• August 29, 2015

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

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."


1. 11134078 - February 02, 2010 at 11:01 am

No doubt this is fine in theory. In practice, Cornell supports nearly 100 coaches for intercollegiate athletics, and while it cuts academic programs it appears to be determined to leave all these coaches and their sports in place and untouched. Thus at Cornell all this planing notwithstanding, the distortion of the university's purpose and role by intercollegiate athletics will be increased.

2. waligowski - February 02, 2010 at 04:17 pm

Strategic planing is not a process that should be guided by falling endowments, inability to raise tuition, and fewer dollars donated but rather should be a step that is taken annually by any other enterprise. Why, has higher education failed to see the business ALONGSIDE its mission? Why wait for crisis to drive change? Why not be great at what you do no matter the economy, mission, and efficiency?

3. observer001 - February 03, 2010 at 09:09 am

Not all universities that were world class can remain both world class and the same size. Survival of the fittest I suppose but it is unfortunate to see this recession claim another once-great university.

It appears that Cornell's president has acknowledged that his institution is no longer able to compete to be one of the nation's leading research universities and instead of restructuring along the lines of a smaller elite, yet comprehensive, R1 has made the choice to keep it large but restructure it on the lines of a large Masters I with a few interdisciplinary doctoral programs with emphasis on professional training and tech programs. This could be sustainable, since maintaining research and doctoral programs across all division is prestigious but expensive; however, it is a decision that will be very difficult to undo.

4. honore - February 04, 2010 at 08:46 am

Hmmmmmmmmmm, here's a couple of cost savers for Cornell:

1. Disband the already useless and totally worthless Ombudsperson's & Employee Assistance office. Way too many have knocked on its doors over the years only to be told..."there's really nothing we can do to help. We suggest you go to the career office to freshen your resume/vita". Their funding after all comes from the university and guess who its primary allegiance is to? The space could be turned into a no-cost graffiti wall where faculty and staff could write their stories about how "supportive" Cornell is to its own.

2. Remove the once-effective (80s & 90s)and highly professional Office of Minority Affairs Office (COSEP) and its 7 college-sited tentacles completely. It has turned into a hot-bed of race-fighting, white-guilt pandering and in-your-face incompetence. It is clearly not a "minority" office, but a 1 racial group-dominated cauldron of hatred for all others. Hispanics of any racial background (especially white ones) are NOT welcome and Asians of ANY group are DEFINITELY not to be "included" or "tolerated" in their allegedly "inclusive" and "tolerance" totally fake agenda. Check that website for a pictorial reality check.

3. Gannett Health Service can use a complete flushing also. Over the years, especially its "counseling" service has turned into another cliche'd motley crew of political correctness, matted hair extensions, nose rings, neck tattoos, hetero male-hatred politics and colored plastic wrist bracelets. "Normal" students needing emotional/psychological help wouldn't go that collection of imitation Berkeley street-people, any more than they would go to a fortune teller at the local street fair for help.

4. Fire the majority of Financial Aid Office staff, who consistently see their role as one of obstructing parents and students from getting their financial affairs in order --- not exactly a "minor" inconvenience when you look at the HUGE price tag attached to their "world class" institution. A perfunctory "satisfaction survey" to all students on aid would reveal ENCYCLODIAS of evidence to this effect.

5. Cut the never-ending, patronizing, one-size-fits-all programming focused on "campus climate". It is still run by the same lackeys who have carved very comfortable niches in the halls of fake oppression, that is when not laboring over what color scheme to order for their new Luxury-Editiion Saab, Volvo or Land Rover. Just check the parking lots for that reality check.

They can do more, but for now it's a start.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.