Tuesday, November 23, 2010

(The Inability to See Beyond) Business as Usual

Receiving the newest CALS News (the magazine for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences here at Cornell University) made me wonder: will there be anything in here about the Department of Education? It seemed it might get some kind of mention, even if only in the the dean's comments. Rather, Dean Boor noted how good things are. She stated:
Under [Susan Henry's] leadership, the college took a strategic approach to planning for the future. Our books are balance, we are well on our way to "Reimagining CALS," and recent mergers among eight sister departments are encouraging even close collaborations across the Ithaca and Geneva campuses.
That would have been the place to say something about Education. But nothing. It gives the sense that everything is perfectly fine and on track. And, for many within the college, that's true. There's not even a decency to note that the "Reimagining" process has cut an entire department and altered the future study of education at Cornell. The article then goes on the praise the new Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and other wonderful things going on within CALS. The ranking of top programs is highlighted. And, as the dean says, CALS is "one of the best places in the world to conduct research in agricultural, environmental, and applied social sciences." The article concludes with this paragraph:
Many of the most important issues that we face today--climate change, food security, economic and environmental sustainability--are complex questions that require multidisciplinary solutions. By taking advantage of the amazing depth and breadth of academic resources we have here at CALS, we can form natural collaborations that make a big difference. By continuing to work closely with our outreach partners locally and around the globe, we can amplify that impact and truly become land grant university to the world.
These are big issues that we're attempting to deal with and address. We do have tremendous resources to do so, but there's something lacking in the way we're conceptualizing and putting into practice this work. Stay with me for a minute or two.

I continue to be baffled by the actions taken by CALS regarding the study of education here at Cornell. The Department of Education exists in the shadow of what once was the study of education here at Cornell. There is a long history of Cornell wanting to get rid of the study of education, moving the School of Education from the endowed side of the university over to CALS and creating a department that would eventually dwindle down to a size able to be dismantled. There have long been decisions made at this institution to ensure that education remained small and expendable. It's current manifestation, frankly, is trying to be too much and that's why it was able to be dismantled. Without institutional support this obviously had to be the case. Many argue that universities and colleges must play to the strengths of an institution while curtailing or cutting others. The concern for me is not simply the closure of the department, but rather the ways in which we go on thinking we've got the bases covered. Let me clarify what I mean.

Susan Riha leads an open meeting on Marcellus
Shale drilling. Notice the expected table with microphones
and the people in the audience nowhere to be seen.
The feature piece for the applied social sciences is "Concerns Ignite about Drilling Deep for Gas" and is about the possibility of hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale.

The article states that "Faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have mounted an unprecedented response to the issue. They have stepped up their research and extension efforts to help individuals and communities make decisions about the benefits and dangers of this new form of natural gas drilling and to think about broader energy development scenarios."

I have no doubt that Cornell is doing a great deal of research and engagement. I know, personally, some of these individuals engaging in this work. The article continues and notes, "Today, the team [of diverse faculty and extension educators] dispatch information to individuals considering leasing their land, community groups, and local governments. They have also briefed state and federal officials on the issue." But what kinds of research and engagement?

The problem with what's being done, as the picture above demonstrates, is that the university's role is to take information and give it to individuals and communities. The goal of this work is to, "communicate the evidence that's available and help people evaluate the risks involved....We are about providing accurate and, when possible, research-based information." Creating panels of experts to disseminate information to citizens not only privileges the type of knowledge coming from experts but it also makes the knowledge, experience, and feelings of citizens marginal to evidence-based research. What's missing from this story--and sadly much of the work within CALS--is a dimension that takes seriously the contribution and knowledge of citizens, especially around issues such as gas drilling. Rather than sharing our research with communities, what if CALS did research in and with communities? What if we had deliberative forums for citizens, experts, gas companies, and others to engage one another rather than maintaining a power dynamic that privileges the university--and science--over citizens?

There are many reasons why the university would prefer to do work as it has typically been done. The university has a status and role within society and there is a concern by many (but not all) that engaging citizens and communities as peers rather than clients would reduce the role and importance of science and research. What we do is research and then provide that information. The quotes above demonstrate that approach very well. But what happens is that that particular approach is understood as the approach. Rather than simply being one way for the university to engage communities about public problems, it becomes the only way. So when we talk about dealing with public problems as Dean Boor did in her message, we are saying that complex problems require more involvement and engagement among researchers. What we should be saying is that to deal with such important issues, we'll need to rethink the ways in which universities interact with those beyond campus.

What we're losing, with the closure of the Department of Education, is the program which I've called home since coming here to Cornell. Adult and Extension Education takes seriously the contribution and knowledge of citizens. I can't speak to how those in other programs within the department, but Adult and Extension Education folks would challenge the statements made about the type of research and engagement going on around the issue of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. I am deeply troubled that we speak about dealing with and addressing some of the most pressing social problems by telling folks what the science says. If we really want to address these public problems, we need to meaningfully engage the public. There is a role for research and information as part of such processes, but it can't be all that we do. We must form collaborative relationships that make a big difference, but that has to be citizens and experts, not simply university experts. We just don't get that we need to look beyond the university to deal with these problems. The closure of a program such as Adult and Extension Education quiets a community that challenges the dominant paradigm. CALS and Cornell just don't get it. We can't just do business as usual.

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