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Section III

The Institution and its Environment

This section identifies several assumptions about the external and internal environments that inform this planning process. It is a selective treatment of those environments. Topics include how the world is changing, what these changes imply about abilities or competencies students need today, and Cornell's main strategic challenges and broad directions.

Student Competencies in a Changing World

The millennial change to the 21st century has spawned much analysis and commentary about the changing world that people live in today. While some commentaries are hyperbolic and too sweeping, it is not an exaggeration to say people are living in a period of major transformation. Some changes are social, economic, and political (e.g., economic globalization, interdependencies among states, the demise of the traditional employment contract, and the capacities of people to interact with others who are different or distant from themselves). Other changes involve physical or biological resources (e.g., sustainability, energy sources, food resources, health and well-being). Cornell is well positioned to contribute important knowledge for the understanding of the issues that underlie world problems, given its capacity to connect fundamental knowledge with practical knowledge and applications.

What implications does this changing world have for higher education today? One is that it is even more critical than in the past for democracies to have an educated citizenry that can assimilate and assess vast arrays of complex information. Second, students need to have a sufficiently general knowledge of the world in order to be adaptable, prepared for unexpected job or career changes, and able to understand and participate constructively in solutions to world problems. Clearly, institutions of higher education need to prepare their students for the complex and changing demands of careers in today's challenging global environment. Given such changes, Cornell has initiated an effort to define the appropriate learning goals for students. [See Appendix C.]

A key premise is that Cornell should foster a range of abilities, some of which extend beyond formal classroom work. For example, students at Cornell should learn:

  • to understand the values and beliefs of multiple cultures
  • to embrace moral and ethical values
  • to participate in community and civic affairs and engage with social problems
  • to use knowledge in their own lives and pursue lifelong learning
  • to develop leadership and teamwork skills
  • to care for themselves and manage physical and emotional needs responsibly

These abilities have direct relevance to many of the changes in the world noted above, and thus it is reasonable to infer that Cornell students need preparation in these skills for successful lives, professionally and personally. This makes outside-of-the-classroom educational experiences increasingly important to the development of such abilities. Cornell's tradition of public service or engagement and international scope provides many relevant opportunities.

To conceptualize learning outcomes in more comprehensive terms, the university has developed a set of core competencies, distinguishing academic and personal abilities, as follows: 9

Academic Competencies

  • disciplinary knowledge
  • critical thinking
  • communication skills
  • scientific and quantitative reasoning
  • self-directed learning
  • information literacy
  • engagement in the process of discovery or creation

Personal Competencies

  • multicultural competence
  • moral and ethical awareness
  • self-management
  • community engagement

This strategic plan emphasizes the importance of educationally rich international and public engagement experiences under the supervision of faculty. This emphasis involves a focus on what are termed "personal competencies" above, but it also implies that personal competencies should be addressed in the context of academic work that enhances academic competencies. Thus, the plan gives special emphasis to those educational activities that interconnect academic and personal competencies.

Financial Challenges

The changing world also presents significant resource challenges to institutions of higher education in general and to Cornell in particular. The most telling are financial. Universities have relied heavily on tuition increases over the last forty years or so to deal with rising costs, for example, those associated with infrastructure (educational and research), competition for faculty, and the decline of funding for the humanities. The main point is that the costs of higher education continue to grow well in excess of the cost of living. The financial challenges are compounded by political ones, having to do with education priorities in many states and demands for more costly accountability mechanisms (e.g., compliance issues). It is not an exaggeration to claim that higher education in the U.S. is experiencing the end of a 50-plus-year period of revenue growth.

Cornell enters this period of financial challenge and uncertainty with important strengths and advantages, many of which have already been mentioned. The breadth and quality of Cornell's academic programs give the university a capacity to adapt in a strategic way; Cornell has an impressive tradition of promoting creative interdisciplinary collaborations built on strong disciplines, as illustrated by recent successes of the life sciences initiative and interdisciplinary synergies around environmental sustainability; Cornell philanthropy is very strong; and the tradition of public engagement and impact, along with faculty creativity, academic entrepreneurialism, and international visibility are promising capabilities upon which to build. It is also the case that Cornell is on a road to recovery from its recent financial issues. Nevertheless, Cornell University does face significant strategic challenges. The next section overviews these.

