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Q&A with Cornell's deans: Increased responsibilities in a job 'under constant transformation'

Kent Fuchs meets with Cornell deans

Cornell Provost Kent Fuchs regularly meets with deans of the university's colleges and schools. See larger image

Who was your dean when you were a student at Cornell? Who is it now? How has their leadership influenced your school or college, and Cornell overall?

Deans are often seen as figureheads for their schools and colleges. That's an accurate description, but it's nowhere near complete. Our deans are responsible for the success of every person and program in their schools and colleges, now and in the future. Their responsibilities have increased in recent years, and the job's demands are under constant transformation.

The most obvious changes are driven by technology, both in research and teaching. "If you went back and asked graduates of 20 years ago if there'd be an MRI facility in this college, people would just shake their heads," Human Ecology Dean Alan Mathios said in an Ezra interview for this series.

Kathryn Boor, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said she foresees a day when "students will be able to take many different pathways to earn credits toward a degree." Certainly MOOCs (massive open online courses) have inspired a robust conversation about access to education. Cornell's first edX MOOC was launched in early February with more than 17,000 "learners." The popularity of MOOCs has compelled deans to think about whether, when and how a course should be offered online, and how to marshal the resources needed to produce high-quality material.

Innovative programs, excellent facilities, superb faculty and students, and exceptional leadership make the difference between a very good and a truly great college. In addition, we are asking each of our colleges and schools to think purposefully about its business model for the future: how much it will be funded by tuition, and how much by new revenue sources we have not tapped into yet.

The latter include corporate and foundation relationships. Universities have always worked with companies that benefit from their research and hire their graduates. Our deans are now tasked with seeking out appropriate partners and ensuring that the partnerships are meeting their schools' academic needs.

They are also expected to balance the needs of their schools with the needs of Cornell as a whole. President David Skorton and I firmly believe our senior leaders should work together as members of a team to achieve university goals. As College of Engineering Dean Lance Collins put it, "sometimes that requires that our vision extend beyond the boundaries of our respective colleges." For example, while Cornell Tech Dean Dan Huttenlocher is creating an entire new campus in New York City, he is also a member of an IT governance council advising Cornell Chief Information Officer Ted Dodds.

A dean typically serves for five to 10 years, so we are often looking for successors. These are rigorous searches, usually conducted internationally, so we have regular opportunities to assess the quality of academic leadership at many great institutions. Based on that, I can say that Cornell's deans are world-class, and unmatched in the quality of their work and leadership. I see daily evidence of their effectiveness and the great working relationships they build with each other, the president and vice presidents, and with external constituents – not just alumni but benefactors, collaborators and supporters around the world.

As this Ezra series concludes, I hope it has inspired you to stay connected to Cornell and the school or college you attended. I encourage you to get to know your school's dean; they are eager to meet their past, present and future students, to answer their questions, and to learn from them.

Kent Fuchs is Cornell University's provost.

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