Office of the Provost


Academic State of the University Address
by Provost Biddy Martin
March 7, 2007

(text as prepared for delivery) • (watch the video)

Thank you. I'm delighted to see you all and honored by your presence. I have been wondering how to describe the experience of being provost of Cornell. Constant amazement would be one possible construction of it. The amazement is not always positive. But, for the most part, it is remarkably positive, and I want to share with you my amazement at the extraordinary work that goes on at this university. I would characterize the position I have held for seven years as a gift. What is the nature of the gift? It's not the office in Day Hall or the convenient parking space. It's a vantage point that offers me a continual experience of wonder at the breadth, depth, and impact of the scholarship and science across this university.

What is it possible to see from this particular vantage point? From Day Hall? (Of course I mean Day Hall figuratively, as you do, when you refer affectionately to me and my colleagues by that name.) Since I have started with the metaphoric of seeing, let me begin with the imaging technologies for which Cornell science is so famous and which produce such marvels -- Watt Webb's multiphoton microscopy that permits scientists and surgeons to see into living tissue without damaging it, John Silcox's electron microscope, Michelle Wang's optical tweezers that allow her to visualize and manipulate single molecules of DNA, and the views of Mars through the cameras that Jim Bell designed for the rovers. And then there are the x-ray beams produced as a by-product of our particle accelerator, beams that can illuminate the structure of the tiniest building blocks of materials and of life. And now an Energy Recovery Linac in design that will produce the most luminous beams available for these same purposes.

Cornell is home to many technologies of detection. I am going to avoid highlighting computer vision software that follows us more or less everywhere we go, and instead emphasize Antje Baeumner's bio-sensors for detecting pathogens, the world-class diagnostic lab at our Vet School with a range of tools at its disposal to identify animal and zoonotic disease, and Harold Craighead's nanoscale oscillator used to detect the mass of a single E-coli bacterium, which, by the way, made the Guinness Book of World Records for the Lightest Object Weighed: a mass of 6.3 attograms. (For those of you who aren't up on these measures, an attogram is one-thousandth of femtogram, which is one-thousandth of a picogram, which is one-thousandth of a nanogram, which is a billionth of a gram.)

On another scale entirely, our researchers are among the developers and users of a new generation of particle accelerators, which promise to bring them closer to the big bang, closer to understanding the origins of matter, revealing more of its dimensions of our universe than the ones to which we have access. Maury Tigner, who has been called the Michelangelo of accelerator design, and Martha Haynes, one of our leading astronomers, excitedly explained to me several years ago that all the stuff we're made of, everything we see out in the world is only a small percentage of what there is in the universe. "What is the other 96 percent?" they asked rhetorically, and then answered by saying, "We don't have a clue." How fabulous the world would be if more people were passionate about what they don't know and joyful about the fact that finding truth and meaning are processes subject to continual revision and limited by available perspectives. Tigner even asks whether the very theory of the big bang will itself turn out to be wrong.

Meanwhile, all over campus, social scientists and humanists are studying their forms of data and using their speculative genius to understand the effects of the technologies we are producing and to generate policy recommendations to manage the privacy issues raised by some of them, unequal access to their benefits, even displacements of already disadvantaged populations that result from emerging technologies and open economies, and philosophical questions about the relationship between humans and machines. Philosopher Phoebe Sanger, for example, urges us to think differently about the boundaries between humans and machines. "We design technology to reflect ourselves," she would say, "and understanding that will change how we design them, to meet human needs rather than define those needs."

How do we begin to understand the dramatic changes and the consequent conflicts that characterize the beginning of the 21st century? How to make sense of the complex variables? I joined many of you this past fall when History Professor Isabel Hull and Peter Katzenstein, Cornell historian and a political scientist, responded to Robert Kagan's work at the inaugural symposium, analyzing and criticizing Kagan's efforts to trace U.S. imperialism to liberalism. As many of you did, I marveled at the remarkable focus, coherence, and depth of knowledge that our Cornell faculty brought to bear in their fifteen minutes of remarks. No answers, but the prior, equally important, and difficult work of asking the right questions.

