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Reaccreditation report finds much to praise at Cornell, and some 'opportunities for improvement'

The final report by the Middle States reaccreditation team, issued in late June, was glowing in its praise for Cornell University as "a truly special place."

"Cornell is a very fine university, making truly distinctive contributions in all areas of its mission: educating responsible citizens, extending the frontiers of knowledge, and applying the results of these endeavors in service to the community, the state, the nation and the world," the report noted. The report by the evaluation team also noted some opportunities for improvement. These included suggestions that the university provide a succinct statement of the mission, goals and objectives of the institution, as well as a more consistent and systematic means of assessing progress towards those goals.

"The evaluation team's final report is an accurate reflection of how Cornell's complexity challenged the team, how our multiplicity of strengths impressed them and how our opportunities for improvement seriously engaged them," said President Hunter Rawlings. "We are grateful for the team's evaluation and advice. Both their time with us and their insightful report will benefit Cornell as we continue our efforts to become an even stronger university in the future."

After commenting on the exceptional beauty of Cornell's campus, the report noted, "In walking across the campus, one immediately perceives another aspect of the university's distinction: a visibly diverse student body engaged vigorously in study, conversation, political activity and recreation. The dramatic gorges that famously mark the campus lend a unique dimension to Cornell. They also provide a ready metaphor for some of the divisions that have in the past kept different parts of this university from working together in an optimal fashion to multiply their effectiveness and achieve shared goals. We were convinced that the leaders of Cornell today are genuinely committed to bridging these metaphorical gorges and realizing the many potential advantages of a single – but never a monolithic – university." Full text of the final report is available electronically at <http://www.ipr.cornell.edu/Cornell-Report.pdf >.

A decennial self-study and reaccreditation evaluation is required of all higher education institutions under the jurisdiction of the Middle States Association Commission on Higher Education (MSA/CHE). The Cornell on-site visit by the evaluation team, led by Nannerl O. Keohane, team chair and president of Duke University, took place April 29 through May 2.

In preparation for the visit, Cornell began a self-study in September 1999. The university chose to go beyond the comprehensive review document required by Middle States, with an expanded, special emphasis section as part of the 127-plus-page self-study. The two special emphasis sections of the document focused on two of Cornell's strategic priorities: undergraduate education and distributed and distance learning.

In February 2002, the MSA/CHE board will take final action on the evaluating team's recommendation regarding Cornell's ongoing reaccreditation.

Administration and Governance

In the report, under "administration and governance," the team noted that the university has:

  • A strong financial position and operates within balanced budgets.
  • An articulated strategy to meet the financial challenges ahead, as well as a diversified revenue base.
  • A firm commitment to need-blind admissions and a broad access to a Cornell education.
  • A clear commitment from the president and provost to emphasizing the intellectual climate on campus.
  • A talented and dedicated staff with modest turnover.
  • A clearly articulated commitment to the positive dimensions of diversity.

Among challenges, the report noted that:

  • Cornell's decentralized structure presents challenges to effective communication and the building of community.
  • Cornell has an exceptionally complex governance system, and an equally complex set of colleges and schools, which "creates a formidable challenge for leadership, participatory decision-making and consultation. … A good deal of progress has been made toward this objective, but the problem still warrants the attention of those involved."

Academic Objectives and Priorities

Under "academic objectives and priorities," the team noted that:

  • "Cornell is a research university of the highest rank." o The graduate program is in excellent health, and the flexibility of the graduate study "fields" system works well.
  • Teaching and research in the life sciences are exceptional.
  • Progress has been made in other institutional priorities – research in information sciences, genomics and advanced materials science; enhancing the humanities and social sciences; improving faculty and staff compensation; strengthening the relationship with New York state and the State University of New York; and enhancing diversity.

Among challenges, the report noted that:

  • In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, there is great frustration about many of the teaching and research facilities.
  • In the College of Engineering, there is the unresolved matter of the Computer Science Department.
  • In the laboratory-based disciplines, there is concern that faculty start-up packages are behind national norms.
  • The professional schools also need to be kept in mind as future planning continues.

Libraries

Under libraries, the team noted that:

  • The library, actively used by undergraduate and graduate students, is a leader, recognized for its rich collections, its knowledgeable and service-oriented staff, its array of user-based programs, and its digital library gateway, access structure and rich content of knowledge and information resources.

Among challenges, the report noted:

  • The large number of separate library sites.

Outreach and Extension

Under outreach and extension, the team noted:

  • The breadth and depth of outreach in the contract colleges, as well as with the work being performed around the state by Cornell Cooperative Extension.
  • Special commendation to two outreach programs responding to needs of the public with research-based approaches: the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations' extension program.

Among challenges, the report noted that:

  • The lack of clear structure to provide focus for outreach has created a perception on campus that outreach and public service are not valued.Undergraduate education

Under undergraduate education, the team noted that:

Cornell has identified undergraduate life as a high priority and has taken many initiatives to support and enhance the living and learning environment. "This was clearly exhibited in every aspect of this evaluation, including the ambitious and extensive additions and changes in the residential program, the broad-based efforts to include faculty in as many activities and events as possible to the mission and the goals of each of the student services departments."

  • The Knight Institute's Writing Program deserves special commendation.
  • Wide ranges of undergraduate research opportunities exist and are being developed.
  • Exceptional students form a vibrant community that fosters individual development and rewards accomplishments.

Among challenges, the report noted that:

  • Surveys found significant levels of dissatisfaction in advising.
  • The topic of evening exams needs to be more thoroughly considered.

Information technology and distance learning

Under information technology and distance learning, the team noted that:

  • Neither the goals nor markers of progress are as clear here as they are with undergraduate education. "A number of ambitious initiatives have been launched and interesting programs developed, but the overall vision needs to be articulated."
  • To make distributed learning a more central part of its educational programs, Cornell needs to move on several fronts in the use of instructional technology across the curriculum.
  • There seems to be an unusual degree of bureaucratic complexity in terms of support for a faculty member who wishes to undertake a technology-based instructional project, compared with other institutions.
  • The fee-based system serves as a disincentive to those who might wish to experiment in this area.
  • Distance-learning does not have a very high profile on campus as a goal.
  • Cornell should move quickly to approve an intellectual property policy that unambiguously attributes ownership for all assets that are to be used in its distance learning efforts.

The report concluded that Cornell "is truly a special place, with distinctive traditions and historic roots, a vigorous and productive record of current accomplishment and commitment, and a future that should be very bright. All who live, work and study there are fortunate indeed."

Rawlings thanked members of the Cornell community for their assistance with the self-study and during the site visit. "We entered into this process committed to conducting it in such a way that it would benefit the university beyond merely leading to reaccreditation," Rawlings said. "While we must await final action on the part of MSA/CHE's Board next February, the evaluation team's insightful report will help us as we continue to focus on ways to improve Cornell."

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