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Provost Kent Fuchs reflects on Cornell's future, and his own

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Joe Schwartz
Kent Fuchs
Jason Koski/University Photography
Provost Kent Fuchs, president-elect of the University of Florida, in his Day Hall office.

Scale. Scope. Society. Sustainability. Stature.

Provost Kent Fuchs says these “five S’s” are the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for all top research universities in the U.S., and are especially relevant for Cornell. On Nov. 13, Fuchs will step down as provost of Cornell University. He will assume the presidency of the University of Florida Jan. 1, 2015.

In a recent interview Fuchs outlined the questions Cornell leaders will need to address as the university moves forward.

Scale: the size of the institution worldwide. How many students should Cornell have, in which programs? Which degrees should it award? Does the university need more facilities? More faculty? More employees? What should be the scale of its extension program? Of its New York City presence? Do online degree programs provide an opportunity to dramatically increase Cornell’s scale?

Fuchs said Cornell has grown in scale since he became provost in 2009, with increased construction on the Ithaca campus; the addition of the Cornell Tech campus; the offering of massive open online courses (MOOCs); and the growth of eCornell. In what areas should Cornell continue to grow?

Scope: How broad should the university’s academic offerings be? Fuchs noted that founder Ezra Cornell envisioned a university where “any person can find instruction in any study” and that Cornell has more academic departments than any of its top 20 peers. But, can it continue down this path? “The faculty combined two economics departments … and five plant sciences departments have combined to create a single school of plant sciences – what new academic programs should we create and what programs should we consolidate?” Fuchs asked.

Society: How should Cornell engage with the public? Engaged Cornell is a $150 million, 10-year initiative to bring societal engagement into the curriculum across the university, Fuchs said. How else should Cornell translate the land-grant mission of serving the public good? How can Cornell better communicate to the public its benefits to society?

Sustainability: Cornell aspires to be one of the world’s top 10 research universities, Fuchs said. How should the institution’s business model be made more sustainable and less reliant on tuition increases, while still maintaining Cornell’s need-blind admission policy? And how can Cornell have a sustainable campus in terms of its carbon footprint and also be the place where faculty conduct research and teach in areas related to energy and the environment?

Finally, stature: Stature, Fuchs said, refers to the excellence of the institution in teaching, research and engagement and to Cornell’s position relative to other universities who aspire to be at the top. He asked, “How can the university’s stature be enhanced in the context of other universities who have the same goal, when Cornell’s budget is relatively constrained?”

Fuchs said he will deal with many of these same challenges and opportunities at the University of Florida. In terms of students and physical size, the University of Florida is two-and-a-half times the size of Cornell. Florida has 50,000 students and 41,000 employees on campus and in its affiliated organizations and an annual budget of $4.4 billion. Like Cornell, the University of Florida is an Association of American Universities research university and land-grant institution.

But there are two important differences between the institutions, Fuchs said: The University of Florida is a public university that operates fully under the policies, laws and funding of the state. It also has more prominent football and basketball teams. Of the University of Florida’s mascot, Fuchs said with a smile, “I am learning to love alligators.”

Fuchs expects to maintain ties to Cornell. “I hope to be thought of here as a person who not only cared about programs and the university, but also cared about people,” he said. “They are what I will miss the most.”

Fuchs’ advice to Cornell’s incoming leadership? He encourages them to “have fun and have a sense of humor in the midst of their service to the university. ... Cornell is a wonderful place ... and has an amazing, glorious future in front of it ... it will be fun to watch and cheer everyone on.”

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