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Three deans on white background

Q&A with Cornell's deans

Glenn Altschuler

Glenn Altschuler speaks at Atkinson Center

Glenn Altschuler, dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, speaks at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future in 2010.

Q: What's unique about the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions?

Thanks to a splendid, small, creative, hardworking staff, the School of Continuing Education (SCE) and Summer Sessions is a leader in a number of fields. Our summer college program for high school students is one of the largest, and I believe among the best, in the country. Over the decades that I've been dean, [that program] has become more diverse, and more international, than Cornell is in the fall and spring [semesters]. Thanks to the support of alumni and friends, and two talented directors, Abby Eller and James Schechter, we are more able to bring academically talented students from economically disadvantaged families to Summer College than any other time in the history of that program.

SCE also boasts CAU, Cornell's Adult University; if it's not the oldest program of its kind in the U.S., it's pretty darn close; and one that is spectacularly successful. Again thanks to two directors – Ralph Janis '66 and Catherine Penner '68 – CAU has increased its offerings on campus and internationally. We now offer some 30 courses in the summer, and 15 or 20 domestic and international study tours each year. I believe they connect our alumni with our faculty more effectively, more deeply and more enduringly than any other program at Cornell.

One of the things I'm proudest of as dean is the stability of our staff, at CAU and Summer College, at Special Programs, in budget and finance, in our registrar's office, media, accounting, and computing, and, most of all, in our associate dean, Charles Jermy, who has been the heart and soul of the operation for well over three decades. They have built programs that have stood the test of time and evolved.

SCE moved into the Internet age very early on and has offered courses to students in the summer and winter sessions online … because our mission is to reach learners wherever they are. And we've taken that mission very seriously.

Q: Cornell began its inaugural semester of MOOCs (massive open online courses) this February. What are MOOCs' greatest potential and challenge?

The greatest potential of MOOCs is to further democratize higher education. And that's a big deal. It means it's possible to reach hundreds of thousands and millions of people, and the only requirement is that they have a desire to learn and access to a computer. That can be transformational.

But there are concerns. Those concerns include making sure that MOOCs are educationally sound, that they provide what students need – and at the moment, completion rates for MOOCs suggest that they're not doing that. As with all technological innovations, we're going to need MOOCs 2.0 and 3.0 and 4.0 before they really begin to reach their potential.

MOOCs, if they're not handled well, can be second-rate substitutes for a face-to-face residential education whose virtues, I think, are many and varied. And certainly we at Cornell, and our colleagues elsewhere, would not want MOOCs to result in the kinds of cost savings that reduce the size of faculty overall. That would not be a good thing for this country or for higher education.

Glenn Altschuler chats with lecture series attendees

Altschuler chats with attendees following a talk he gave to kick off a Jewish studies lecture series. See larger image

Q: You have long said that your top priority is students and teaching. What is the secret to your approach?

I can only tell you what I try to do. I try very hard to listen to students; alas, I believe that listening is more and more a lost art. And I find that when students feel that they're in a place and a space where they're respected, where their views, their thoughts and feelings are solicited, where they're asked to express them – then, far more often than not, in the act of speaking, of giving voice to thoughts and feelings, students learn a lot about themselves. Often I'm just the bystander who plays a small role in making that happen.

Q: Tell me about the Cornell history book you are writing with Professor Isaac Kramnick and the course you two will teach during the sesquicentennial year.

The title is "Cornell: A History, 1940-2015" (Cornell University Press, publication expected in October); it covers the second 75 years of Cornell's history, and in that sense it could be regarded as a sequel to Morris Bishop's "A History of Cornell."

But it's a very different kind of book. It reflects the methods and interests of two professional historians who have spent most of their adult lives at Cornell. It is essaylike in that each chapter has an overarching theme. It deals not only with internal matters (student life, faculty, administrative changes) but Cornell in a national and international context. There are chapters on the Cold War, on Vietnam, on divestment from South Africa, on outreach to China and globalization generally.

[1940 and the onset of World War II] was not only a convenient, but an important date – it is the beginning of Cornell's second 75 years, but it also in fundamental ways marks the emergence of Cornell as a modern university. And that's an important theme in the book.

