Cornell subsumes Crop and Soil Science department into School of Integrative Plant Science

[I tried to post this June 6, but it wouldn’t save properly then – I’m just putting it up now.]

The official announcement of Cornell’s new School of Integrative Plant Science was today[June 6]. It’s been a major issue on my mind this past year, particularly the concern that its creation marks a clear step toward the end of soil science as a meaningful discipline at Cornell. I was very pleased that CALS Dean Boor consistently referred to the merger of “plant, soil, and related microbial sciences” during her speeches, which is a big step from where the discussion was a few months ago. Still, I am disappointed that the school was named the School of Integrative Plant Science. The name does not reflect soil science at all, the explicit overview of the school does not mention soils a single time, and the school’s structure does not give me confidence that soil science will remain a viable discipline at Cornell School of Integrative Plant SciencesCornell.

I raised these issues at the “town hall meeting” in February, and see the video of the meeting has been posted. I was very disappointed by the dismissive response at the time, although subsequent discussions with those in charge of the merger have at least been more respectful, although the results they have produced so far seem to be at the level of how the Dean refers to the school. My question at the “town hall meeting” starts at 24:24. It’s quiet and visually uninteresting, so I have redacted the Ums, Ahs, uptalking and some I guesses in the transcript below:

“Thea Whitman, Soil Science, Ph.D. Candidate. So this is another name question, but also a bit of broader context.

I would dispute the idea that the name currently is adequately all-encompassing for all the departments. I feel like the school, as framed, while an excellent idea and a really exciting opportunity, […] looks like a step toward downgrading and devaluing soil science at Cornell, which I think is a key element of our land grant mission.

I think a more inclusive name – something like Plant, Soil, and Microbial sciences – would better reflect, explicitly, the broad diversity within the school. The reason I’m worried about this is I think the name is the first face of the school to the world, to the faculty who are going to be new – people like me who are going to be looking for jobs here. I wouldn’t be looking for a job in a plant science school, because I’m a soil scientist. And, I don’t think that soil science IS a plant science, and I think there are amazing, exciting synergies between them, and I think we’ve done a great job both in CSS [Crop and Soil Science] and across departments and with other departments in making those linkages between soil science and plant science and agronomy and crops, and the microbes and pathogens that affect plants, etc.

But I think it’s not adequately addressed by the school right now, and I think the reason that’s an issue also stems into one of the major objectives for the creation of the school, which is strategic faculty hiring decisions. It just seems so unlikely to me, that a School of Plant Sciences is ever going to hire a pedologist or a soil chemist. And so, I think, without an explicit mechanism within the school to maintain the strength and look toward the future of soil science, I think it’s going to be a major step toward losing soil science at Cornell, and the future of soil science at Cornell. And, I’d just love to hear that same “unshakeable commitment” to the long term viability and excellence of soil science at Cornell that the Dean was able to give to plant science [in her opening speech, 15:15]. I think it’s essential to the land grant mission, and so I just want to throw it out there, and I know it’s clearly a very one-sided view, coming from my perspective from soil science, and I know the other sub-disciplines in the school may have similar feelings, but – I don’t think we’re there yet, in terms of adequately integrating soil science, and potentially some of the other disciplines, into this school.”

[a few people clapping]

Response from Bill Crepet, Plant Biology chair:

“This is an issue we spent a great deal of time discussing. If you look at the sheer numbers, there are very few soil scientists – not that it isn’t important – relative to the plant scientists, so from that perspective, it does make some logical sense to call it a school of integrative plant science. None the less, although you are clearly on one side of this issue, if you look at the structure of this school, you’ll notice it’s a balance between an encompassing structure promoting synergy, and one that allows for individual efforts within that unit to prosper, and you’ll notice that [crop and] soil sciences despite its small size, relatively, was maintained, as a section. So, in that sense, there’s a great deal of support for the soil sciences, and I think that’s how the committee sees it overall.”

Basically – be happy with the fact that you even still exist in any form, because you are in the minority.

Then a plant science professor notes that he asked his plant science students if the School of Integrative Plant Science represented them well, and they said yes, so it actually is a good name. He also notes that all sub-disciplines would like to be represented in the name, but that would be inefficient. This, of course, misses the entire point that soil science is fundamentally not a sub-discipline of plant science, while horticulture, plant breeding, plant genetics, plant biology, and plant pathology, all are.

[end of discussion on this issue, school is now announced as the School of Integrative Plant Science]

I’ve only touched on a couple of problems here, and realize there is a much broader discussion to be had about the future of soil science not only at Cornell, but globally. I’d love to hear others’ perspectives on this particular issue – the school’s creation – and on the broader issues of how to effectively structure academic units, how to respond to changes in the world’s scientific needs at a university level, and the future of soil science. I’ll try to continue to think about and post on these issues.