Oct. 29, 2010

Skorton: It's time to call for national support for humanities, and jumpstart faculty recruitment across university

It's "time for Cornell to step up and advocate for arts and humanities nationally as we recruit faculty locally that will define our university for a generation," President David Skorton said Oct. 29 in his State of the University Address.

About 600 members of the Cornell Board of Trustees and Cornell University Council filled Statler Auditorium for the event, which was the highlight of the 2010 joint meeting of the board and council.

Skorton focused his address on two main points: first, the need for hiring faculty in all academic areas, but especially in the arts and humanities; and second, the role that Cornell can play in bolstering the humanities in the national arena.

A wave of senior faculty members poised for retirement and a lull in faculty hiring due to the recession have resulted in the oldest faculty in Cornell's 145-year history. In the coming decade, Cornell will need to hire as many as 1,000 new faculty members, he said. "The time for faculty renewal is now," Skorton said.

Far from being irrelevant in the digital age, the arts and humanities not only teach the basic skills of critical and contextual thinking, communication and ethics but also have value as disciplines of research and critical analysis in their own right. And on a fundamental level, they teach us what it means to be human, he said.

Over the next decade, the College of Arts and Sciences expects to hire more than 100 humanists at various points in their careers. Thanks to an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant and other funding, the university anticipates hiring three midcareer humanists as "Mellon chairs," perhaps as soon as the end of this semester. Skorton reminded the audience that the university has established a $100 million Faculty Renewal Fund, to be supported equally through philanthropy and the reallocation of university resources over the next five years.

"Building the faculty of the future, as part of our strategic view of Cornell's future, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Cornell," he said. "More than ever before in our history, we have the opportunity to become the university we want to be and we need to be."

In the national arena, the arts and humanities struggle for funding because their value is difficult to quantify, and they are not seen as contributing directly to economic growth, health or national security, he said.

"For many years, neither Democrats nor Republicans, in my view, have done much to provide increased financial support to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) or the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Instead, these two important cultural agencies have been tempting targets for those seeking to advance particular political, social or religious agendas or to show fiscal restraint," he said.

In 2010, funding for both NEH and NEA remained down about one-third in inflation-adjusted dollars from 1994 levels. Meanwhile, funding for the National Institutes of Health has nearly doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1994, and federal funding for the National Science Foundation has more than doubled, Skorton pointed out.

During a question period that followed, Skorton said he is planning to launch a national campaign to increase funding for national arts agencies.

"Federal research budgets will make it easier for new faculty members in the sciences and engineering to find the support they need to drive innovation through their research, but the arts and humanities need our help," he said.