After meeting with the Barn Project team in October to discuss our long-term plans, Dean Boor was kind enough to sit with us for a full interview. Interview transcribed directly, photo taken by Sasson Rafailov.
Where are you from, and how do you think that has influenced you?
I was born in Elmira, NY, which is about 30 miles south of here. I grew up on a family-owned dairy farm in Horseheads, NY. So, my entire life up until I went to Cornell University was spent in the Southern Tier here in the state of New York, on a farm where we raised our own meat, where we drank our own milk, where we grew almost all of the vegetables that we ate- we preserved them for the rest of the year; we bought most of our fruits but we also canned and preserved those too, and froze a lot of them.
My folks have lived through the Depression. They are extremely frugal; my mom still recycles aluminum foil, and there’s almost no waste on the farm, upon which my parents still live. That childhood has had a deep and lasting influence on me as a person.
I came here to Cornell as an undergraduate and studied food science, with a primary goal of ensuring that the world- every human on earth- has a safe, affordable, nutritious food supply; that was the vision and the concept behind choosing food science as a major. Food science is actually focused on preventing food waste: preventing food from spoiling and moving it to consumers.
“THAT HAS BEEN MY NORTH STAR, SO TO SPEAK, AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, MY ENTIRE LIFE.”
After I graduated from Cornell, I went to the University of Wisconsin to focus in this area, and I spent my research time in East Africa with the most vulnerable populations on earth at that time, along the shores of Lake Victoria. This region was experiencing the highest population growth rate in the world in the early 1980s. The farm sizes were diminishing with each successive generation, and you could see the consequences on the children, who no longer had high-quality protein in their diet. We aimed to move into their lives protein through multi-purpose goat production systems, and my job through food science was to see if we could introduce a new food like goat milk without causing harm, in a way that would be beneficial for their lives, for their health, for their overall well being.
After that, I completed a Ph.D. at the University of California Davis,
“AND THEN IN 1994 I CAME BACK HERE AS THE FIRST FEMALE PROFESSOR HIRED IN FOOD SCIENCE.”
The rest of the story, you know. Certainly that background influenced dramatically how I saw my career shaping up, and has really influenced the way I have focused my career, since the early days on the farm. My parents are still there, and I go down to visit them every Saturday. They’re in their nineties, and I make sure everything’s cool. I am still very deeply connected to that farm.
What would you say has changed since you were an undergraduate here?
Pretty much everything, other than some of these buildings. But certainly, and I’ll speak about Cornell more broadly, the things that I love so much about Cornell that have changed are a dramatic improvement in the diversity of students at Cornell, which I think is something that is really important.
“WE HAVE A GROWING UNDERSTANDING OF THE FACT THAT DIVERSITY IS NOT ENOUGH, YOU NEED INCLUSION, AND WE ARE SINCERELY WORKING TOWARDS IMPROVING INCLUSION FOR EVERYONE AT CORNELL AS A TOP PRIORITY.”
Those are the things I love most about Cornell: sincere commitment to diversity and inclusion, and that’s so different than the way that any university was in the late seventies. That whole mindset has changed, and the population of our students has changed so much in really, really good ways. In Cornell and in CALS, diversity is a very high priority and we take it very seriously.
The majors have changed, the departments have changed. Just in the last seven years we have merged the plant sciences into a school of integrative plant science. We have certainly updated our majors, and we have created one of the most exciting majors, I think, in the entire university, which is environmental and sustainability science. We have created that major with the explicit goal of ensuring that students who graduate from Cornell across that range of majors- from environmental engineering students, who could go into fracking, to folks who come out of what was our natural resources program, who tend to be environmental activists- the goal with this new major is that across this entire spectrum, those who graduate from this major will be able to speak respectfully to each other five years post-graduation. That was the charge that was given to the people to develop this major. It’s too early to tell if we’ve achieved it, because our first graduates happened only last year, but it’s
“SOMETHING THAT I THINK IS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT, MORE IMPORTANT NOW THAN EVER, TO CREATE PEOPLE WHO CAN SPEAK RESPECTFULLY TO EACH OTHER WHEN THEY DIFFER IN OPINION.”
That’s something that I see as a really important thing that Cornell can do and Cornell needs to do, and that’s something that I think we have really focused on. Our intergroup dialogue class that is housed in CALS is something that we support and will support, and is something that I think is another sign of the commitment of this college to these critical principles.
We also teach and focus on sustainable agriculture, and that was something that was way less true when I was a student, when we focused more on production agriculture.
