When President-elect David J. Skorton finally settles into the big chair in July, he’ll have more on his mind than just running one of the world’s top research institutions.
A firm believer that “we need to be good neighbors,” as he said to media representatives at a press conference on Saturday, Skorton feels that one of his top priorities will be forging a strong relationship not only with Ithaca, but with New York State at large.
“This University is many places,” Skorton said. “Each one of those places automatically becomes my community. That’s how I viewed it in Iowa City.”
Back home, where Skorton is currently the president of the University of Iowa, government officials described Skorton as a friendly, knowledgeable man who worked to tie the city and university together.
“Cornell’s getting an outstanding, civic-minded community leader. We’ve really appreciated his vision and insight, especially in the areas of economic development, his civic engagement project and his commitment to diversity,” said Iowa City Mayor Ross Wilburn.
If size matters, at least, Skorton may find himself with a somewhat more manageable task here than he’s used to. Cornell is a university of about 20,000 students in a city of about 28,100 people; the University of Iowa has about 28,000 students and is situated in an area of about 90,000 people, according to the university’s web site.
But even if it’s on a smaller scale, Skorton may notice the familiarities. Iowa City Manager Steve Atkins described the University of Iowa as having a “critical role” within the city, located adjacent to their downtown area.
As part of his commitment to the outside world, Skorton declared this academic year the “Year of Public Engagement” at the University of Iowa. According to the university’s web site, the campaign encourages the university community to “intensify its efforts and sharpen its focus on engagement with the public and public issues at the local, state, national, and international levels,” both within its normal functions and by individuals’ personal contributions to philanthropic or volunteer events.
Ithaca Mayor Carolyn K. Peterson said that, although she has not gotten a chance to get to know Skorton well yet, she is pleased with what she has learned so far from reading about him and from a brief discussion she had with him during a luncheon on Saturday. She also said that Skorton said he would like to meet with her when he moves to Ithaca in July.
“We don’t know each other yet, but he includes town-gown relations as something that’s been important to him in Iowa. I’m very pleased to hear that,” Peterson said. “I’m pleased that I’ll be the top of the list.”
Items that Peterson intends to bring up at that meeting include a review of Ithaca’s system of governance, her relationship with Cornell and the University’s voluntary contribution to the city. Although Cornell is exempt from many taxes, the University has traditionally helped offset that lost revenue to the city in the form of voluntary contributions, a legacy which former President Jeffery S. Lehman ’77 sought to strengthen.
Skorton touched on the financial issue briefly at the press conference, acknowledging that the University “can alter the tax base of the community, directly or indirectly.” He added that he has been part of non-University fund raising, in addition to being in contact with the city’s mayor and serving on various committees.
Atkins said that in addition to always being knowledgeable and aware of the university’s role within the community, Skorton was, on a personal level, a good working partner.
“He’s just enjoyable to be around, and I think a lot of what he does is on the strength of his personality,” he said.