Cornell University is a unique institution that from its inception has charted distinct pathways to academic excellence. It has been aptly described as the "first American university,"1 broad in scope, open and accessible to all. At the institution's founding in 1865, Ezra Cornell said: "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." Cornell from the beginning developed a curriculum that transcended the traditional restrictions of learning to classical education, just as it transcended social divides of the time. It was truly a university for anyone who was qualified and open to study in vocational and classical, practical and scientific areas. There was no other institution of higher education quite like it.
Cornell today is a comprehensive research university that interweaves the main elements of an Ivy League university with an unusually strong public service mission. Many words have been used to describe the nature of this institution as a whole: complex, creative, entrepreneurial, eminent, and engaged. It has become and remains one of the most distinguished and preeminent institutions of higher education in the nation and world. Its complexity, diversity, and comprehensiveness are a fountainhead of creativity and innovation.
This strategic plan takes as an object of focus Cornell University as a single entity or unit. In part because of its complexity and comprehensiveness, Cornell University today is often characterized as a collection of excellent colleges and academic programs. Cornell is also a whole, greater than the sum of its parts. This plan addresses that "greater sum," meaning the university as a whole. At the same time, the plan affirms the responsibility of academic units to achieve excellence within specific academic disciplines and, moreover, the importance of a dynamic interchange between the responsibilities and capacities of individual academic units and leadership at the center of the university. The premise of this strategic plan is that amidst the essential, distributed academic strengths of the university, there is One Cornell that warrants attention in and of itself. The question is: How can Cornell as a single unit build on its diversity and strength to reach new heights as the institution reaches its sesquicentennial?
This plan identifies broad directions for the university and institution-wide actions for implementing those directions. Given the One Cornell theme, the focus is on issues that crosscut or transcend the boundaries of colleges, departments, and other units of the university, while recognizing that the locus of implementation for many of these actions is and must be in colleges and departments. The plan does not refer to or analyze particular colleges, departments, or supporting units (e.g., north campus, career services). The Strategic Planning Advisory Council made careful and deliberate choices about the appropriate content of a plan for One Cornell with due attention to which issues they could effectively address, given their collective capacities and the time available.
The plan, for example, does not identify research themes for the future. There certainly are important and worthy themes, such as sustainability, that are in place and are having an important interdisciplinary impact across the university. While these efforts are to be applauded, it is beyond the scope and capacity of the Strategic Planning Advisory Council to thoroughly and fairly assess a full range of thematic options, much less to choose among them. This is an issue for the implementation stage of this strategic plan. It is also important to note that among the major components of the student experience on campus, the plan gives primacy to faculty teaching rather than to the living-learning environment (e.g., North Campus, Career Services). The university has invested heavily and achieved great success in creating a rich and varied living-learning environment for students, and this should continue. With that success as a backdrop, this plan calls for a shift of focus to the excellence of faculty teaching for the next few years.
Why Develop a Strategic Plan?
This strategic planning process was initiated by the president and provost of Cornell University in the summer of 2009.2 It was a response to the changing environment for higher education in general and for Cornell in particular. The value of having a strategic plan was suggested by the fact that in fall 2008 Cornell University faced a potential budget deficit of $215 million if immediate action was not taken. This prospective deficit was due to debt financing for construction projects, excessive financial commitments in the operating budget, and the worldwide economic downturn of fall 2008. For the short term, the president and provost made significant budget cuts and implemented efficiencies in administrative areas (e.g., procurement, facilities, finance, human resources). For the longer term, they launched this strategic planning process in order to provide the university with a forward-looking, aspirational road map for the university's future beyond the immediate financial crisis. As this plan is being completed, the university has made significant progress in reducing the budget deficit and is on a pathway to recovery.
Strategic Planning in 2009-2010
In fall 2009, Provost W. Kent Fuchs formed a Strategic Planning Advisory Council consisting of eight faculty members.3 His intent was to create a faculty-driven planning process. The Strategic Planning Advisory Council stood at the center of the planning process, and all ideas and input went through this faculty group.4 The task or charge was to develop broad directions and priorities for Cornell University over the longer term, not to address immediate budgetary problems. The strategic plan would serve as a general framework or guide for decisions about where to invest resources (i.e., time, effort, and money), but not be so detailed as to determine such decisions or unduly impinge on the prerogatives of the provost, deans, and department chairs to make specific decisions within the broader planning framework.
The strategic planning effort was organized around four questions:
- Who are we as an institution?
- Where do we want to go?
- How can we get there?
- How will we tell if we have?