“WE FOCUS NOW MUCH MORE NOT ON HOW TO PLANT YOUR FIELD, AS MUCH AS ON THE CRITICAL DECISION MAKING SO THAT YOU’LL BE IN BUSINESS TWENTY YEARS FROM NOW, HOW TO REALLY BE THINKING ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY IN EVERY DIMENSION”
because let’s be blunt about it: sustainability requires, at the end of the day, financial sustainability, and without that, you’re lost. Financial sustainability always has to be part of the equation, and that goes for whatever you’re setting up: your farm, your family, your business, financial sustainability is absolutely essential.
Could you talk about your personal mission as the Dean of CALS?
I will say, it has happily evolved since I’ve been in this role. I agreed to step into this role right after the global economic downturn, and so my goal when I first took this job was to cut our expenditures fifteen percent and to leave the college stronger than I found it. It was that sharp and that clear, that was what I was going to do. And the team; I have to say, none of this is about me, it’s about the team. We have the most incredible leadership team in this college that you can imagine. Everybody is passionately committed to the future of this college. So we achieved that: we cut our expenditures and I believe that we have created a stronger college than ever.
We have been hiring a really exciting new faculty: one hundred and seven new positions that we have been able to release, with a great increase within the last couple of years.
“WE ARE REALLY FOCUSED ON BUILDING THE BEST SCHOOL OF INTEGRATIVE PLANT SCIENCES IN THE WORLD.”
We’re number two right now, we’re going to be number one; we’re aiming for that in an aggressive way.
We’ve launched a new major in organic food production, and we have had a tripling in applications to this college. Seeing student interest in this college go up so greatly since 2005, with the greatest increase in the last few years, is so gratifying.
In terms of what I want to do by the time, 2020 will be the end of my second term, and the end of my role in this position. By then I have a few other things that I wish to accomplish.
“THE MISSION REMAINS THE SAME, WHICH IS TO CONTINUE TO BUILD AN EVEN MORE VIBRANT COLLEGE WHERE PEOPLE WANT TO BE, WHERE PEOPLE FEEL INCLUDED, WHERE PEOPLE FEEL THAT WHAT THEY’RE STUDYING MATTERS AND THEY WILL BE PREPARED TO HELP MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD.”
One more thing- I have a few- but one thing that’s really important to me is to elevate our international programs in this college above and beyond where they currently are. They’re already phenomenal, but I think they’re one of the best kept secrets at Cornell. So, one of the last things I want to achieve before 2020 is to elevate that program in a way that is sustainable, and in a way that brings more visibility to the program.
Within the last year, CALS has completed a rebranding effort. Could you talk a bit about the new CALS mission and the motivation behind it?
The mission hasn’t changed, it’s the way we talk about it. Part of our challenge, in being an institution as old as we are (the college itself formed in 1904), having a name like “agriculture”, that name has a lot of baggage, and a number of people who don’t have a close affiliation with agriculture don’t necessarily see it in a positive way.
“AGRICULTURE, THE WORD “AGRICULTURE”. WHILE I INSISTED THAT WE KEEP THE WORD “AGRICULTURE” IN OUR TITLE BECAUSE IT IS SO CENTRAL TO WHO WE ARE, WHAT WE DO, AND WHO WE WILL BE, I WANTED A FRESH WAY TO SPEAK ABOUT THE COLLEGE THAT SEEMS MORE VIBRANT.”
At the heart of what we do is change life. We are life changing, we are about studying life as it is changing; evolution as one of our core disciplines in this college. We change people’s lives, we set them up to go on to do great things, so that resonated so much with me, that notion of life-changing. Including in the main CALS logo the delta sign instead of an “A” really symbolizes that importance, that notion of change, and how central that is to us.
In fact, I have here the presentation that I gave when I was interviewing for this job. This is a photo of me at Cornell, at age fifteen or so, and this is Bailey Hall. I did 4-H, these were my buddies, and we were all here for a week-long program. It was that point I
realized that CALS was where I wanted to be.
The part I wanted to point out: I was asked for my inspiration, and remember we had just gone through the worst recession, certainly in my life-time, and so Neitzche, that was number one (“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”), and number two was Darwin (“It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change”). Life changing.
“TO BE STRONGER, WE HAVE TO CHANGE. THIS IS PUTTING US ON A LIFE-LONG PATHWAY TOWARDS FEARLESS EVOLUTION AND TAKING RISKS.”
For example, the communication major started as agricultural journalism, and now it is the top-ranked social science program at Cornell, and it’s world ranked, in the top ten communication programs in the world. We haven’t lost our roots over there, because what they’re still focused on are issues associated with poverty alleviation, with feeding the world, with environmental issues, things that are really core to a modern college of agriculture and life sciences. So, they’re very true to their roots, but nobody would call them agricultural journalism. We have been really fearless about allowing that kind of evolution in the college. From the outside, people will look and say “what is a communication program that is a world specialist in social media doing in a college of agriculture?” But it makes perfect sense to us. Likewise, the Dyson School was originally agricultural economics, but we evolved that into a world-class undergraduate business program. Fearlessness about evolution in the college is just part of our ongoing theme.