When I think of the many ways in which the world is revealed to us across this university, I think of literature and critical theory, long for a literary reading that opens up a text and our imaginations to completely new perspectives. We heard one together in August when Douglas Mao, Professor of English, gave a talk on The Great Gatsby to 3,500 new students in Cornell's Barton Hall. He offered a reading of Gatsby that held the audience spellbound, a witty, elegant exposition that was inflected by theory and underwritten by a deep knowledge of American literature. It managed both to illuminate subtle aspects of the text, and to convey, just obliquely enough, something of literature's capacity to tell us who we are, how objects affect us, what it means to be in the world with other people.

Still other worlds open up through the work our faculty do in the arts and visual culture. I am amazed by every issue I see of Salah Hassan's journal of contemporary African art, Nka, which features the artistic and intellectual culture complexities that emerge out of vibrant forms of civil society in contemporary African societies. The most recent issue of that journal focuses on lynching, highlighting photography from the American south, and featuring a roundtable discussion by Walter Cohen, Shirley Samuels and Bob Harris -- all Cornell faculty. It is so characteristic of Cornell to have individual faculty members make the connections and generate the possibilities that Salah has generated across our university while serving as director of Africana Studies.

There are many other modes of appreciating the world that is Cornell. Sound, for example -- the sounds recorded and preserved in the Lab of Ornithology, the sounds of our friends voices, and of their cell phones ringing. The sounds we don't hear, but wish we did, when we wonder, or when I do, what our students are hearing as they crisscross the campus with their iPods. We are treated to new musical compositions by Steve Stucky and Roberto Sierra, to the sounds of the chimes, the glee club and chorus, the quiet in Sage Chapel, a place to which many of us retreat on an especially difficult day, the sounds of the landscape, the geese leaving in the fall, the birds returning, even now. When we are very lucky, we hear the sound of Mike Abrams reading poetry out loud, and delight in the effects of the timbre and tone of his voice on every fiber of our beings. I have a strong memory of our linguist Abby Cohen producing the sounds that define African click languages, which are among the thousands of languages that could disappear within the next two decades as a result of processes of globalization, and of Jonathan Culler reciting from memory one of Gerard Manley Hopkins longest, most complicated and complicating poems.

The most active and passionate synthesizers of all these gifts and wonders, of course, are not administrators with their vantage point in Day Hall, but our students. From morning to night they crisscross the campus, observing very few of the boundaries that structure our academic units; from college to college, building to building, classroom to classroom, lab to playing field, playing field to hundreds of other extracurricular activities, with stops at the library to check e-mail, to do research, or to hang out with friends. They mark out the campus, find their own routes through it, attach to its spaces, get knit in its fabric and carry a sense of place with them for the rest of their lives. They are synthesizers of the various parts of the landscape as well as of the different forms of knowledge. They bring questions from their biology courses to their courses in the study of gender, questions from the study of human computer interfaces and new communications technologies to courses in sociology with questions about the shifts in social networks, which they themselves are experiencing, indeed, creating.

Faculty are well-acquainted with the potential of graduate students to be the connective tissue between and among fields and faculty. Scientific collaborations frequently occur only by virtue of graduate students' stints in different labs, those students' pursuit of education or training from faculty in a second or third graduate field. Our graduate field system allows students to choose faculty mentors from outside a department structure from more than one field, bringing faculty together who might otherwise never have had the opportunity to exchange ideas. Students are catalysts of connections and of discoveries, by virtue of their own curiosity and interests, and, of course, sometimes by virtue of their requirements.

I believe we pay too little attention to the movements of our students as they seek out the vast riches across boundaries and point us in critical directions. There is no better example of the syntheses that students imagine and demand than the domain of sustainability. Our students have insisted that Cornell be a model not only of teaching and research on sustainability, but also an example of how institutions can adopt sustainability practices at home. Graduate students from many different fields took a leading role in organizing a course on the State of the Planet, under the faculty supervision of Tom Eisner, and that course has an enrollment of 300 students. Faculty and staff from across the campus have the expertise and the commitment to make Cornell a major contributor to development of new energy systems, to the protection of biodiversity, to changes in the economic and international governance processes that will be required to make a difference. But we will not lose sight of our students' leadership.