The first question suggests the need to identify the essential qualities of Cornell University, in particular its fundamental commitments. This is the purpose of section II. The second question refers to goals or objectives toward which the university should work over the next five years. The plan uses the term objectives to refer to the specific goals (ends) or directions. The third question refers to the actions (means) needed to move in these directions. The objectives should be actionable, and this is why the plan (see Section IV) uses the term actions in lieu of tactics or strategies.5 Finally, in response to the last question, the plan proposes an institutional-level framework for assessing progress toward objectives of the plan, recognizing that the metrics and indicators need to be developed further at the implementation stage in colleges and departments (see Appendix D).
This strategic plan is a "living document" that will change over time. It offers a common framework and flexible guide to decision makers across the university and, as such, it should foster greater coherence, coordination, and unity across the university. At the same time, however, it is designed to be adaptable enough to leave significant room for individual academic units to pursue academic excellence in ways important to those particular units.6
Approach to the Task
The Strategic Planning Advisory Council began meeting in October 2009. Early in its deliberations council members defined the key challenge facing Cornell University as follows: How can Cornell University preserve and especially enhance academic quality in the context of limited or constrained resources? There was from the beginning a tension between having ambitious aspirations and being realistic about the availability of new resources to fund priorities of the strategic plan. The SPAC aimed to balance these two considerations and made the following assumption: Cornell University will over the next couple of years emerge from its budgetary shortfalls and be ready to invest vigorously and proactively in its future.
Early on, the Strategic Planning Advisory Council also made a decision to focus on Cornell as a single entity. The One Cornell or One University concept was in part an overarching strategy for addressing the key challenge above. This strategy assumes that Cornell's academic strengths stem from and are based in colleges; yet Cornell's reputation and status are not solely a function of the strengths of the various colleges but also depend on how well colleges take advantage of cross-college synergies. This is likely to be even more important in the future because the changing environment for higher education in general and Cornell in particular suggests the need for a greater institutional capacity to act as a unit-for example, to become more adaptable, more efficient, more collaborative, and to create more "connective tissue" among the distinct parts.7
Organization of the Plan
The plan is organized around four topics. First, sections II and III establish a context for the strategic plan by affirming Cornell's enduring commitments and stating assumptions about Cornell's changing environment and challenges. Second, section IV presents specific objectives (ends) and actions (means) that fall within umbrella goal areas such as education, research, and public engagement. Third, section V develops strategic initiatives for the next five years that extract important themes from these objectives and actions. Fourth, section VI treats excellence in organizational stewardship as a necessary or enabling condition for implementing and achieving the academic objectives and priorities of the plan. The plan concludes with a statement on Cornell at its sesquicentennial (Section VII).
2There have been three recent efforts to develop a strategic plan for Cornell University. In 1994, shortly before the transition from President Rhodes to President Rawlings, the university completed a comprehensive strategic plan that was the culmination of a multi-year effort; in 2002 President Lehman organized a "call to engagement" in order to develop programmatic directions for the university leading up to its sesquicentennial; and in 2008 the Office of the Provost develop a plan. Material from these other planning efforts at Cornell provides useful background for the 2009-2010 planning effort.
3The members of the Strategic Planning Advisory Council were Lance Collins, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Jonathan Culler, English; Sandra Greene, History; Martha Haynes, Astronomy; Katherine Hajjar, Cell and Developmental Biology, Weill Cornell Medical College; Edward Lawler, Organizational Behavior (ILR) (Advisory Council Chair); Susan McCouch, Plant Breeding and Genetics; and Michael Waldman, Economics (JGSM).
4The Strategic Planning Advisory Council was assisted by faculty, students, and staff in four working groups, each of which developed ideas within one of the following areas: education; research, scholarship, and creativity; public engagement (outreach); and organizational stewardship. [See Appendix A.]
5The terminology used in strategic planning efforts varies considerably. The approach in this plan is to use objectives for the primary ends of concern and actions for the means to those ends. The objectives and actions are developed for a set of standard "goal areas" based in part on the principal dimensions of the university mission (e.g., research, education, outreach).
6The term dynamic interchange is used throughout this plan to convey the importance of continual discussion, joint problem solving, and negotiation between units (e.g., colleges) and the university center (e.g., provost's office) about the intersection of priorities and interests at the local level with those at the university level. In the context of dynamic interchange, there is no necessary inconsistency between having a strategic plan for One Cornell and decentralized academic decision making.
- Cornell's Enduring Commitments
- The Institution and Its Environment
- Goal Areas: Objectives and Actions
- Strategic Initiatives for 2010-2015
- Excellence in Organizational Stewardship
- Cornell at its Sesquicentennial
Appendix A: Structure and Process of Strategic Planning 2010Appendix B: Cornell's Statement on DiversityAppendix C: Student Learning OutcomesAppendix D: Assessing Progress 2010-2015