Cornell’s plan to merge hotel school gets icy reception

Emma Tannenbaum / The New York Times

The lobby of the Statler Hotel at Cornell University, where hotel administration students gain experience at a real, working hotel, in Ithaca, N.Y., Feb. 4, 2016. Cornell’s board of trustees recently voted to fold their hotel administration school, along with two other business schools, into a new College of Business.

ITHACA, N.Y. — They call themselves “hotelies”: students and alumni of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, the world’s oldest undergraduate program devoted to the hospitality industry and, many say, the best.

The school is considered the Harvard of hospitality programs, consistently topping best-of lists and rankings. Its graduates, school officials like to say, do not just run individual hotels, they own entire hotel chains or groups of restaurants. Among its alumni are Drew Nieporent, the celebrated New York City restaurateur whose crown jewels include TriBeCa Grill and Nobu; Ted Teng, president of Leading Hotels of the World; and Andrew H. Tisch, co-chairman of the Loews Corp.

In keeping with their idiosyncratic nickname, hotelies have their own traditions: impressive tailgate spreads at Cornell’s Homecoming game; an Introduction to Wines course that draws students from across the university; and front-desk duty at the Statler Hotel in Ithaca, the smart campus lodging, which serves as a trial by fire for students.

So perhaps it was no surprise that alumni and students reacted with something akin to a tirade on the hotel rating site TripAdvisor, when Cornell’s board of trustees recently voted to establish a new College of Business. The idea, university officials say, is to fold the hotel school, along with two other business schools, into the new college, strengthening the individual programs in the process.

“Very disappointed in Cornell’s decision,” Paul F. Foley, class of 1974, lamented on a Facebook page set up to protest the move. “The decision and its process was fatally flawed from its inception.”

After the trustees’ vote, Liz Longstreet, who graduated in 2008, wrote, “I literally feel sick.’’

Big changes in university structure are often met with fierce resistance, especially at places like Cornell, where “shared governance” — or democratic decision-making — is a favorite catchphrase. Students and alumni from the other programs involved, the Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, also expressed unease at the merger.

But the hotel school’s stakeholders were especially vocal.

“We want to keep our identity as ‘hotelies,’” Alec Ulnick, a junior at the hotel school, said, as he worked the reception desk at the Statler on a recent weeknight.

On Feb. 2, more than a hundred protesting students marched en masse to a presentation on the new business college given by the university’s provost, Michael Kotlikoff. Alumni have taken to Facebook and Twitter, spawning the page Keep Cornell Hotel School Independent, with more than 1,300 likes, and the hashtag #hotelie4life. They have buttonholed administrators in off-campus meetings.

“You have to understand that the people who graduated from this place are attached to it intellectually and emotionally,’’ said Steven Carvell, an associate professor at the hotel school and its associate dean for academic affairs. “They have an adoration for the school that is different.”

Since a vote by the trustees last month authorizing the College of Business, Kotlikoff and the university president, Elizabeth Garrett, have sought to explain the rationale behind the new college and reassure agitated alumni. In emails and forums, they have argued that a business college encompassing the three schools will elevate Cornell’s business profile.

After the consolidation, which is expected to unfold during the 2016-17 academic year, the Cornell school will rank third in terms of size of its research faculty, behind Harvard Business School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, none of the three individual schools at Cornell, each with 45 to 60 faculty members, rank in the top 10.

As a result of the merger, Kotlikoff said, opportunities for new interdisciplinary programs will emerge from the schools’ collective expertise in agriculture, food security, sustainability, hospitality, finance and technology.

The business college should also help Cornell recruit faculty members, Kotlikoff said.

“The whole attraction to faculty when you come to a program is: ‘Whom can you work with? What are the collaborative possibilities?’” he said. “It’s a much better sell if you can say you’re coming into an overall department with lots of colleagues working on different things.”

To placate alumni, officials have pledged that the schools will retain their names and that all three will have their own deans.

Still, worry persists among alumni like Jan D. Freitag, a 1997 hotel school graduate and now a hotel analyst. ”We were taken aback,” he said. “There is some fear that the special feeling in the hotel school is going to be rolled up into a larger entity.”

Nieporent, a member of the class of 1977 who has opened 39 restaurants in the past 30 years, said, “A vast majority of the alumni certainly would have preferred that it be kept the way it was.”

“But,” he added, “if it’s a fait accompli, I’m going to be positive about the future. I’m confident that going forward the school won’t lose its eminence.”

Others object to the process itself, saying the administration sprung news of the trustees’ vote on distracted students and faculty in mid-December, during final exams and before the holidays. There were no public meetings or faculty committees organized to deliberate the change. Three governing bodies, the Faculty Senate, University Assembly and Student Assembly, all voted to ask the trustees to delay the vote until March.

“Like professors at other colleges and universities, faculty at Cornell want to be consulted on major decisions,” said Michael Fontaine, acting dean of the faculty and an associate professor of classics.

Kotlikoff countered that the faculty and others had for years weighed in on the fragmented nature of the business programs at Cornell, through task forces and committees. “There has been a lot of previous faculty involvement, but it didn’t get anywhere,” he said.

In authorizing the new business college, Kotlikoff said, the trustees merely created a framework. “We asked the trustees to create an empty vessel and enable this process, which is so difficult in academics,” he explained. “Now we will get the faculty to work through the governance details that only they can determine.”

Cornell leaders also had to win over the hotel school graduates among the trustees. Leland C. Pillsbury, a trustee and leading hotel investor, said Cornell’s business programs had a hard time competing for attention and resources with the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Within Cornell, each of the business schools is a really strong 150-pound sumo wrestler, but they are up against some 350-pound sumo wrestlers,” Pillsbury said. “To have Johnson, Dyson and the Hotel schools come together under a business college will give them a seat at the table.”