I have emphasized the breadth, depth, and inventiveness that make Cornell so extraordinary. I now want to focus on two crucial challenges to which we need to rise over the coming years -- renewing a world-class faculty and enhancing the education we provide -- and then I want to comment on the significance of diversity to both of these crucial tasks. These are not new issues. I don't believe our priorities need or even ought to be dominated by "the new." Succeeding at these tasks is the lifeblood of the institution; it requires hard work from every one of us and is what I care most deeply about supporting.

We are in the process right now of doing nothing less than rebuilding this institution by renewing our faculty. The faculty hired in the '60s are now retiring and putting us in competition with the best universities all over the world as we attempt to replace up to a third of our faculty, as many as 600 people over the next ten to fifteen years. This is an extraordinary opportunity and an enormous challenge. It requires strategic thinking, coordinated planning, and effective institutional processes. We are hard at work on all those fronts. Most of our units, from departments and programs to colleges and cross-college centers, have strategic plans or their equivalents that anticipate developments in their fields and articulate goals and strategies for hiring the faculty to lead those developments. It is essential that we keep our eyes on the ball as we implement these plans. Let me emphasize a few things that are obvious, but crucial. It is essential that we apply the highest academic standards at the point of hiring. It is impossible at Cornell to overemphasize the importance of hiring decisions, given our tradition of bringing faculty up through the ranks and our relatively high tenure rate. Success in hiring the best faculty and keeping them will require a great deal of us all, and there is nothing more important. It is equally vital that we avoid the temptation to replicate ourselves, our particular sub-fields, our approaches and questions, that, instead, we who are senior turn to our junior faculty and even to our graduate students to ensure that we hire strategically and encourage disciplinary transformations. Finally, throughout this hiring speed-up, we also have to uphold the highest tenure standards and earn our right to the peer review and self-governance we demand as universities by making hard and equitable decisions. In all these tasks, the functioning of departments is essential. We need to do a better job of training and supporting academic leaders, from program and center directors to department chairs. The faculty work life study we completed this past year showed us how much department cultures matter to faculty satisfaction and productivity. And in this area, there is a great deal more work to be done.

Our second challenge: improving teaching and learning. According to the Spellings commission report on higher education, faculty care too little about what our students are learning and have failed to keep pace with research in cognitive science and education that would change the way we teach. There is now a lively national debate about the commissions' report and its recommendation that institutions of higher learning implement systematic assessments of learning outcomes which would improve education, help justify the high cost of education, and provide consumers with comparative data about the relative successes of different institutions. The last thing higher education needs is standardized testing across institutions on the basis of which the market can come to define quality. There is not enough time today, or, for that matter, any day to explain all the objections I believe we should have to some of the commission's characterizations of higher ed and some of their recommendations. In addition to taking seriously some of the key problems they identify, including the rankings that make almost exclusive use of inputs and end up equating quality to a very large extent with wealth, we also need to find the right platforms to fight back against the popular assumption that researchers do not care about curricular and pedagogical innovations, that they do not care about teaching undergraduates, or what their students learn. Let me take a few minutes to fight back.

Cornell takes pride in the number of tenure-track faculty who teach introductory courses to our undergraduates. Of course, having the best researchers in the classroom does not guarantee effective teaching or strong outcomes, but many of those great scholar-teachers are also focused on what students learn and how best to ensure that they do. In Physics, to take one example, faculty combine world class research with a strong culture of innovative and dedicated teaching. In the department, and in the profession more generally, lively discussions of pedagogical innovations and effective ways of helping students learn physics are the norm, not an exception. Nobel prize winners are devoted to these questions and to the issues of assessment, some, like our own Bob Richardson and Betty Richardson, have written their own textbooks, others have introduced clicker technologies that allow students to take a more active role in learning in large lecture courses. And those clicker technologies are in use across a range of disciplines at Cornell, including Math, Chemistry, Biology, and some social sciences fields, such as Anthropology. In our History Department, there is a long tradition of team teaching, that joins senior with junior faculty, and a set of very high standards for teaching that is passed down from one generation to the other. In City and Regional Planning, Human Ecology, and in Engineering, to name only three sites, faculty have developed extraordinarily innovative field- and project-based learning opportunities and are analyzing the difference that they make to our students' learning.

