January 25, 2006

Students Optimistic About New President

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Cornell’s 12th president has 4,246 Facebook friends at Iowa, which is just one of several promising signs that David J. Skorton is a president who goes out of his way to involve himself with students.

Skorton received an invitation from Lindsay Schutte, the former Student Assembly president of Iowa, but, unaware of the site’s popularity, he asked her whether he should join.

“Lindsay said, ‘Do you want the students to be your friends or your enemies?’ I told her, ‘Well, duh, friends!'” Skorton said.

This charismatic attitude was particularly prominent during Skorton’s interactions with members of the Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly on Saturday after the University announced Skorton’s appointment. Skorton spent the afternoon talking about how he related to students at Iowa and laid out his plans to communicate with Cornell students. During the meeting, Skorton presented himself as a president who listens to student interests and tries to connect to student culture.

“I hope you’ll find that I’ve never made a major decision at [Iowa] without consulting the students,” he added.

According to Skorton, he often played bingo with freshmen living next door and played saxophone with the Iowa marching and pep bands. Last fall, he invited the entire freshman class of 4,000 to his house for an outdoor barbeque. For Thanksgiving, he hosted a dinner for international students to celebrate their first semester in the United States.

Skorton touted open doors and access as ways to enhance students’ experiences at a large research university such as Iowa. One of his most important priorities as an educator was “that undergraduates at a research institution get the benefits of a big research institution.”

“Balancing access with excellence is the biggest issue in higher education,” Skorton added.

He said that an open door policy would help him stay in touch with the concerns of students who might not be involved in organizations such as the S.A., whose memberships he acknowledged are largely self-selected. Such a policy might include “open forums where I can just have anybody just have at me,” he said.

Skorton’s history confirms his open approach to communicating with students. He held a monthly question and answer session with Iowa’s student newspaper, The Daily Iowan, and on the campus television station. Skorton spoke favorably of the student press, and extended his open door policy to representatives of student publications.

“I often get calls from Daily Iowan reporters on Sunday night,” he said. “I always take those calls myself. I’ll never dodge a press inquiry with very few exceptions.”

Despite Skorton’s inclinations to connect with the entire student body – he mentioned walking into a dining hall and starting informal conversations with students – he said he recognized that such organic communication can be difficult.

“I’m gonna tend, just as a kneejerk thing, to go to the elected student leaders first,” Skorton said.

Student leaders present at the meeting were positive about his attitude and credentials. Trustee Doug Mitarotonda grad, who introduced the president-elect to the members of the assemblies and was part of the Board of Trustees’ Presidential Search Committee, told the members of the S.A. and GPSA that Skorton had inspired him “as a Cornellian.”

In an interview with The Sun, Mitarotonda said that Skorton was clearly the right person to lead Cornell, both in terms of his personality and in terms of his credentials.

“It was exciting to see someone who was extremely interested in this job and extremely engaging and thought a lot about issues facing higher education in America,” he added.

Several students were particularly concerned with the academic breadth that Skorton would bring to Cornell. Both Mitarotonda and Justin Davis ’06, among others who met and knew of him, were optimistic about the president-elect.

“He has a lot to bring to the table, and has the ability to foster a sense of growth in the sciences [as a cardiologist],” Davis said. “What does this mean for the liberal arts, humanities? Overall, I’m hopeful that he’ll do a good job of balancing these [issues].”

“[Skorton] has the balance that people were looking for. Even though he’s a doctor he certainly understands the arts and humanities. He’s a perfect fit in so many different ways, and I’m so excited to have him as part of the Cornell family,” Mitarotonda said.

Attendees of Saturday’s meeting came away with a very positive outlook on Cornell’s 12th president, and were particularly convinced of Skorton’s desire to communicate with students.

“He actually wants to get to know the students,” said Dan Budish ’09, a freshman at-large representative to the S.A. “I’m very optimistic for the future of Cornell,” Budish added.

Sarah Boxer ’07, vice president for public relations of the Student Assembly, was also impressed with Skorton’s open attitude at Saturday’s meeting.

“It’s really exciting to hear someone speak who seems so eager to be really immersed in student issues,” she said. “I think that many average students will be comfortable speaking to him and interacting with him.”

And what about Skorton’s Facebook profile? “I’ll totally friend him!” Boxer said.

Julie Geng, Sun News Editor, and David Wittenberg, Sun Staff Writer, co-wrote this article.