February 20, 2011

The Changing Role of the University Presidency

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Have you ever seen President Skorton give the Black Power salute? I have, and believe me, it is thoroughly unconvincing.

This happened last year, when Skorton had accompanied the annual march of Cornellians from the Africana Center to Willard Straight Hall. Once the group arrived at the Straight, a student suggested that they pose for a picture to honor their noble predecessors. The group defiantly thrust their fists into the air. So did our President, who saluted as would any Milwaukee-raised, bespectacled Jewish doctor. Needless to say, he won’t be initiating a takeover anytime soon.

Certainly, no one would ever confuse President Skorton for a militant. However, his tacit approval of one of the most morally bankrupt moments in Cornell’s history forces us to reconsider what we expect from our University President.

I think our expectations for Skorton — and for any university president, for that matter — are somewhat confused: We expect both too much and too little.

We expect too much in that we’d like him to be our good friend. We relish his Sun columns assuring us that everything is just fine on the Hill, his TCAT bus trips and his rare jazz performances. In short, we want a Buddy President, and Skorton complies.

This mirrors a national trend. The Washington Post recently reported that more and more university presidents who seek the approval of their students are “tasting lives outside their offices.” One notable example is George Washington University President Steven Knapp, who has created a Facebook page for himself, attended student parties and joined in a snowball fight against Georgetown. Another, University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, deejayed at his own inauguration. One struggles to imagine the stately and sober Andrew Dickson White doing the same.

With this said, though, we also expect too little. We don’t want our Buddy President to challenge or inspire us. True to form, President Skorton gives us with what we want.

Take his recent conversation with former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson. It’s unclear whether Skorton wasn’t paying attention or simply just didn’t care about the topics under discussion. However, it was remarkable that he responded to all of Paulson’s points with a blithe “very interesting,” or, when he really tried, a more forceful “very interesting.”

He brings the same stale neutrality to his columns, where he has urged us to “assume that all opinions have value and that we may learn from others,” and his commencement addresses, where he asserted that graduates wishing to lead meaningful lives should “take time to taste the wonder.” Apparently, one should devote the same sort of passion to self-fulfillment as one usually reserves for a box of Skittles.

Of course, this was not always true of university presidents. As David Brooks has noted, they historically saw themselves as moral guides in the face of a world besotted by nihilism and apathy. Their task was spurring students to undertake serious, ethically-motivated action, even if that meant challenging their complacency. To that end, Princeton President John Hibben told his graduating students in 1913 that “the world expects you to produce as well as to consume, to add to and not to subtract from its store of good, to build up and not tear down, to ennoble and not degrade. It commands you to take your place and to fight your fight in the name of honor and of chivalry.” Hardly “taste the wonder.”

So what happened? Though there are likely a multitude of explanations for the transformation of the university presidency, a compelling one is related to the student radicalism of the 1960s. Indeed, while these students took aim at all hierarchies, the university president was a particularly favored target.

This was especially true at Cornell. In 1969, for instance, student radicals disrupted a talk on South Africa given by President James Perkins by jumping on the stage, seizing him by the collar and grabbing his microphone. Similarly, as Perkins was about to address a gathering held by the student body during the Straight Takeover, a student leaped on stage, grabbed and drank from a soda Perkins had been drinking, lifting it proudly for the student body to see.

And Perkins’ response? Not moral indignation, but rather asserting that the meeting was “one of the most positive forces ever set in motion in the history of Cornell.”

Ultimately, that force would strip the university presidency of any semblance of dignity. Perkins’ capitulation heralded an new era, one in which Cornell presidents viewed their mission as catering to the tastes of undergraduates, rather than as holding those tastes accountable to a greater ethical purpose. It is no wonder, then, that Skorton felt right at home with the commemorations at Willard Straight Hall. He had returned to what in some ways constitutes his birthplace.

Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin