Passing the Baton

By Marguerite Spencer

Renewal campaign brings fresh faculty faces.

In September 2010 Cornell’s leadership launched a new fundraising effort specifically for hiring faculty members. The move was unprecedented in the university’s history. Already, contributions made to the Cornell Faculty Renewal Fund are helping to propel Cornell Engineering ahead of its competition, securing its exceptional education and research well into the future.

The campaign’s goal is to raise $50 million dollars across the university by 2015, Cornell’s sesquicentennial year. Another $50 million will come from within the university through budget reallocations at the college and unit levels. That money will be used to match donors’ multiyear commitments of $500,000 or more in the “Faculty Renewal Sesquicentennial Challenge.”

Like its university and many others, Cornell Engineering faced a difficult future in 2009 with the impending retirement of nearly a third of its faculty members within five years. In the midst of an economic downturn, funds were scarce and like its competitors, Cornell reduced hiring by 50 percent.

Therefore, the university’s decision in 2010 to generate major funding specifically for faculty-hiring was, says Cornell Engineering Dean Lance Collins, “a brilliant move.” It meant faculty positions could be “pre-filled” at a time when the talent pool was excellent and other cash-strapped universities could not cast their nets.

“This has been a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring along new faculty superstars while the competition was struggling financially,” says Assistant Dean for Alumni Affairs and Development Kathi Warren.

Specially designated funds could cover salaries and start-up costs for new faculty members while they established their research and attracted funding.

The ability to hire faculty even before lines are vacant also allows younger faculty to benefit from the mentoring of older faculty, gives them time to assume senior roles and gain visibility in their disciplines,” says Warren.

Engineering’s goal in the fundraising surge is to raise $7.5 million. With two years remaining, the college has commitments exceeding $5.4 million. Engineering was the first college to receive a gift after the launch of the faculty initiative in 2010. Says Warren, “Some alumni who hadn’t responded before have been captivated by this mission and are joining in and others have stepped up their giving to even higher levels.”

The college’s schools and departments were tasked with developing strategic hiring plans that collectively established the future research priorities of the college, says Collins. “They have to figure out how their needs and wishes intersect with the grander schemes of the college. Both needs must be met,” says Collins. Recruitment happens at the department level, which Collins describes as “exceptionally effective.”

Cornell Engineering's hiring rate has quadrupled since the start of the program. Says Collins, "By comparison, in 2009–10, the year before I became dean, we hired three new faculty. Since 2010–2011, we've hired 12 each year. This past year, 2012–13, we had 14 searches going on."

This vigorous faculty hiring coincides with, and significantly improves, the chances of success of another priority for the college, says Director of Human Resources Julie Delay, which is to increase diversity among faculty, staff, and students. According to Collins, diversity is "an important element in ensuring that our teaching remains connected to real-world problems, and our research remains relevant and cutting-edge."

Of the 24 new faculty hired so far, eight have been women and two under-represented minorities. While these results are encouraging, Collins says he hopes to see these numbers rise in future hiring.

Delay commends the contribution of the Strategic Oversight Committee established in 2004 for replacing a passive process of diversity hiring with current efforts to proactively identify candidates that will add diversity to the faculty. “Our success so far has already positively changed the dynamic of departments,” says Delay.

Cornell enjoys a number of advantages in seeking to recruit the best candidates. There is Cornell’s reputation for interdisciplinary collaboration and its world-class research centers, but also its family friendly policies and generous benefits, says Delay.

Once new faculty arrive, there is an array of support resources to ease transition. The recent multiple hirings have created a “cohort” of new faculty who are going through the tenure process at the same time, reinforced by an informal orientation program, “which fosters community and collaboration from the beginning,” says Delay. We also help young faculty explore effective teaching methods and technologies for the classroom.

Reflecting on the success of the faculty renewal effort so far, Collins says, "One of the most important things we do in a university is hire and retain faculty and we have had a phenomenal period. Also, this comes simultaneously with winning the bid for the Cornell Tech Campus. There is an excitement about this college!"Says Warren, "The fact that alumni are so willing to participate in this fundraising indicates they have a high level of confidence in the leadership of the college and its direction."

"The strategic decision to fundraise for faculty renewal has allowed Cornell to get out ahead of the competition," says Collins, "and I am deeply grateful to the board for their foresight and to alumni for their generosity in coming to help their university by doing something this phenomenal."