The course (Cornell's America and America's Cornell: The Big Red From World War II to 2015) will be a one-time offering to undergraduates in the fall, for the sesquicentennial … it will track many of the themes articulated in the book.

I believe that students know precious little about higher education in general, what a university is and what it does. When students first come here, they know even less about Cornell, about its traditions and values. I mean that in a serious and substantive way.

If students understand what universities do, I think they're more likely to flourish in such universities, [to better understand] what they're in the midst of.

The dean

Glenn Altschuler, dean of SCE; he also is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies.

Altschuler has been a faculty fellow at Hans Bethe House, vice president for university relations, recipient of a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowship and winner of numerous teaching and advising awards.

At Cornell since 1981, dean since 1991 (currently Cornell's longest-serving dean).

Research expertise areas: Popular culture, politics and higher education in the United States.

The School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions

Population: 479 faculty members; 5,637 credit and noncredit students from Cornell and beyond; 672 classes and programs (including 55 online classes). Figures include summer and winter sessions, summer college for high school students, Cornell in Washington, Cornell's Adult University and more.

SCE offers credit and noncredit courses in hundreds of subjects throughout the year in formats ranging from full-semester classes to one-day seminars, study-abroad options, online classes, international education trips and free summer events.

Dan Huttenlocher

Dan Huttenlocher mingles with students at financial engineering mixer

Dan Huttenlocher, dean of Cornell Tech, mingles with students at a 2013 financial engineering mixer at tech campus headquarters in New York City.

Q: What has impressed you the most during Cornell Tech's first couple of semesters?

One of the things I learned in doing a startup in the commercial sector – and I definitely view this project as an educational startup – was not to have too many expectations about how things are going to play out, because in the early stages of something, almost any expectation you have is false. One of the things that was a very important part of the first semester was a lot of practice with the students – in storytelling, in pitching, things that you usually don't think of in a computer science program. I have always believed that these communication skills are very teachable and learnable, and the stereotypes that engineers and computer scientists just aren't good at this kind of stuff are false stereotypes. Starting to see the progress there was amazing, in one semester.

Q: It's something you knew they would have to grow into?

A big piece of our program is pushing our students out of their comfort zone. And one piece of the comfort zone they really need to get outside of is around communication skills. But it's not just communication in the classic sense; design and storytelling, those are incredibly important skills, ones that we spend time exposing our students to and getting them to spend time on.

Q: The Cornell Tech website proclaims: "Consider the mold broken." What is the tech campus creating in its place?

We have programmatically focused interactions with companies on the campus. There are people from companies on campus almost every single day interacting with the faculty, interacting with the students, as part of the academic programs – parts of the research, the student projects, the courses, the practicums. This is systemic and something we've built a lot of support and infrastructure to help make work, like having an entrepreneurial office and Greg Pass as our chief entrepreneurial officer. We have invested more in corporate and external engagement … than you would see in most academic settings.

Another place where the traditional mold has definitely been broken is the nature of the curriculum. In [our first] computer science program, there are requirements for students to take business school courses, to do company projects each semester, to participate in the Friday practicum every week.

Dan Huttenlocher gives tech campus update to trustees

Huttenlocher gives an update on the tech campus to board of trustees members in Statler Hall in Ithaca in October 2013. See larger image

Instead of a student being some outlier who happens to have navigated the system to squeeze a couple of business school classes into their curriculum, all of their cohort, all of their peers are engaging in this; and so it's a very different culture, a very different kind of daily interaction.

Q: How has Cornell Tech kept its approach as an academic startup?

You come to Cornell in Ithaca, you come to a particular college, and there's decades to centuries of precedent there. In a startup, it's really important to keep trying to articulate vision because of the lack of history and precedent, and because things change quickly. … After the first beta semester we made big changes in the way classes were being offered to better achieve that vision of integrating academic and practical excellence. We're really trying to take advantage of the ability to experiment while we're still small.

