Nine Questions for Dean Boor

Kathryn Boor, dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education, in front of the Big Red Barn Graduate and Professional Student Center

On October 1, 2020, Kathryn J. Boor became Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Cornell. She is also a professor in the graduate field of food science.

Prior to her appointment at the Graduate School, Dr. Boor was the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) at Cornell University. She earned a B.S. in food science from Cornell University, an M.S. in food science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of California, Davis. She joined the Cornell food science department as assistant professor in 1994 as its first female faculty member and led as department chair from 2007-2010. Dr. Boor is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the International Academy of Food Science and Technology, the Institute of Food Technologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Dairy Science Association.

Dean Boor spoke with the Graduate School about her interest in food science, her leadership experiences, and her top priorities at the Graduate School.

Can you take us back in time and share an anecdote about a moment from your undergraduate years at Cornell that sparked your interest in attending graduate school and studying food science?

As an undergraduate at Cornell, I chose food science as my major because I loved science and food, and applying science to food was a double win. Also, good jobs in food science were available for those with a bachelor’s degree.

As a senior, I had not given any serious thought to graduate school until Professor Frank Shipe announced in our sensory science class that he was looking for an undergraduate to help with research in his laboratory. I jumped at the chance and never looked back. It was absolutely thanks to Professor Shipe that I learned how much I loved discovery – working on questions that no one else had examined in exactly that same way before. The role that Dr. Shipe played as my research mentor illustrates how partnering with him as a faculty member changed my entire life trajectory.

You have had a tremendous amount of leadership experience. What are some of the formative leadership experiences that will inform your approach to leading graduate education at Cornell?

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned about academic leadership is counterintuitive. Change actually comes about faster if the process is inclusive from the start and the opinions of others are taken into account before action starts. It may appear counterintuitive because it seems more time consuming to collect the opinions of others before taking action. But, what I’ve learned is that it actually takes a lot more time to work through resistance and clean up the mess if you don’t have an inclusive process in place from the start.

What do you see as the Graduate School’s strengths and how will you build upon our successes?

Our Graduate School’s greatest strength resides in Cornell’s incredible breadth and depth. Our field system, which allows graduate students the opportunity to create a program designed to meet their unique career aspirations by working freely across disciplines, provides unparalleled flexibility. I plan to champion opportunities for our students to work creatively across fields, colleges, and disciplines to help prepare them to take on some of our globe’s most complex challenges.

How do you plan to ensure that all graduate and professional students feel heard and supported, especially those from marginalized communities and/or backgrounds historically excluded from and underrepresented in the academy?

The Graduate School has several platforms for helping students be heard, and very importantly, impact our initiatives. A graduate and professional student trustee represents and advocates for students in Board of Trustee meetings. The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) serves as the official voice for all advanced degree students, and within the Graduate School, two graduate students are voting members of the General Committee, the administrative, legislative, and judicial board of the Graduate School.

In addition, the Graduate School’s Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement convenes a Graduate and Professional Student Diversity Council, which is composed of student leaders from 11 graduate and professional student organizations. These organizations work collectively to advance a sense of belonging, academic and professional excellence, and a climate of inclusion for all graduate and professional students, especially for those from marginalized communities and backgrounds historically excluded and underrepresented in the academy. Their leadership, voices, and perspectives are extremely critical now, more than ever.

A less formal avenue open to all Graduate School students is the Ask a Dean feature in the weekly Graduate School Announcements newsletter. Ask a Dean provides a platform for any Graduate School student to ask a dean a question and receive an answer.

On a personal level, despite the fact that we are facing unprecedented physical and other challenges driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, my goal is to be highly accessible to our graduate and professional students and to devote time to listening to them while working with them to develop shared solutions.

Cornell’s system of graduate education is cross-disciplinary and integrative by design. The Graduate School’s 5,200 students are engaged in research and scholarship in all colleges, including Cornell Tech. Given Cornell’s decentralized structure, how will you advocate for the graduate community and keep their concerns visible to senior leadership?

Our graduate students drive the research and creative engine of the entire university and play essential roles in our overall educational programming. The excellence of our graduate students and of their career trajectories drives Cornell’s reputation. What is good for our graduate students is what’s best for the university.  I intend to highlight graduate student achievements at every possible opportunity.

Looking ahead, what are your top priorities as Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education?

My number one priority is to increase the number of fellowships, traineeships, and overall financial support available for our graduate students. I also intend to focus on creating career development and leadership opportunities to help ensure their success at Cornell and beyond.

What books and/or podcasts are on your reading and listening lists right now? (Or what books are on your bedside table?)

At any given time, I usually have a pretty tall stack of books on my bedside table, along with an enticing collection of books on my e-reader. It is not unusual for me to have multiple books in progress at any given moment. But right now, I am captivated by a book entitled “A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team” by Ashray Cooper.

Can you tell us three fun facts about yourself?

  • I have been fly-fishing in some of the most exciting waters around the world, including, among others, rivers in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, Alaska, Chile, New Zealand, and the Rio Grande in Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego.
  • I enjoy skydiving.
  • I worked for Winrock International for two years while living near Lake Victoria in Kenya to collect data for my M.S. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

What is some of the best advice you ever received?

Among the best advice I’ve received was from Professor Bandler, food science, when I returned to Cornell as the only female professor in the food science department. His advice was very pithy and to the point: “Keep your eye on the ball.” His point was to understand that the singular goal of my time as an assistant professor was to attain tenure and to understand the rules, both written and unwritten, that would help me achieve that goal.