Welcome back

Dear Colleagues:

Welcome to the spring 2014 semester. I hope those of you returning to Cornell had a relaxing and restoring break, and I welcome those of you who are new to Cornell. As we begin the semester, our federal government is moving toward more effective deliberations, as evidenced by the agreement reached last week on an omnibus spending bill. These appropriations provide slightly improved funding for student aid. Some of the agencies important to Cornell for research and extension funding received relief from the FY13 sequester, but there is significant variation among agencies and programs. Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic that our government is on a better trajectory than it was last year.

I am also optimistic about the ability of Cornell to continue to move forward. We have made substantial progress coming out of the recession in stabilizing our fiscal health and in recruiting the next generation of superb faculty, including in areas of strategic importance.

We are fortunate to draw on a more diverse set of revenue sources than many other schools. Just last month we and our neighbors competed successfully in Governor Cuomo's latest round of competitive regional economic development grants and "hot spot" designations, which will enable us to advance collaborative programs to spur entrepreneurship and job creation in the Southern Tier, New York City and Geneva, NY. Among the projects included in the new regional economic development awards is the Downtown Ithaca Incubator, which we formally announced last week. The incubator is a cooperative project involving Cornell, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College and will complement the Student Agencies eLab business accelerator in Collegetown and the McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences on the Ithaca campus.

We are an institution with a strong tradition of shared governance, and I encourage you to consider running for election to one of the constituent assemblies later in the semester. We continue to look for meaningful ways to foster a healthy employment environment for staff by addressing workload imbalance, increasing supervisor feedback, encouraging career development and growth, and recognizing excellent work. As we consider internal issues this semester, including a continuing emphasis on campus climate, it is important to view them through the lens of four broader challenges that are likely to affect all of higher education.

First, many Americans are questioning whether a college education actually adds value. An increasing number of jobs require the higher-order skills and critical thinking abilities that a college education provides, but we haven't been as effective as we might be in communicating the personal and professional benefits of a college education, particularly in the humanities and the arts. Second, and closely associated with skepticism about the value of higher education, is the issue of college affordability—whether the value to be gained from college is worth its cost.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, noted, "America's higher education problem calls for both wiser choices by families and better value from schools."

Fortunately, Cornell's need-based financial aid policies significantly lower the actual cost of attendance, and cap or eliminate indebtedness, for the over 48 percent of our undergraduates who have financial need. Cornell is one of the top 10 "Great Schools at Great Prices," according to the 2014 US News & World Report rankings.

Nonetheless, these two issues—value and cost—factored into President Obama's proposal for a college-rating system. The President's proposal has launched a useful debate on how to measure the effectiveness of higher education.

Third, the backgrounds of people in the college population are much more varied than was once the case. The Class of 2017, which entered last August, is the most diverse in Cornell history, measured by the proportion of African-American students, the proportion of students who consider themselves people of color, and the proportion of international students. According to US News, we're the 8th most economically diverse national university, thanks in part to our strong commitment to need-based financial aid. But the support services, advising and other non-curricular, co-curricular and curricular activities must continue to evolve to meet the needs of this more diverse student population, including veterans and those with disabilities.

Finally, there is a trend toward what I'm calling "alternate approaches to a career path." This trend includes massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other potentially disruptive changes to higher education, which could change the way we assess value in higher education. Cornell is a member of edX, a non-profit online learning enterprise, and is offering its first four MOOCs, open to the world without charge, this spring. However, if graduate schools, professional schools and employers actually begin to accept what some have called "competency-based education," where you study on your own and prove mastery by passing a test, then the demand for—and the need for—education on a physical campus may change substantially.

Considering these four broad challenges in the context of what makes sense for our university will require open discussion, in formal and informal settings on all our campuses, and an even greater spirit of collaboration than has been the case previously. To quote Martin Luther King Jr., whose life we celebrated with a national and university holiday on Monday, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable ….Every step toward the goal of justice requires … the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."

Going forward, I am confident that we can maintain faculty excellence; promote the highest quality teaching and research, as documented by objective assessment; recruit, support and graduate the best and most broadly diverse students; and continue to be a good and considerate employer as well as a good community citizen as a university. Here's to a great semester.

David J. Skorton