We're experimenting with more block-based teaching, so instead of the traditional Monday-Wednesday-Friday class, we're looking at much more intensive teaching sessions that might last three or four hours. And we're looking at pedagogies that combine the sort of engineering/computer science kind of pedagogy (problem-set based, factual-material based) with things like design studio methodologies and more case-based teaching methods. You can mix together several different approaches to cover the same material in relatively different ways and that's very hard to try to do in a 50-minute class or three 50-minute classes taught over a week.

Q: Can you describe Cornell Tech's temporary campus in Chelsea?

First I'd like to clear up a fundamental misconception that many people have: We're not in Google's offices. Google owns this 3 million-square-foot building. It's the headquarters of, of WebMD – of all kinds of companies. Google does occupy about a million square feet in this building, about a third of the building, but we're just one of the tenants in the building. We happen to be a tenant who's not paying rent thanks to Google's incredible generosity.

It's an awesome building – it was a Port Authority warehouse building, so it's stupendous space for the high-tech kind of environment where there are more open floor plans, more big collaboration spaces. We are taking advantage of that by having all our faculty, staff, researchers and doctoral students sitting together in open areas, and having a reconfigurable "commons" to support a broad range of activities.

The space is also serving as a model for the design of the new campus on Roosevelt Island, under the direction of Vice President Cathy Dove and Director of Capital Projects and Planning Andrew Winters.

Q: What kind of faculty have you been hiring?

We are looking for a different profile of faculty in New York. It's the same kind of academic excellence that we know in Ithaca and the same kind of commitment to teaching, but it's faculty who really want to roll up their sleeves and directly engage outside the academic world. There are some faculty in Ithaca for whom that's true, but that's certainly not, for most programs and most faculty, a defining characteristic of their job. In this way we are building an environment where external engagement is expected along with research and teaching.

Q: Tell us about working with The Technion to develop dual-degree programs?

It's almost unheard of for two high-caliber institutions – with their own views of curriculum, of research, of impact in the world – to collaborate at the level that we are. It's an unprecedented opportunity to design whole new degree programs, to have on the drawing board three dual Cornell/Technion degrees; to be piloting a new postdoc program to commercialize advanced research. It's exciting new territory to be exploring together.

The dean

Dan Huttenlocher, vice provost and founding dean of Cornell Tech

At Cornell since 1988; Cornell Tech dean since 2012.

Areas of expertise: social networks and online behavior, computer vision and image processing.

Cornell Tech

Population: Currently 10 faculty and about 30 graduate students and postdocs.

Areas of Growth: All areas of the new campus, focused on digital technologies and the information economy.

Cornell Now Campaign Goal: Cornell Tech will announce its own separate campaign in the future.

Gary Koretzky

Gary Koretzky meets with Randi Silver in New York City

Dr. Gary Koretzky 78, dean of Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York City, chats with Dr. Randi Silver, left, professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medical College and associate dean of the graduate school, in his office.

Q: What brought you from the University of Pennsylvania to Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences?

I moved to Weill Cornell because I found the dual roles of dean of the graduate school and senior associate dean for research at the medical college to be an absolutely unique opportunity. I thought the two positions just synergized perfectly. Weill Cornell is committed to advancing its scientific mission, and its world-class researchers, ample resources, ability to expand its scientific footprint on campus, and outstanding philanthropy provides us an outstanding opportunity for further development for graduate education. My charge is to think of ways to take graduate education to the next level. I've known Weill Cornell Dean Laurie Glimcher for 30 years. I know her values, and that my values are very similar. I knew we would work together as partners. I also do have this fondness for Cornell – I was an undergraduate (Arts & Sciences, Class of 1978, biology with a concentration in neurobiology and behavior) and remember those days well. More recently, our daughter, Maya, completed her undergraduate degree at Cornell (Arts and Sciences Class of 2013) and had an equally wonderful experience.

Q: Tell me about the Weill Cornell Graduate School's partnership with Sloan Kettering.

The Upper East Side of Manhattan is a unique place to do biomedical sciences. Weill Cornell Medical College is right across the street from Sloan Kettering, a world-class cancer institute. [We] have been equal partners in the graduate school for decades. Our close relationship gives our students the opportunity to participate in the most fundamental science across the board at Weill Cornell and in the cancer-focused research at Sloan Kettering.

