Cornell Board of Trustees discussing fate of maligned College of Business proposal

January 30, 2016 by Mark H. Anbinder

When Cornell University's plan for a unified College of Business came to light in mid December, sparked by a series of "internal notifications," university officials seemed surprised by the rancor that followed. The plan is on the agenda for today's meeting of Cornell's Board of Trustees, taking place in Manhattan.

Cornell's S. C. Johnson Graduate School of Management is based in Sage Hall. 14850 Photo.Cornell's S. C. Johnson Graduate School of Management is based in Sage Hall. 14850 Photo.At its core, the idea for the College of Business is "a significant new commitment to the excellence of business education at Cornell," according to a late-December statement from Cornell president Elizabeth Garrett and provost Michael Kotlikoff, whose office had announced the plan. The unified college would "include Cornell's three accredited business schools: the School of Hotel Administration (SHA), the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management."

The idea isn't an unusual one in the 21st century. Combining the three existing schools under a new umbrella could "realize the numerous benefits of integration, while maintaining and enhancing the individual strengths and special character of our stellar business programs," as the late-December statement says. But students, staff, faculty, and alumni of the three separate programs, as well as others at Cornell, have all expressed concerns.

According to Cornell's statement, "We shared this news internally with SHA, CALS and Johnson faculty, staff and students on December 14 to allow for more formal planning to proceed. We are now engaging the broader Cornell community to gather input over the coming weeks and months as we work to realize the full scope of opportunities for business study at Cornell."

Undergraduate students would still apply either to the School of Hotel Administration or the Dyson School, "which have different approaches to admissions and work to find the right students to fit their unique programs," according to Cornell's statement. The Johnson School's graduate and executive education programs would retain their flavors, but "benefit from deep interaction with specialty areas of business currently located in other schools, such as real estate finance."

Cornell insists that "All gifts designated for a particular school, including scholarships, will stay so designated, and future gifts can be similarly designated," and "Dyson students who are New York State residents will continue to enroll at the New York State contract college tuition rate." The Dyson School itself was just established in 2010, elevating the Department of Applied Economics and Management to the level of a school within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, thanks to a $25 million gift from the family of John Dyson, class of 1965, who said, "Most business schools are too theoretical."

Cornell's Beck Center and Statler Hall house the School of Hotel Administration. 14850 Photo.Cornell's Beck Center and Statler Hall house the School of Hotel Administration. 14850 Photo.One of the first objections that arose was from the faculty of Cornell's College of Industrial and Labor Relations, a school with deep business-related programs that was left out of the plan. Cornell's entire Faculty Senate met on December 16th, "concerned that this decision was made without faculty consultation," and "voted unanimously to ask the Board of Trustees to table the proposal to form a College of Business until the Senate Faculty can debate it and advise," according to an e-mail sent to faculty members. The Student Assembly and University Assembly, too, have voted to encourage the Board to table the plan until further input can be obtained.

A statement from the Cornell Hotel Society to its members, which include alumni, faculty, and students of the School of Hotel Administration, says "based on the feedback we have received, the majority of alumni, students, and  faculty are concerned that the proposed College of Business may dilute the School of Hotel  Administration’s global preeminence in hospitality leadership and education."

A number of alumni have said they would rethink their plans to donate to Cornell if the College of Business were to move forward, but one in particular may have University officials concerned. According to the Cornell Daily Sun, Cornell alum Charles Feeney has said in a letter to the Board of Trustees and President Garrett that the proposal is not "appropriate at this time." Feeney, who expressed "deep concern" about the plan, is the founder of Atlantic Philanthropies, a non-profit foundation through which he has donated or committed roughly a billion dollars to Cornell since 1982.

Dr. Kotlikoff declined to answer our specific questions about the plan, instead asking a University spokesperson to send us a prepared statement from Cornell's vice president for university relations, Joel M. Malina. According to the statement, "Each school will maintain its unique identity and mission, while its already strong stature, scope and impact will be markedly enhanced by its combination with faculty, curricular offerings and programs in a cohesive College of Business. This step continues Cornell’s long history of successfully sharing academic units in a way that preserves each program’s identity and focus, while enhancing the depth and scope of the discipline." 

While the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees has already approved the plan, as put forward by President Garrett and Provost Kotlikoff, a 51% vote of the full Board would be required to amend the University's by-laws to create the College of Business.

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