The cutting-edge research of our faculty involved in our interdisciplinary initiatives is also being translated into curricular and pedagogical innovations. Since the life sciences initiative began, several new concentrations have been added to the unified biology major at Cornell, computational biology, biomedical engineering, to mention two examples. And a distinguished group of biologists is currently studying our unified biology major and asking questions not only about how to transform the content of the curriculum, but by what methods students should be trained in a field that has become so broadly interdisciplinary and so information-rich. Faculty in Information Science, which emerged as a strong initiative in the wake of our controversial decision to establish a Faculty of Computing and Information Science several years ago, have, in a very short span of time, created concentrations for students in almost every undergraduate college and a major available to students in Arts and Sciences, Engineering, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Moreover, they make it their business to study how young people communicate and how they learn.

In the humanities, faculty face a range of challenges, which they are addressing by engaging students where they live, and working from students' experiences to inspire their interest in things that are less familiar and less immediate. Brett deBary, Director of the Society for the Humanities, has thought deeply about changes in our students' experiences that require changes in the ways we approach literature and culture. "Because we cannot count on a shared culture," she says, "students need skills and habits of mind that they can use to create a common space of interaction with people from widely varying cultures and backgrounds." Note the shift of emphasis from transmitting a shared culture to students to supplying them with what they need to create cultures and communities. And she has made equally thoughtful observations about teaching in a world in which communications technologies change students' relationship to reading. I quote: "Although university culture and its mode of teaching have been print-based for centuries, current students are frequently more visually based and much more attuned to digital media. To reach these students effectively, three transformations must occur in the humanities curriculum. First, visual and digital media must be used in novel ways to engage modern students in the learning process. Second, students need to explore the differences in learning that occur in different media. Third, students need to understand how to interpret the facts that are served up by texts and media, teasing out the truth of a situation and gaining knowledge of the past. Ultimately, it is important educationally that students experience the joys of a range of different media, including literature, art, and music, indeed, a lyric poem, which draws its power from the way it turns us to the wonders of language."

In short, our faculty are enormously thoughtful across disciplines and colleges about what's required to keep pace with changing circumstances and ensure positive "learning outcomes."

Of course, there is more we can do. I suggest that we work together, faculty, students, staff, and, perhaps, alumni to develop our own models for the improvement of teaching and learning, models that trump any efforts to impose silly requirements from above:

  1. institute more regular curriculum review and curricular innovations in departments and colleges,
  2. build teaching cultures that encourage discussion of pedagogy, team teaching, and the sharing of new research on how students learn, whether that research is conducted by cognitive scientists and education researchers or by professional organizations.

We can and should use a range of mechanisms to achieve these goals. I recommend that we use the next round of External Faculty Program Review to focus on curricular coherence, teaching methods, and student learning, not to the exclusion of reviews of research, but with special emphasis on education. I suggest that we invigorate the work of our Center for Learning and Teaching, link it with technology innovations offered through Cornell Information Technologies, where staff have been working with faculty for years on technology-assisted teaching, and with the many resources provided by our library staff. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure pedagogical training for our graduate students and require that every field show evidence of effective programs. Finally, we have to do a better job of aligning our reward systems with our expectations for great teaching and for student learning.

I have discussed with the deans the possibility of making peer review of teaching a condition for tenure and promotion. I remain uncertain about whether that is the best approach to the goal I have articulated for us -- that each department and program should build a culture of strong teaching that would include faculty discussion of curricular innovations, of pedagogy, and of what students are learning. Making peer review an expectation for tenure dossiers would seem to place the burden on junior faculty and turn the objective of building cultures into a culture merely of evaluation. I believe we need more discussion of these issues and will take responsibility for ensuring that those discussions occur.

Some will wonder whether all this emphasis on teaching and learning signals a decrease emphasis on research. I ask you to remember what you already know, that world-class research is not predicated on the devaluation of undergraduate education. And in the best departments and units they feed rather than detract from one another if we create the conditions that make our researchers successful in the classroom, in the labs, and in students' extended living-learning environments.

