Katherine McComas, Ph.D. ’00, professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is Cornell’s vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs.
As vice provost, she serves as the academic lead for the universitywide Engaged Cornell initiative; advocates for Cornell’s role as New York’s land-grant university; represents Cornell’s four contract colleges in dealings with the State University of New York; and oversees Cornell’s ROTC program, the Cornell Prison Education Program and the university’s Office of Engagement Initiatives.
How have you experienced and embraced Cornell’s land-grant mission and “knowledge with a public purpose” philosophy?
It’s something that has always figured prominently in my career and also in my interests. I started out being particularly interested in journalism around issues related to science and the environment. When I came to Cornell in 1994 as a doctoral student, my interests were in communicating about health and environmental risk. I quickly became involved with Cornell Cooperative Extension, working with different extension associates around issues related to waste management, for example, or communicating to farmers about tractor safety.
At Cornell, the public engagement mission, the knowledge with a public purpose, and wanting to engage with communities – it’s a core mission. It doesn’t just reside in our four contract colleges, although they do have that special responsibility in terms of our relationship with New York state.
When I came back to Cornell as a faculty member in 2003, it was sort of like coming home. I was happy to be able, once again, to participate in communication that has basic scientific elements and also the practical implications of working with communities around issues of health and environmental and scientific risks. And that’s been my research program, basically, for my career: looking at community engagement, at decision making, typically in the context of health and environmental risks.
So when the opportunity arose almost a year ago for me to advance into this vice provost position, to help steward and build on that public engagement mission, it was very exciting.