Cornell, Chemistry, and the Free Market: An Interview with Prof. Dave Collum

The Cornell Review recently caught up with Dave Collum, the Betty R. Miller Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Chemistry Department Chair, to talk politics, education, investing, and Cornell's position in higher academia.

Prof. Dave Collum Source: Cornell College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology,

Cornell Review: How long have you been teaching? Has it always been at Cornell? And, on that note, why chemistry?

Dave Collum: I was originally a pre-vet in CALS in the fall of 1973. A year later I switched to pre-med for a complex series of reasons that boiled down to greater flexibility in what else I could study. After an unstellar performance in some non-major chemistry courses, I weaseled my way into the research lab of Professor Bruce Ganem. From there I jumped into the graduate-level organic chemistry courses. Of course, I took a few beatings. For some reason, however, organic chemistry just clicked, causing me to divert to a career in chemistry at the twelfth hour during Christmas break of my senior year. After a relatively brief stint at Columbia to get my PhD, I returned to Cornell in 1980 as an assistant professor. I’ve been here ever since.


CR: What is it that keeps you at Cornell? And how did your Cornell experience compare to that at Columbia? 

DC: Nothing could pull me away from Cornell. What many don’t understand is that the population here is a self-selected group that chose Cornell for a host of reasons, not the least of which is quality of life. As an adult, the pastoral setting, short commutes, cheap housing, low crime rates, fantastic schools for kids, and generally slow-paced existence is stupendous. I see friends and colleagues at the grocery store and in other public forums. My house hangs off a cliff along the east shore of Cayuga Lake and costs less than a garage in California. This good life allows you to focus on what matters instead of struggling with the vicissitudes of a more complex existence. The secondary effect is that the temperament of my colleagues across the campus, despite huge ambitions to be globally prominent scholars, reflects these same attitudes. We are a very collegial group. With this said, don’t underestimate Cornell’s prominence either: owing to its staggeringly diverse scholarship, Cornell has more top-ten ranked departments than any other university. We are number one, yet fail to get credit for this. A school like Princeton, for example, approximates our College of Arts and Sciences with a few additional programs attached.

Columbia and Cornell are night and day. I enjoyed New York City, but wouldn’t want to be there long. Columbia also seemed to be more of a graduate institution and less of an undergraduate institution. There are advantages for a number of disciplines being in a city. We are, by comparison, isolated from some of the activities that go on in a major city.


CR: Columbia is a notoriously political school—does that, at all, shape its culture in a manner different from Cornell? 

DC: I’m not qualified to seriously comment on Columbia versus Cornell in political activism. I think being centrally isolated makes us a little less political. In this era of hyper activism, that’s probably a good thing. I do, however, think our faculty could probably do a better job at hawking their tremendous skills to the outside world. But even that is a delicate balance. I watch camera-happy economists from our peers who would make the World a better place if they would speak only when they have something worthy to say. Some would go totally silent.


CR: You pointed out that Cornell often fails to get credit for its academic prominence; why is that? West Coast institutions seem to be fairly new contenders—in your estimation, will the ivory towers of the East Coast maintain their stature for decades to come? And, is Cornell distinct in the Ivy League for it’s commitment to the hard sciences and, especially, engineering (I’m thinking of Cornell Tech, for instance), or are other schools—say, Yale—gaining steam in those fields? 

DC: Cornell’s academic diversity is both demanding on the institution—it takes resources to maintain prominence—and hides its strengths from untrained eyes. I often describe the College of Arts and Sciences as “surrounded by greatness.” While A&S—one of 12 colleges at Cornell—takes on many of our peers in one-on-one battles, you have surrounding colleges such as Architecture, Veterinary Medicine, and Agriculture that are the best in the nation (at least within an error bar). Industrial and Labor Relations is unique. The Hotel School is so globally dominant that it is off any charts. How do we compare with our peers in these fields? We don’t, because they are no shows. When the rankers do their mystical rankings, do they give scores of zero in these fields to our peers? No. They appear to just skip those categories.

I’m not sure Cornell’s uniqueness is its commitment to the sciences. They are surely important to the campus. As for the Tech Campus, it is a bold move that could prove to be either extraordinary or costly folly. I’m hoping it’s the former. I do sense, however, that the distance separating the Medical School and the Ithaca Campus is not a plus. That is one of the concerns I have about Cornell Tech. In 20 years we’ll start to understand the consequences of the Tech Campus.


CR: Intriguing. How much did your own politics come into shape during your college years? Also, does your work in chemistry have any connection with your political beliefs? 

DC: I was raised in a non-religious, highly capitalistic family. My dad taught me ground-level economics, reinforcing the merits of free markets. The Republican Party I knew as a kid doesn’t exist today, which makes me a moderate libertarian instead. Although always right of center, I was non-political throughout college and much of my adult life, focusing on chemistry and family. It is probably only in the last 15 years that I’ve started hiking up my pants and bitching about the government. Now I am relatively outspoken because I sense existential risk in the American Experiment.


CR: Could you expand on what threat that is, facing America? 

