently ranked 36th in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Burkhauser said that the key to making progress in this area is to combine the PAM department with the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, the University’s graduate Master’s of Public Administration program.

“While it would be great if someone would give us several hundred million dollars to establish a public policy school, that isn’t necessary to allow Cornell to have a top 20 school,” he said. “What’s necessary is for the provost to make that a condition to bring in a new head of CIPA. That head should be expected to make Cornell a top 20 school of public policy.”

The University's parochialism, with colleges, departments, and units often looking out for their best interests against the interests of the greater institution, is of no new surprise in the history of Cornell. I wrote about the need for Cornell to seriously think about restructuring itself two years in The Sun, and we saw the issue come home to roost with the naming of the Dyson School last year.

What I find disappointing is the tendency for the University to think something can't happen unless 'money is obtained'. A more advantageous way to think about these things would be the consideration that money might be obtained if the University changes itself for the better. For instance, a wealthy benefactor interested in informing and improving New York State's public policy apparatus might not be interested in giving money to Cornell today, but she might if the University was already taking steps to pro-active steps to address the issue.

Money doesn't always beget change; sometimes money follows change and innovation.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 08, 2011 (#)

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