We will not be able to boast a world-class faculty when we have hired 600 new faculty in fifteen years, if that faculty is not diverse. To make this university worthy of our founder's vision and to sustain its quality, we need to attract and to keep a much broader mix of people from across the nation and the world, in short, to have Cornell reflect, understand, and embrace the extent of human diversity. Insofar as we fail to diversify our populations of students, staff, and faculty we leave talent on the table and we will lose our competitive edge as one of the world's great universities if we do not step up our efforts and refine our strategies. Let me emphasize only some of the things I think it is important to ensure:

  1. that every department or hiring unit be required to build pools of women and underrepresented candidates well in advance and apart from authorization for a particular hire or search, that they not wait for a diverse pool of candidates to apply;
  2. in order to make that possible, that every unit identify scholars or scientists, particular institutions likely to be training women or students of color, that they follow their careers, bring them to campus while still students or postdocs for talks, seminars, or visiting stints, and that they offer the forms of support that will prepare those prospective job candidates to succeed;
  3. that we learn again to attend to unintended, unconscious biases that seem to lead, according to the best research, over and over to the assumption that the white male candidate is the right choice, even when qualifications are equal.

On campus, we have to find ways to distinguish tolerance of differences from the more serious project of engaging seriously with the differences among us. It is time again more systematically to promote analysis, reflection and self-examination, and provide the tools to consider whether, or to what extent we continue, largely unconsciously, to associate expertise and authority with maleness, with whiteness, with other markers of what is apparently normative. Progress on these fronts is difficult and complicated. Closed-mindedness is not the exclusive province of those with privilege, but also arises among those who oppose privilege but who establish their own rigid forms of ideological purity and, largely unconsciously, stay attached to their position as victims, loving what Nietzsche would have called their ressentiment so much that complex realities become inaccessible to them. We need the sophistication of our scholars of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and class, of international relations and population movements, of institutional barriers, and of stereotypes and bias. I suggest that we supplement the sustainability projects to which we are already committed, primarily scientific and social scientific, with greater attention to work that analyzes, supports, and sustains human diversity, the diversity of human languages, the diversity of cultures, and an understanding of their hybridities, the diversity of racial, ethnic and religious identifications and the complexities of those identifications, work that avoids simplistic assumptions about the differences between putatively discrete groups, attending, instead to the differences not only between, but within groups.

These challenges bring me to a final very important aspect of the provost's responsibilities, aligning our priorities with our resources. We have too few resources, both in money and time, to do everything it would be desirable to do. At the moment, we have a great deal invested in our capital campaign and what it will permit us to do over time. There our focus is on the fundamentals -- professorships, scholarship aid for undergraduate students, fellowship support for graduate students, and the facilities that will support cutting-edge work. But even when we raise $4 billion, it will never be possible to raise all boats equally. And so we are required, continually, to make decisions about what we will do, what we will delay doing, and what we will not be able to do. The deans and I use existing institutional structures and processes, which allow broad and in-depth consultation with faculty experts in specific domains and relevant faculty governance mechanisms, then take responsibility for judicious decisions on the basis of that consultation. We are helped in these efforts by a remarkable staff at the levels of our departments, our colleges and the university, whose knowledge of the institution, dedication and creativity help us find ways to support and implement our academic goals and priorities. I linger over this set of issues because I believe we will have to make increasing numbers of hard choices over the coming years, and we will need to enlist the wisdom and cooperation of all of you.

Let me close by returning to the gift that is Cornell University. I am convinced that the quality of our students and the level of intellectual exchange among our faculty are as high as they get. The natural beauty of the campus and of the surrounding area inspires and holds us. And Cornell has a quality that is more difficult to capture, but one it is essential to preserve -- I think of it as openness and find it reflected at many levels -- in our wide open, often wind-blown spaces, in the expanse of the campus, in our intellectual range, heterogeneous architecture, global reach, commitment to making a difference in the world beyond academe, and in the diversity of our people and points of view. What emerges from these forms of openness and from the willingness to take risks is a remarkable and palpable sense of possibility and promise. Cornell combines the rigor we expect of an Ivy League institution with the breadth and social responsibility of a land grant university; in the combustion of those qualities and commitments we get the potential for something that is difficult and precious -- an openness to new ideas, to surprising connections, and to change. We hope our students will take these values with them, that these will be outcomes of their education, whether or not they can be measured or quantified.

Our task now is to dedicate ourselves to the responsibilities of change, of generational change and service to the future by holding fast to the characteristically Cornell qualities of rigor and openness.