DC: We have an interventionist central bank—a global cartel of interconnected central banks actually—that is determined to use untested (read: flawed) models to try to repair an economy that was hurt by their policies and would fix itself if the Fed would just get out of the way. I think these guys are what Nassim Taleb calls I-Y-I (intellectual-yet-idiot). They will continue with their experiments until the system finally breaks in earnest. They will blame the unforeseeable circumstances.

The social contract on the home front is faltering badly. When the system started to fail in ’09, we stitched up a putrid wound without cleansing it. We needed reform of a highly flawed banking system corrupted by poor incentives. In the 1930s, the Pecora Commission rounded up scoundrels (including the head of the New York Stock Exchange) and threw them in prison. We should have hung a few in the town square, but instead the Obama Department of Justice punished shareholders and savers. A scandal at Wells Fargo emerging just this week, for example, led to a token fine while leaving some wondering if Wells Fargo is too corrupt to exist in its current form. It is not the government’s job to break up these institutions, nor should it save them.

We have stirred up a mess in the Middle East that seems to be washing up on our shores. (This weekend there were a half dozen attacks that appeared highly correlated to all but those in the politicized press.) Our policy in Syria is incomprehensible. The refugee crisis in Europe is our doing, and it is spreading. Fear of Trump seems odd given that the current neocons in liberal garb are stunningly militaristic. I think they are war crimes.  Meanwhile, these I-Y-I’s insist on poking Putin in the eye with a stick as part of a policy that appears to be designed to take us to the brink of far greater armed conflict.

People are now mad, and it shows in the chaotic election. We are guaranteed to elect a president that half the populace finds repugnant. It’s hard to imagine that the post-election temperament will improve. Change is in the air.


CR: I have a few more questions before we wrap up the interview. Here’s one: You mention that there is currently a lot of strife amongst the American populace—in your estimation, is that unique, or is the type of division we are currently seeing recurrent throughout our history? Do you see a connection between what’s happening with the country as a whole and how things are unfolding—in terms of politics and uproar—on campuses nationwide?

DC: Social unrest in America has been around for centuries. We seem to end up better off when the upheaval is over, but it can be a painful period. As recently as the 1960s college campuses were going nuts over social, racial, and geopolitical issues. The current phase is just recycling, but where are the stop-the-war activists? It seems to me that the world is being stretched at the seams and at risk of moving into a very hostile period. Meanwhile, the student activists appear to be looking inward. I am sure the current generation of activists would not agree. I highly recommend a book by Strauss and Howe entitled, “The Fourth Turning” published in 1996, which describes the large wavelength human cycles (80 years) as comprised of four 20 year cycles. The Fourth Turnings—the generational phase in which society goes through painful, cathartic change—include the Great Depression/World War II, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and the Salem Witch Trials. They predicted the next catharsis would arrive around 2010. We shall see, but it looks like they may have stuck that landing like a Russian gymnast.


CR: So, in your opinion, what’s the stopping point for all of the strife we see unfolding? Do you think it will just die down on its own, or is it time we start listening more closely to what all the different groups are up in arms over? What’s your prescription for the madness? 

 DC: The current activism is a Hungarian goulash of issues, somehow all running together to produce generalized campus unrest. Legitimate concerns will be addressed; I’m confident that the administrators sincerely wish to solve problems. Some of the less substantial ideas will naturally die down as they fail to withstand scrutiny. In some cases, those in charge will lose their willingness to expend additional time, resources, and personal energy. Student input has always been central to university function, but the students do not run the institution.


CR: Before I let you go, I’m wondering if you could elaborate a little on your interest in investing, as well as your annual blog. 

 DC: When I was a kid my dad and I talked about economics. These discussions proved to be influential years later. Around 1995 I started to pay some attention as I entered my formative savings years and found the complexity of the problem and the underlying global issues fantastically interesting. By 1998 I began to see the world as an odd mix of stability—a web of sorts—and chronic instability—a house of cards. By mid 1999 I saw a crisis emanating from the dot-com bubble coming. I exited all markets and bought a lot of gold. In 2002 I wrote a five-page document describing the coming subprime crisis. Despite being 5 years early, it eventually came largely as I (and many others) pictured it. We appear to be on the cusp of another, even larger crisis. All of this potential financial concern is rolled together with geopolitical concerns. In essence, I was attempting to grasp a global geopolitical picture. That was indeed VERY complex task. I started writing down my ideas formally under a pseudonym around 2004 and began what is now a Year in Review. Despite publication of a single blog per year, I get something approaching a quarter million clicks. To that I say, “Go figure.” That has led to a wave of podcasts, interviews, and seminars. It’s a little surreal for an organic chemist to be doing this. Meanwhile, I am still the Chair of Chemistry and run an active research program.


CR: Thanks for answering all of my questions! Do you have anything else you’d like to add or touch on before we wrap up the interview?

DC: I would just like to say that I think that Cornell is a great institution, and the current leadership is the best I’ve seen. We get ourselves a new president, and we should be ready to move forward in a big way.

1 Comment on Cornell, Chemistry, and the Free Market: An Interview with Prof. Dave Collum

  1. excellent interview – only thing missing was discussion regarding campus culture from the student perspective – what professor Collum has learned and observed over his tenure at Cornell

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