From David Skorton
SEP./OCT. 2007 VOLUME 110 NUMBER 2

Faculty: The Heart of Cornell

SkortonwHEN YOU THINK BACK TO your days on the Hill, you may recall classmates who became lifelong friends, devoted and talented staff who provided enormously useful help and counsel, or perhaps a memorable campus visitor who gave you insights into history being made. But chances are that those whom you remember most clearly and fondly--and whose impact was most profound and lasting--were the Cornell faculty.

Faculty members are the heart of Cornell and other fine research universities. Their reach goes far beyond any cohort of undergraduate, graduate, or professional students, because, whether in the sciences, arts, or humanities, they inquire, discover, and provide professional service and leadership-- all of which inform and enrich their teaching.

For example, the distinguished faculty members for whom we named our first four West Campus residential houses--Alice Cook, Carl Becker, Hans Bethe, and William Keeton, PhD ’58-- combined extraordinary intellectual contributions with inspirational teaching. That tradition continues at Cornell today.

Still, the scope of the faculty experience may be less than fully understood, even by those who have earned degrees at a research university. Therefore, in this first column of my second year at Cornell, I share some observations about our faculty.

We seek for our faculty individuals from diverse backgrounds who are, or have the potential to be, world leaders in their fields. The road to a faculty position is a long and arduous one. The preparation includes mastery of one’s subject area and experience in communicating information to less advanced students. It also requires the development of the tools and skills that enable continuing contribution to the advancement of knowledge, because much of any period’s knowledge is perishable and must be updated or even replaced.

Faculty at research universities are, by definition, pursuing future knowledge and incorporating it into their teaching. Long gone are the days, if they ever existed, when a professor could pull out tattered lecture notes from semesters past and hope to engage students’ interest. Even recently published textbooks are quickly outdated, and the best professors are continually augmenting and elaborating on their texts with insights from new publications, e-journals, professional meetings, and their own research and scholarship. For every hour of formal pedagogy, there are numerous hours of preparing the material that requires a profound understanding of the evolving fields.

In pedagogy, as well as in inquiry, the faculty are self-directed, and to a remarkable degree they take advantage of advanced media and computer technology to increase their effectiveness as teachers. Online resource materials, Web-based submission of assignments, "clicker" technologies that enable students to participate in discussions, remote video-conferencing with distant colleagues--all these and more are transforming the learning experience for our students and the ways in which faculty teach.

No other profession of which I am aware places such intense demands upon individuals to stay at the forefront-- in their scholarly and creative pursuits, as leaders and contributors within the international community of scholars, and in the methods they employ in their teaching and mentoring. At Cornell, expectations for excellence in all spheres are reinforced by our procedures for awarding tenure, which stipulate that candidates’ teaching be evaluated with the same care and rigor as their research and professional contribution.

Faculty are integrally involved in university governance. The curriculum, who is admitted to study it, the requirements for completion, the standards that must be met, and the process of recommending that degrees be granted are all within the purview of the faculty. Thus, in matters of academics, the faculty, more than the administration, direct the course of the University, albeit in a very decentralized manner.

Cornell and other research universities are facing an enormous challenge of faculty turnover as members of the "boomer" generation retire. We will need literally to "rebuild the University," as Provost Martin said in her first Academic State of the University Address, and that will require both the intellectual and financial support of our alumni.We need to keep the faculty heart of the University strong, so our professors can continue to create and transmit new knowledge and inspire each new generation of students to greater achievement.

-- President David Skorton
david.skorton@cornell.edu