The other thing that we had previously done was talk about our areas of focus more as silos: life sciences, food and energy systems, environmental sciences, social sciences, while in reality they don’t act that way, they’re all completely integrated.
“NOW WE HAVE BETTER LANGUAGE TO REFLECT THE INTEGRATION ACROSS OUR DISCIPLINES AS OPPOSED TO SPEAKING ABOUT THEM AS IF THEY WERE INDEPENDENT OF EACH OTHER, WHICH THEY ARE NOT.”
How do you think Dilmun Hill fits into the way that CALS is speaking about their mission now?
“I’M SO PROUD OF DILMUN HILL. IT IS, AGAIN, ABOUT EVOLUTION. WHAT I BELIEVE MATTERS THE MOST FOR STUDENTS, FOR ANYONE ACTUALLY, IS LEARNING HOW TO LEARN, LEARNING HOW TO SOLVE PROBLEMS, LEARNING HOW TO TAKE INITIATIVE.”
One of the things I think Cornell does best, not just CALS, but Cornell as an entity, is provide experiential opportunities for our students where the safety net is pretty far below and it’s kind of got holes in it.
The reason that’s so important is that you’re in charge, you are in charge of Dilmun Hill and you won’t find that at many other universities in the country. Cornell is unusual in putting control of student programs squarely in students’ hands. For example, our EMS program is also totally student run. The students are in charge of maintaining the drug inventory, they’re in charge of maintaining the vehicles that they drive, they are in charge of saving lives. If they find a body out on the street, they’re in charge, there is no faculty member who is going to come along and tell them what to do. That’s the beauty of Dilmun Hill.
“FOR THE STUDENTS WHO COME ALONG AND EMBRACE THE CHALLENGE OF ALL THAT IS DILMUN HILL, THEY WILL GRADUATE FROM CORNELL AS STRONGER INDIVIDUALS, AS PEOPLE WHO KNOW HOW TO SOLVE PROBLEMS, PEOPLE WHO KNOW HOW TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE DEAN, PEOPLE WHO KNOW HOW TO GET THINGS DONE.”
That’s why I am so committed to Dilmun Hill, and other experiential learning opportunities like DIlmun Hill for our students.
You don’t have an abundance of resources, not nearly as many as I would like you to have, but to some extent, that’s part of the process. I love seeing the initiative, I love seeing folks understanding how to move things forward, how to navigate, that’s part of the process. Where will Dilmun Hill be in ten years? I’m not sure, but I am confident that with the kind of leadership that we get at Dilmun Hill that it will be in a better place, that it will have more resources, that it will have more toys.
“I SEE DILMUN HILL AS AN EVOLUTIONARY PROCESS, TOWARD SOMETHING EVEN BETTER THAN IT IS RIGHT NOW.”
Of course, it does rely very much on student interest, and it will continue to rely very much on student interest. That’s why you’re so important, and that’s why your colleagues are so important. What you do is to recruit others who, like you, become passionate about Dilmun Hill and who are committed to working with me, to working with the next Dean, to make sure that we don’t lose sight of it, to make sure that we are committed to it, and that we’re working with you to make things even better.
What do you think the future of Dilmun Hill and CALS looks like?
For CALS, the most important thing we can do is to create leaders from our students, and to set up the environments and experiences that help people learn how to make decisions.
“I SEE CALS AS BEING A LEADER, NOT ONLY AT CORNELL BUT MUCH MORE BROADLY, FOR CREATING THOSE KINDS OF OPPORTUNITIES FOR STUDENTS, AND DILMUN HILL IS REALLY RIGHT AT THE CENTER OF THAT.”
I see CALS as being committed to continuing to build opportunities like that, broadly speaking across the college and across the university.
I see us as continuing to focus on sustainable agriculture, trying to help mitigate climate change, and trying to help ameliorate some of the challenges we see. That’s the reason we are focused on plant sciences, because a lot of the solutions are going to come through plant-based proteins and plant based products.
“WE’VE GOT TO BE BUILDING THE TALENT WE NEED NOW. IN TEN YEARS WE WILL BE THE PLACE FOR THE PLANT SCIENCES, THERE’S NO DOUBT IN MY MIND THAT IS TRUE.”
“DILMUN HILL IS AN EVOLUTION, AND IT REALLY WILL RELY ON BRINGING IN THE NEXT GENERATION OF STUDENTS WHO ARE AS PASSIONATE AS YOU ARE.”