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Serving Society

AAP Dean Emeritus Porus Olpadwala takes a close look at where Cornell is today—and where it needs to go  AAP Dean Emeritus Porus Olpadwala takes a close look at where Cornell is today—and where it needs to go Porus Olpadwala retired two years ago after a forty-year career as a Cornell administrator, professor, department head, […]


AAP Dean Emeritus Porus Olpadwala takes a close look at where Cornell is today—and where it needs to go

AAP Dean Emeritus Porus Olpadwala takes a close look at where Cornell is today—and where it needs to go

Porus Olpadwala retired two years ago after a forty-year career as a Cornell administrator, professor, department head, and dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. Before leaving Ithaca in December 2010, he drafted a 17,000- word document titled "Cornell Today and Tomorrow" and shared it with a few of his closest colleagues on the Hill, plus some alumni and friends. At their suggestion, he sent a copy to CAM. He spoke to us from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about his thought-provoking and sometimes controversial evaluation of the University's present and future.

Cornell Alumni Magazine: Why did you decide to write this report?

Porus Olpadwala: I wrote it mainly for myself and for some close Cornell friends with whom I have discussed these issues over the years. It also was a way for me to return to a shelved project on U.S. higher education. This way of taking stock of the University may be seen as a precursor to our normal strategic planning exercises. Its genesis for me was a similar appraisal that I submitted in the mid-Nineties as a member of the University's commission on stewardship.

Porus Olpadwala

CAM: With the sesquicentennial ap­proaching, there was one statement in your report that I found striking: "With both knowledge and society drastically transformed, educators today are vastly overdue to do what Mr. Cornell and his friends did in their own time—take a close look, with maximum integrity, imagination, and courage, at how the learned professions might be transformed to serve the new society."

PO: That is the essence of the piece. If we start with the premise that the University exists first and foremost to serve society, we have to prioritize where the needs reside and then figure out how best to attend to them. Mr. Cornell's genius was to conclude, in the mid-nineteenth century, that the old church- and property-based model of higher education was not appropriate for the late-nineteenth century U.S. He helped create, in tandem with President Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins, the broadly inclusive, practice-oriented, great modern American research university. But now we are in the twenty-first century, and the society for which these institutions were created has evolved to be almost unrecognizable today. So we have to do the same thing again—work out whom we wish to serve and how to do so.

CAM: You identify a number of problems that currently confront Cornell. One of these is sponsored research. Why is this a problem?

PO: Sponsored research grants do not cover all the costs of doing the work. For every dollar we earn, the University has to find between ten and twenty cents from its own coffers. Since we strive constantly to increase our sponsored research, this puts enormous ongoing pressure on our budgets. Indeed, it is the only area in which we try very hard to get into the position of spending more every passing year. It is also a prime factor in not corralling tuition increases. The current model is anchored in Vannevar Bush's post-World War II dictum of allowing free intellects to work on whatever they choose and in any way they want, with no larger practical or social connections in mind. At that time, the cost of doing scientific research was relatively small, but that is no longer the case. We need to find ways of safeguarding Bush's principle but reconciling it with constrained budgets.

CAM: Does this also affect teaching?

PO: Absolutely. It is common for researchers to use their grants to buy out teaching commitments. Sometimes their courses are shelved; at other times, part-time instructors or graduate students take the place of tenure-line faculty. Either way, students get less or less effective teaching. This is not meant as a criticism of part-time faculty or graduate students—both these groups face their own considerable travails, which I discuss in the piece.

CAM: Another problem area you identify is the competition between universities—the so-called "arms race" to constantly keep up with each other by building new laboratories, residence halls, and other expensive facilities. You question the value of some of this. What areas are the most problematic?

PO: All the areas. We seem to compete on all fronts simply for the sake of competing. We need to step back and think about why we do so and what the outcomes are, not for the sake of our own statistics or visibility, but for our students and their families. A classic example concerns applications. An admissions director—at Princeton, I think—pointed out years ago that it seems we invest considerable time and treasure to raise our applicant numbers every year just for the sole purpose of being able to reject more of them. The results of competition are only as good or bad as its goals.

CAM: One area that you didn't address in your report, simply because it hadn't happened yet, was the competition for the applied science campus in New York City. What do you think the impact of the NYC Tech campus might be on the future of the University?

PO: There is no way of telling this, and certainly not for the University as a whole. Faculty and researchers from all of our campuses who participate will benefit from additional resources and visibility. Our sponsored research totals and research profile will rise. Some or many New York City alumni will gain business and career opportunities. Start-ups, whether by alumni or others, will add to the University's coffers. Alumni everywhere will be pleased with Cornell's higher media visibility, and this might translate into enhanced support. On the other hand, the expanded research agenda will put more pressure on budgets and detract from the goal of cost containment. Not many undergraduates will see their lives changed, though teaching will suffer if history is a guide. Over the long haul, the humanities and social sciences will not improve their relative status, despite the new hires being planned and the spanking addition to Goldwin Smith. The NYC Tech and Ithaca campuses will probably not become integrated in any meaningful way. Senior administrators will multiply. The burdens on the president and provost, already heavy beyond comprehension, will become considerably more weighty.

CAM: You also tackle the difficult subject of whether Cornell's colleges and schools should be reorganized—and whether it makes sense to still have contract colleges. At what point does Cornell have to take a serious look at this?

PO: Cornell consistently has taken a serious look at these issues. Our relationship with New York State was a regular item of debate in the Day Hall that I served in 1972. The forty intervening years have witnessed significant reorganizations, including the creation of a new dean, in computing, and three attempts to "re-align"—that is, disband—my college. While the consideration always has been there, the conditions for appropriate solutions or successful action have not, particularly as regards the extremely sensitive and thorny issue of Albany.

CAM: You state: "The question for universities of our size is not whether we are too big to fail but whether we are too big to govern for any common social good beyond the needs of the scholars who comprise them." Again, you're talking about serving society. At what point has the university moved away from this focus?

PO: The genesis is amorphous and the change gradual, but what is clear is that the process accelerated and deepened in the post-World War II era with the infusion of large federal government monies accompanied by bureaucratic mandates, and the adoption by administration and faculty alike of a business-like ethos and commercial practices. Today the professoriate substantially has completed its transition from a vocation to a business-minded profession. The reasons for this are understandable and in many ways beyond its control, but that does not negate the fact of the transformation.

CAM: Given all the difficulties and problems you identify, are you optimistic about Cornell's future?

PO: Yes, definitely, if we use the standards that the academy sets for itself. Our University has always had great scholars and great teachers, strong leadership, and incredibly supportive alumni. All this is even more true today. But if we make reference to the critical problems that haunt all higher education and are the focus of my piece—ratcheting costs, the dissatisfaction of students and parents, the mistreatment of young scholars, general societal disaffection—that is an altogether different and significantly more chastening proposition.

— Jim Roberts '71


Read the full text of "Cornell Today and Tomorrow " (6Mb PDF)