Q: What are our greatest health care challenges, and what is Weill Cornell's role in addressing them?

One of our greatest challenges is how to turn the new knowledge we are generating into new approaches to provide optimal care for our patients. So, it's taking discoveries we make in the laboratory and translating them into effective and efficient care delivered at the patient bedside.

How to accomplish this spans the spectrum from basic science to translational science to clinical discovery and then to public health policy implementation. The graduate school, between its Ph.D. and master's programs, has students interested in this entire range. We have robust master's programs that address social and public health issues, as well as fundamental biologic programs that seek new ways to understand the underpinnings of disease and with that knowledge, developing new approaches to impact those diseases. The graduate school is a community of scholars – faculty and students – that really create the uniqueness of this institution.

Gary Koretzky and daughter Maya in Ithaca for Commencement Weekend 2013

Koretzky with his daughter, Maya '13, last May in Ithaca during Cornell's Commencement Weekend. See larger image

Q: How will the Belfer Research Building affect Weill Cornell researchers?

The building will be thematic. Instead of the classic way research space is allocated (department by department), we are instead thinking of research themes that cross departmental lines. For example, we are developing a center for inflammatory diseases, a center for metabolic health, a center for cardiovascular diseases. Because many of the underlying mechanisms of these diseases overlap, these institutes will be juxtaposed in the new building, and faculty will be interspersed so that they can inform each other and develop synergistic projects. The labs are wide open; there are no walls. Programs will grow and contract as our faculty develop different areas of focus. This building is really built for the future.

Q: How will the Cornell Tech campus impact research and teaching at your school?

One of the huge challenges for research as it is applied to medicine involves how we handle enormous sets of data; and having colleagues who are expert in that – in Ithaca and also at the tech campus's future home on Roosevelt Island – will position us in an absolutely unique way. Our goal is to work with colleagues to develop approaches to analyze these data in a new way. For example, now that the human genome has been mapped, it will be a tremendous undertaking to understand what all these genomic sequences are telling us. We're just beginning to unravel that now.

Q: Is this an exciting time to conduct biomedical research? What do you see as its most promising growth areas?

There has never been a time like now – science and medicine have never been closer together. I think what's really on the horizon is our ability to understand disease at a much deeper level so that we can use precision medicine to target therapies for individual patients.

When we see patients now with diabetes, we think about that disease as type I or type II diabetes. But in reality, people with diabetes have the same symptoms and signs as a result of multiple different underlying etiologic abnormalities. If we knew how to parse those out, instead of treating all diabetics with the same agents, we would stratify our patients based on different causes of their diabetes and tailor therapies to specifically target the cause on an individual basis.

We're already doing that with cancer. It is now possible to identify an individual who might have a particular cancer, and based on a genomic analysis of that tumor we can decide whether or not therapy X or therapy Y would be most beneficial. In the future, we will be able to subdivide many other diseases into their true etiologic basis that will give us the opportunity to individualize therapy. And that's going to be a sea change in how we care for patients.

Q: What do you do outside of work?

We've never lived in New York City before, and my wife, Kim, and I have discovered that this is a wonderful city for walking, from neighborhood to neighborhood and through the parks, so that has really been fun. When home, we both enjoy cooking – however, my role is clearly as the sous-chef! We also like to travel. At the end of February, I'm going to be going to Qatar to visit the Weill Cornell Medical College campus there, and then to Weill Bugando, the medical college's outstanding clinical, research and education facility in Mwanza, Tanzania.

The dean

Gary Koretzky '78, M.D., dean of the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences and senior associate dean for research for Weill Cornell Medical College since October 2013

Areas of expertise: Immunology, T cell signal transduction, hematopoietic cell development and function.

The Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences

Population: 254 faculty members, 357 graduate students.

Major Areas of Future Emphasis: To teach outstanding students the principles and practice of fundamental biomedical research and provide them the skill set needed to pursue careers as independent investigators.

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