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Cornell panel in D.C. ponders higher ed's role in shaping public policy

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Sabina Lee

Higher education can and must take a role in shaping public policy, faculty members stressed at a roundtable in the nation's capital April 3. They called for greater attention to the overlapping nature of complex social problems, with a focus on economic security.

About 500 alumni joined President David Skorton and a delegation of professors in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center for "Cornell in the Capital," sponsored by Far Above ... The Campaign for Cornell. The centerpiece was a faculty discussion, "A Meeting of the Minds: Shaping Policy in Changing Times."

Campaign co-chairs Jan Rock Zubrow '77 and Stephen Ashley '62, MBA '64, introduced and closed the panel. Ashley emphasized the need for increased scholarship fundraising, despite the current economic climate. "We must make sure that these difficult times do not pose an obstacle to students' ability to attend Cornell," he said.

Skorton argued that universities must play a role in solving the global economic crisis. "We must not abdicate the role of policy completely to think tanks," he said. "What are think tanks anyway but other kinds of academic institutions? The mother ship of those institutions is where the people in the think tanks got their training."

Describing security as a multifaceted policy problem, Skorton asked panelists what the term means to them.

David Harris, deputy provost and vice provost for social sciences, called security a privilege that the affluent take for granted. "We have to make sure that we're not just focusing on the newly poor or the newly not-so-rich, and that we're really focusing on the people who are persistently poor, trying to understand why they persistently have insecurity."

In terms of what that means for policy, economist and professor Michael Waldman said that government "needs to worry about protecting the people at the bottom who are bearing a lot of the problems." Agreeing, Alice Pell, vice provost for international relations, added, "We have to keep looking at the bottom parts of cultures and societies because that's who is being affected, but it's so easy not to, because they don't have a voice."

Skorton then asked whether faculty should be bound to consider policy relevance in their research.

"One of the great concerns right now in a moment of crisis is the desire to have an immediate payoff," said Weill Cornell Medical College ethicist Joseph Fins. "The great research universities have to maintain the ability to think pragmatically in the short term, but also through the theoretical work, which is the foundation for the future."

The panel emphasized that the most important role of a university is to help students think, question and see the need for change. By that measure, they argued, teaching often has an even greater impact than direct policy application.

Panelists told a number of stories about students taking the lead in applying their education to social welfare, from an undergraduate-run nongovernmental organization called Cover Africa and free clinics run by medical students to the Cornell in Washington program. "The main product of a university is the students," said Pell. "If we're being successful with our students, which I think is the most important thing we do at the university, we have to keep making sure that we're giving them skills. It is a technical background, but it's also the ability to think analytically and creatively."

Jennifer Campbell is a writer with Alumni Affairs and Development.

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