In Hard Times, Sharpen Focus on Mission, Cornell's Chief Advises

January 31, 2010

When David J. Skorton said colleges would have to get used to the economy's "new normal" here at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the attentive crowd of presidents and other administrators probably knew exactly what he meant: lost endowment income, weakened fund raising, smaller tuition increases, and more demands for student aid.

The big problem, said Mr. Skorton, president of Cornell University, is that those factors undercut the ways that colleges have traditionally weathered recessions, which include raising more revenue by cranking up fund raising, starting new programs, and charging higher tuition. Colleges lately have cut back through layoffs, hiring freezes, and halted building projects.

But this recession, he said, requires a different approach: to think carefully about strategic planning and the college's mission.

"The current economic downturn should also be a sound opportunity to make bold changes to sharpen our focus and enhance our quality and impact—changes that would be much more difficult to make in more prosperous times," he said. "We are unlikely to control the cost of higher education, or improve overall quality, if we simply add new programs on top of what we already offer."

One of the ways Cornell is adopting that approach, Mr. Skorton said, is by going through a comprehensive strategic-planning process, in which faculty members and administrators ponder optimal teaching loads, class sizes, and course offerings.

The university is also looking at ways to set up post-tenure-review processes and is considering reducing or combining some doctoral-degree offerings. Research could be reorganized around multidisciplinary, collaborative teams, he said, citing the university's sustainability center as one area that cuts across disciplines.

In this planning process, the president said, decisions should be made on the basis of how they affect the university's core mission, its academic quality, and its efficiency and expenditures.

Mr. Skorton also said he expected to see more institutions developing collaborative relationships. For example, Cornell's library has started working with the library at Columbia University to build collections and process acquisitions.

"Collaboration across institutional boundaries," he said, "is going to make more and more sense going forward."