Cornell's Strategic Challenges

This plan assumes six major challenges for Cornell over the next five years, some external and some internal.

  1. Intense competition for faculty. This will increase as faculty retirements increase over the next ten years. Dual-career issues compound the challenge of renewing the Cornell faculty.
  2. Intense competition for students - at all levels - makes financial aid, scholarships, fellowships, and the living-learning environment more critical, but also more expensive. Limited availability of fellowships for graduate students is a significant problem for graduate education.
  3. Limitations on tuition revenue. The university will need to reduce the growth rate of tuition increases and apply more of the revenues from tuition to financial aid, creating pressures on other parts of the university budget.
  4. Increasing infrastructure costs (libraries, research facilities) of high-quality scholarship and teaching will continue, making strategic choices necessary to determine where to invest limited resources and where to disinvest.
  5. Declines in state funding for contract colleges and the land grant mission. The real-dollar support for contract colleges will continue to decline, leading to, among other things, the need to reassess how the university fulfills its public engagement mission.
  6. Diverse and excessively complex funding models for academic units. These create obstacles for the cross-college ties and collaborations that are likely to be necessary to effectively and efficiently use available resources.

Broad Strategic Directions

Following are four strategic themes that identify broad directions for responding to the challenges in Cornell's changing external and internal environment. These themes are manifest in several objectives and actions proposed in subsequent sections of this plan:

  • Focus
  • Adaptability
  • Coordination
  • Efficiency

A comment on each is warranted. To become more focused, it is necessary to make difficult choices about which academic areas or units to emphasize and which to de-emphasize; what to keep and strengthen; what to downsize or eliminate. These choices need to be made while preserving Ezra Cornell's original vision. To become more adaptable, Cornell's administrative arrangements and structures need to be more flexible, to be evaluated and changed on a continual basis, and to have fluidity so that they do not become set in stone. To introduce more coordination, the institution needs more permeable boundaries and connectivity across academic fields, disciplines, programs, and colleges, so that both students and faculty can cross these boundaries or transcend them when opportunities to enhance academic excellence emerge and also to ensure that the university uses its intellectual resources efficiently and effectively. To be more efficient, Cornell needs to examine administrative structures and policies carefully, with an eye toward creating a tighter fit between our methods of accomplishing tasks and the institution's goals and aspirations.

Greater focus and connectivity are essential to preserve and enhance academic excellence, whereas greater adaptability and efficiency are especially critical to the stewardship of resources. Implementation of these broad directions would need to respect and affirm the longstanding principles of collegiality and shared governance.

Governance Issues

Meeting strategic challenges over the next five years will require university-wide responses that could exert pressure on the university's historic patterns of decentralized decision making. As stated earlier, a dynamic interchange between academic units and the university center will be critical. Whereas the One Cornell theme of this plan suggests strategic framing and coordination from the university center to address selected strategic issues, much of the actual academic decision making still must occur at the local college or departmental level. With this in mind, the Strategic Planning Advisory Council suggests that there be concerted efforts over the next five years around fundamental governance principles as follows: First, strengthen collegial organization (shared governance, faculty role) wherever possible. Second, ensure robust consultative processes (involvement, participation of those affected) when decisions at the center have significant effects on departments, colleges, or other units. Third, promote a culture of openness throughout the university, maximizing transparency (information, communication). Fourth, expect the highest standards of ethical conduct for all members of the university community, but especially for those who occupy leadership or authority positions and whose decisions have a significant impact on others. Affirming and, where possible, strengthening the impact of such principles should help to ensure that the collegial qualities of Cornell University will be preserved or even enhanced as the university addresses its strategic challenges over the years ahead.

9 These are a draft as of spring 2010. The draft learning outcomes and competencies were derived from learning outcomes defined by each college, as well as from the university mission statement, and from a wide range of campus-wide activities and services for students. [See Appendix C for more information.]