After two years serving as interim dean, Rachel Dunifon was named the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology, as of July 1.
One of Dunifon’s chief priorities as dean will be leading the college through a strategic planning process that focuses on thinking through the strengths and contributions of the school, identifying areas for further growth and articulating the Human Ecology niche, both within the university and in the community beyond.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a delay in starting this process, Dunifon said it has also highlighted the vital importance of the research, education and public engagement work done in the college.
“Our faculty address the most pressing issues we face in society, and we can see many examples of that in the pandemic. Human Ecology researchers are developing more effective PPE, informing sick leave policy and nursing home operations, and helping us understand the impact of social isolation,” Dunifon said.
“We believe the issues we face can’t be solved from a narrow perspective or confined to one area of study. The education we provide our students cuts across disciplines and allows them to develop a multi-pronged toolkit to address the most pressing social issues. In doing so, we’re training future leaders who are able to take on the challenges we face related to human health and well-being.”
An essential part of this work, Dunifon said, is engaging with those whose lives are impacted by the problems being researched and partnering with them to develop solutions. As dean, she wants to expand opportunities for students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in the real world, by adding to the strong set of existing internships, international study programs and research partnerships with faculty. A key part of her plan is to make sure these opportunities are accessible for all students, regardless of their financial situation.
“I want to do the same for faculty,” she said. “The way we’re trained in grad school and even sometimes as academics, is to be a little narrow and focus on a specific topic, master it and dig into the relevant theoretical perspectives. That’s incredibly important, and core to what we do, but at the same time there are many faculty who want to use their expertise to address tangible issues in partnership with impacted communities. I’m interested in providing more opportunities for faculty to integrate this type of public engagement into what they do.”
Dunifon will continue her own research in child and family policy and her focus on the needs of less advantaged children. Her 2018 book, “You’ve Always Been There for Me: Understanding the Lives of Grandchildren Raised by Grandparents,” explored the specific situations, strengths and needs faced by grandfamilies.
Locally, Dunifon’s work focuses on families with parents suffering from the opioid epidemic. She and her colleagues work with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County to evaluate and develop approaches that address the needs of the entire family unit.
“I wouldn’t have, or couldn’t have, done this research, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to collaborate with people who are on the ground addressing these problems in the community.”
She also co-directs the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s Project2Gen, which uses a two-generation approach of addressing the needs of children and their parents to inform research and policy aimed at improving the well-being of children.
Dunifon has been part of the Cornell community from the start of her academic career, when she joined the College of Human Ecology as an assistant professor of policy analysis and management in 2001. Since then she has contributed to the college through various leadership roles. She said these roles have given her an appreciation of the breadth of Human Ecology and the impressive faculty, staff and students it takes to carry out its work.
“I’ve found taking on a leadership role is one of the most intellectually interesting things you can do. It challenges me to think differently and more broadly, allowing me to expand my viewpoint to get a fuller sense of the college, and the breadth of its work and impact. I am also honored to be part of a really fantastic team of people who support the college and help it to grow.”
In the near term, Dunifon is focused on providing a strong educational experience under the constraints and challenges of the current situation, and supporting the faculty and staff that make that education possible.
“I’ve been so happy and feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to thrive and succeed here, and I want to ensure that others are able to do so as well.”