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Former provost: Humanities have unique role for the future

Cornell's unique combination of strengths in the humanities alongside its strengths in the sciences gives it unique challenges, said former Cornell Provost Don Randel Oct. 21 in Statler Auditorium during the Trustee Council Annual Meeting

Randel, also a former dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, is president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He spoke immediately after President David Skorton's State of the University Address and just before Skorton announced that a new humanities building will be built on the Arts Quad, with groundbreaking targeted for 2013.

Randel served 32 years on Cornell's faculty, and as provost 1995 to 2000. He set the stage for the building announcement by stressing the value of the arts and humanities at Cornell, at other universities and in "the life of the nation."

He quoted from Aristotle, Steve Jobs and Cornell's own A.R. Ammons as well as from the protagonist of Lawrence Durrell's four-novel "The Alexandria Quartet," who points out that "when it comes to writing love letters, no matter how good you are, after about a dozen you begin to be hard up for new material."

Randel elaborated: "Both love and the humanities are their own reward. And they have been central to what makes life worth living for as long as human beings have left any record of what they care about." He stressed that the value of the humanities, repeated many times before and in many different ways, bears repeating. The study of the arts and humanities doesn't often bring in big research grants, he said, or guarantee future employment, and cannot easily be translated into how it contributes to the gross domestic product.

Randel said that "two cultures" persist on college campuses -- the humanists and the scientists -- and about how "the ways a university spends money, and the things for which it seeks money from generous people" says something about a university's values.

"We can all agree that it is possible to study and write poetry under a tree, or in a small room with a single candle, and it's not really possible to advance our understanding of molecular biology in quite the same way," he said to nodding laughter.

"But students, and we ourselves, may get the wrong idea if those who study and write poetry are forever consigned to small rooms with a single candle, or to no room at all, while those who pursue molecular biology necessarily inhabit shining examples of modern architecture.

"Study of poetry is, in fact, cheaper than study of molecular biology," he continued. "But the university must make clear in its physical environment as well as in its intellectual claims that certain things matter with respect to its values, whether or not those values appear to be shared by the marketplace."

Ensuring that the arts and humanities become "more than a veneer that we would like to apply to our students and ourselves" is part of a larger cultural debate, he stressed. Colleges and universities, and especially Cornell, can greatly contribute to this evolving cultural discussion by demonstrating that the arts and humanities are "a crucial part of the intellectual fabric of the institution."

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