Thursday, October 28, 2010

A University's (Narrowing) Mission

Soon to be gone...
The last few days have been very frustrating, saddening, unclear interesting. On Tuesday evening, we received word that the Department of Education at Cornell would be closing. The Cornell Chronicle had a story and the university was so kind as to create talking points for senior administrators to try to explain what they've just done. Departments close, I get that. Yet, this feels different for a variety of reasons. This is my department, my home, my colleagues we're talking about no longer existing.

This is how we, graduate students, received news
about the department closing. Click to enlarge. 

Here are a few thoughts that I have related to this new reality.

First, this department has been, for the last two years, my academic home. When I have questions I know I need to talk to Rose or April. When I want to scan entire sections of books, I head to the copy room. As I'm now thinking about what happens to the physical spaces in which I experience my time here at Cornell, I'm struck by the sense of loss that's occurring, even though nothing has changed yet. It's simply the impending reality that scares me.

Second, I think about the fact that Cornell University will no longer have a department of education. Cornell University, the land grant university of New York, will not be training teachers or preparing professionals for careers in education. This is a serious blow to New York, but it also sends serious reverberations across the country when we're talking about the purpose of public higher education. The work of the department has been eclectic in the best sense of the word, engaging "education" in a very broad sense. While having a small faculty, the productivity of the department has been very high, but it also (and arguably more importantly) has been a space for Cornell students--both undergraduate and graduate--to think about knowledge and information as something more than simply facts that exist without questing the impacts of decisions.

I'm currently in an educational course, EDUC 6820: Community Education and Development, and it's a striking example of what we're losing when Cornell makes the decision that such courses are no longer important to our mission. We're a group of nearly 20 graduate students from a number of academic fields with a shared interest in working with communities to address issues of public concern. It's an amazing group of people coming together because a course like this exists. What happens in the future? I worry that for students who see their own graduate education as an experience and engagement with more than facts and information, there will be a void that further pushes the Cornell experience away from such experiences. As a land grant university, Cornell has a public mission. The interesting and sometimes troubling mix of "land grant" with "Ivy League" muddies the role of the university in our state, nation, and world. 

So what has been articulated by those in positions of authority on the closure of the department? The language used gave a sense of why this is happening. The Talking Points memo states that the closure of the department, "will result in savings, but also allows CALS to better focus its resources in the long run." In the Chronicle piece we see that according to Dean Boor, "CALS has come to the difficult conclusion that we do not have the additional resources that would need to be invested in the program to ensure its pre-eminence as we move into the future." Translated: we don't have the funding nor do we want to explore other ways that we might support education at Cornell University, especially within CALS.

I should take a moment to note the interesting situation the Department of Education has found itself in within CALS. Without a doubt, CALS here at Cornell is one of the preeminent colleges of agriculture in the United States. We've very good at much of what constitutes "work" within colleges of agriculture: we quantitatively measure, we have multi-million dollar buildings in which to do serious scientific research, and major research grants come from NSF and other sources. This is the core mission of CALS without a doubt and the means to supporting that core mission is obviously present. The way in which the mission is articulated by CALS is to, "discover, integrate, disseminate, and apply knowledge." This leaves little room for a course of community organizing, for example where the one-directional relationship between expert and citizens is seriously challenged and problematized. Education, especially adult and extension education, takes very seriously the issues of operating within a paradigm that only allows experts to have knowledge. Courses such as EDUC 6820 challenge the very mission of the college in which is resides.

The Department of Communication could be seen as being equally out of place in a college of agricultura and life science. They make as much sense as Education, but they're sticking around. What gives? Well, for one, they engage in research more so in the quantitative tradition. Nevertheless, many faculty within the Education Department do high level research that fits neatly within the real of quantitative work and measures. The difference in the two departments comes down to, sadly, money. The Communication program is considerably larger, has a robust undergraduate program, and thus is able to support numerous graduate students. At one point Cornell had a School of Education. It was downsized to a department and now will be disappearing. 

Third, we're Cornell University and we're not running on a shoestring budget (although we're definitely feeling the impact of the economic crisis). Today's news was that one of the areas of interest to researchers at Cornell, which is sustainability, just received 80 million dollars to support this work.
At least there are some things to celebrate. Streamers, singers
and the Big Red Marching Band celebrate the single largest
gift to the Ithaca campus from an individual.

It's a tremendous gift to the university in addressing this most important issue, but it makes me pause for a moment and think about how we articulate and frame sustainability. In the Chronicle article released today, David R. Atkinson '60 said this:
"Cornell is the best-positioned university in America, and arguably the world, to develop solutions," Atkinson said; in part due to its place as the most highly ranked American university with a college of agriculture.
"Agriculture has an enormous impact on the environment. In addition, a productive, efficient agricultural sector is a key ingredient for economic development," he said. "Any university addressing sustainability without a college of agricultural is operating at an enormous competitive disadvantage." 
Atkinson said he sees ACSF as "a source of unbiased information; a catalyst bringing knowledge from different disciplines together to address sustainability; and a partner with entrepreneurs, businesses, NGOs and governments to magnify the impact of the knowledge and ingenuity at Cornell in moving society toward a more sustainable future."
The center will also be a focal point for sustainability-related activity on campus, including education, operations, outreach and research. 

What's interesting about all of this is that

  1. The new center is based on the premise that we--universities--have unbiased information.
  2. We then give this information and knowledge to others outside of the university
  3. The article mentions education, but not a single education faculty member has been involved since 2007 when it was started. 
  4. The interdisciplinary work is limited in that it's not engaging citizens at all in the process of this work, but rather only with the appropriate handful of partners.
  5. That the premier college of agriculture which is going to be leading the way in regards to this new center is, right now, closing it's department of education. It makes me question the ways in which "education" is conceptualized and practiced by those involved. 

So back to the main point of this post, the demise of education at Cornell comes down to more than simply not having funding. It seems to me to be an issue of valuing the field rather than purely dollars. Thinking of education as a process that engages citizens and communities, for example, is quite different than a model where experts figure it out and then tell others what they know. It's one-directional rather than collaborative. These are serious and fundamental distinctions when it comes to the question of how knowledge is produced and shared.

Additionally, it is important to note that all faculty and staff within the Department of Education will retain positions, so one is left to ask where the cost savings with this move will come. Faculty will leave seeking out new homes that value their work and foster a sense of worth in this type of research, teaching, and engagement. But while Cornell is repositioning itself to be the unchallenged elite college of agriculture, so much of what it claims to be doing well into the future does make one pause when we acknowledge the closure of its own department of education.

We're at the beginning of the end for education at Cornell. There are many questions remaining unanswered, but there seems to be little to change course. It's a sad state of affairs for a place like Cornell when it sends out the message that a field like education, which isn't purely about numbers, is expendable. Maybe if we brought in more multi-million dollar grants we'd be in a different boat, but the work that is done by some within the department just doen't count to many within the academy. Especially here at Cornell.   

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