Humanities proposal springs from 'radical collaboration' effort

Cornell’s “radical collaboration” initiatives – launched last fall as a series of provost’s task forces targeting faculty hiring and retention across a slew of interdisciplinary areas and fields – already are generating momentum and success stories.

The task force on nanoscale science and molecular engineering, a faculty-organized initiative that was welcomed into the broader effort, was the first out of the gate last year, setting a goal of making 10 midlevel or senior hires over the next five years in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Human Ecology, and Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The task force for the humanities and arts created a draft proposal, Critical Inquiry into Values, Imagination and Culture (CIVIC) late last year; its final details will be worked out this spring, said Paul Fleming, professor of German studies and comparative literature and chair of the task force.

The CIVIC proposal reconnects the humanities to Cornell’s central mission, forging two distinct yet interlocked initiatives: Media Studies, Material Cultures and the Senses; and Humanities, Arts and Public Life. The goals of the proposal, Fleming said, were inspired by the concept of “One Cornell” – drawing on and reaching above the university’s decentralized structure to build new possibilities across departments, schools and campuses.

Fleming said humanities work at Cornell has included faculty from different fields for many years, but CIVIC will formalize these “exceptional strengths” to better serve faculty research, graduate student mentoring and bridging the colleges and schools on the Ithaca campus with Cornell Tech in New York City.

The CIVIC proposal includes details of coordination and infrastructure; creative collaborations connecting faculty and students in humanistic research, called ColLabs; the creation of a Center for Media, Material Culture and the Senses; 10 hires across initiatives and colleges over the next three years; and innovations in curriculum and teaching, including developing honors seminars and creating courses that prioritize hands-on “thinking through doing” and address the grand challenges facing the world.

“One of the most exciting things about this initiative is that it invites us to highlight the way that the arts and the humanities are at the center of what Cornell does,” said Annette Richards, professor of music and a member of the task force. “The two strands of the proposal, media and public life, are fundamental to all the other parts of Cornell – and to the world out there, too.”

CIVIC is particularly relevant to global and national politics today, Fleming said, because it is about “putting the humanities at the center of what’s going on in the world. I think that has been neglected, to the detriment of the importance of the humanities for global politics.”

Richards said CIVIC draws on the breadth and depth of Cornell, connecting faculty and students directly with resources that stretch from Cornell’s ancient plaster casts and organ and keyboard collections to its world-class library, archives and digital humanities tools.

Paul Fleming and Annette Richards
Paul Fleming, professor of German studies and comparative literature, and Annette Richards, professor of music. Credit: Robert Barker/University Photography

The proposal supports faculty work currently underway, and seeks to build on “the new directions that they’re going in … opening up opportunities to radically collaborate in whatever ways anyone can imagine,” she said.

Provost Michael Kotlikoff said the CIVIC proposal takes advantage of the “enormous strengths” Cornell has, particularly at the interfaces between the humanities and arts, and digital technology and computer sciences. “There’s a lot of excitement around how these fields impact each other and inform each other’s forward motion,” he said.

CIVIC calls for supporting and growing collaborations among the College of Arts and Sciences, the Faculty of Computing and Information Science, the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, Cornell Tech, the Law School and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

CIVIC also seeks to provide a larger stage for Cornell faculty in the humanities and the arts, Kotlikoff said; the proposal includes a vision for involvement of humanities and arts faculty at Cornell Tech, where CIVIC will have space to collaborate within the Roosevelt Island campus. It will be a location “where we can highlight the role of humanities, arts and the social sciences in a way that integrates with the mission of Cornell Tech and doesn’t displace that mission – but informs it and broadens it slightly,” Kotlikoff said.

Kotlikoff credited the task force with “some really terrific thinking on the liberal arts curriculum … fostered very much by College of Arts and Sciences Dean Gretchen Ritter ’83 and Interim President Hunter Rawlings.”

The CIVIC proposal, as well as plans and proposals from the half dozen other task forces that are coming together, will all in their own ways “exploit this ease of collaboration across Cornell,” Kotlikoff said, “this feature of no fences across the campus – no barriers between departments, that you get in a relatively small community, where people know each other and can easily collaborate with each other.”

Task force progress, other successes

Progress and excitement among the six radical collaboration task forces continues, Kotlikoff said. The task force groups, in addition to those on nanoscale science and molecular engineering and humanities and arts, are genome biology, data science, sustainability and infection biology, with a seventh in the social sciences to be organized later this year.

“I think the faculty are embracing this effort. They are working well together and reaching out beyond the individual groups to other faculty, and the groups are also beginning to talk to each other,” Kotlikoff said.

He also noted another benefit these initiatives have already fostered: Some newly recruited faculty members have expressed enthusiasm in participating in the task forces. He attributes this to excitement around the future that has been provoked by the radical collaboration initiatives.

Another early success is subtle, but no less real: faculty who have been retained. Specifically, Kotlikoff said, there are current faculty members who have been recruited by other universities and might have otherwise left Cornell, but the initiatives have given them reason to stay. They likely settled “some questions about Cornell’s commitment to future excellence and our ability to make future investments in faculty,” he said. The initiatives have helped “change that narrative, change people’s focus toward what we can do and where we’re going.”

“Our best faculty have offers at other places constantly,” Kotlikoff added, “and this has, I think, changed the conversation and the momentum a bit. We’ve retained a number of people as part of that – and these successes will allow us to continue to make strides in recruiting others.”

Kotlikoff also has begun talking about the crucial role of philanthropy to these recruitment and retention initiatives.

“We are going to be centering our philanthropy around these efforts – investing in faculty both within these initiatives and in other traditional disciplinary areas,” he said. “We need to increase our investment in academics, and our ability to do that is limited by our number of endowed faculty relative to other institutions.” He noted that Cornell needs more endowed faculty positions and endowments for postdoctoral and graduate students.

This article also appears in the Cornell Chronicle.

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		 Paul Fleming and Annette Richards