February 27, 2006

David J. Skorton Talks to The Sun

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Last week, The Sun had the opportunity to chat with President-elect David J. Skorton, who is currently finishing his tenure as president of the University of Iowa. He discussed his appointment, his time at Iowa and student activism – and agreed to join The Sun’s staff.

The Sun: So, how does it feel to be the president of an Ivy League institution?

David J. Skorton: It is a huge honor, and it has been a very humbling experience to be picked. Every president of a research university in the United States knows what a great place Cornell is. It was a huge thrill for me to get this opportunity.

The Sun: When former President Lehman began his presidency in 2003, he used the “Call to Engagement” in order to find out how faculty, staff and students felt about campus issues. Do you have any particular initiatives that you plan to use for this purpose?

Skorton: I am well aware of the “Call to Engagement,” and I thought it was a good idea. Especially coming to a place that I don’t have experience with, I will need to be in a “listening mode.” However, I am going to do it my own way by soliciting comments in different ways. My style at Iowa has been to involve students, staff and faculty in direct interactions with me so that I can learn exactly what their thoughts are. I will meet on a regular basis with leadership groups and have regular, recurring and frequent open forums with faculty, staff and students. My style has been to have meeting agendas set by the groups with larger meetings open to the media.

You can learn a lot about a university from e-mail traffic, and about students from Facebook. Facebook has become an interesting mechanism for me to stay in touch with students. I have over 4,000 Facebook friends at Iowa, and I already have 50 or 60 at Cornell. I don’t take the stuff off the wall so that other people can see what other people are saying to me.

The Sun: As you know, interim President Rawlings came from the University of Iowa as well. How well did you know him when you were there, and did he have any effect on your decision to come to Cornell?

Skorton: I met Hunter when he came to Iowa to become President. He hired me to be vice president for research in 1992. I thought he was a very good boss and president. He is good at listening and using the bully pulpit to make larger points about higher education and society. However, I did not have much contact with him after he went to Cornell. To be honest, although I was extremely interested in the opportunity, I thought it was unlikely that they would look to the same place again for another president. As the interest proceeded, I felt a little funny because I didn’t want it to be perceived that I was receiving insider information. So, I really didn’t have much contact with him during the process. The fact that he was so happy with Cornell and with the town was encouraging because I thought that we had some values in common. It turned out to be just a wonderful opportunity.

The Sun: How do you feel about entering a situation in which the last president resigned and, according to many sources, was asked to resign?

Skorton: That’s a really important question, probably one of the most important questions anyone will put to me. I know Jeff Lehman from the Association of American Universities. Twice a year the presidents of the AAU schools get together to discuss issues of higher education. So, I know Jeff, and my wife knows Kathy Okun from those meetings. I always had great respect for Jeff; I thought he was a thoughtful person. I was surprised like a lot of people that he ended up with a short tenure. I don’t know exactly what happened, and I told the people that were interacting with me during the recruitment process that I really was not interested in finding out any of the details of where that relationship developed the problem that it developed. It’s not because I want to stick my head in the ground, and it’s not because I don’t care about issues the campus has; it’s because I want to find out about issues without bias, without slant and in my own way. Every large organization has chaos, and chaos is a positive thing because people have their own opinions and ideas. These organizations are going to develop issues and personality problems.

A university should not be dependent on its individual leader at an individual time. Obviously as a president and an incoming president at Cornell, I think presidential leadership is critically important, but the most important thing is not presidential leadership. The most important thing is the work that the faculty does, that the staff does and the interactions that the students have with the faculty. Iowa is 159 years old, and Cornell is over 140 years old, and leadership is important, but leaders do come and go, and the most important thing is what the family of the campus thinks about things. And that’s why interacting a lot with individuals all the way through the presidency is important. A university is not a top-down enterprise. A university is one of the best examples of a bottom-up enterprise. Think about the classes and curricula. It is designed based on student interest and demand and faculty expertise. Think about the research that goes on at a university. I think that the idea of top-down leadership at a university can be overblown. That’s why I think it’s really important for me to be in a listening mode at first. My philosophy at Iowa has been that I serve at the pleasure of the board of trustees and as a servant of the faculty staff and students. And that’s how I’ll look at it at Cornell.

The Sun: The University of Iowa recently completed a large capital campaign. Cornell is in the “quiet phase” of its own capital campaign, with the plan being to make it public fairly soon. Do you have any particular ideas for the campaign?

Skorton: I am very comfortable in the setting of fundraising. I think that it is a very positive, joyful thing to do. The thing that you are asking people to invest in is a wonderful process. I feel comfortable asking people to share the University’s vision and invest in our future. The people that make a campaign happen are the alumni and friends of the university who want to share a worldly talent and financial support for the institution to go forward. I know that the campaign is on track, and I will be briefed more soon on the detailed plan. The themes I have heard so far, Life Sciences, Information Science and Sustainability, are all very strong themes. They are themes of the world and of higher education. I will say that I have perceived that more attention needs to be paid to the humanities and arts. One of the most attractive things about Cornell is its balance of strength between the sciences and humanities and arts and social sciences. I am looking forward to working with students, staff, faculty and the Board of Trustees to come up with another thrust that would be aimed and the humanities and arts.

There are other initiatives that I have noticed from afar that I am sure will be important even though I haven’t gotten a very detailed briefing yet. The number one for me would be a focus on undergraduate student support. The tuition at Iowa, which is much less than it is at Cornell, has gone up about 66 percent over the last six years. So, my number one priority at Iowa for philanthropic fundraising was for student aid, and I will continue that at Cornell. Another area that I know that Cornell is interested in is interdisciplinary teaching and research. I have been a part of different departments in different areas during my career, so I know how to important it is to be able to do work across disciplines. Finally, I know that one of the thrusts, for decades, has been for international education and research and diplomacy through higher education. That has always been a strong interest of mine. I have had an interest in Asia, and I have had the chance to travel in Europe and Asia for economic development for higher education and for personal reasons.

And one more thing, I have been introduced to the concept of bringing the New York and Ithaca campuses together in a functional sense, and I think it is so important to do. Both my wife and I are going to have faculty appointments on both campuses, but Cornell’s presence goes much beyond the medical school, with the ILR School and College of Architecture, Art and Planning other facilities. Whatever we can do administratively and fundraising-wise to make it easier for faculty and students to bridge the two cities, two campuses, would be terrific.

The Sun: You speak about bridging the Ithaca and New York City campuses together. Do you have any specific ideas of how that can be done more effectively?

Skorton: I do have a few ideas, but for the first few months I have to talk to faculty and students about the different roadblocks. Sometimes the barriers that keep people from working together in different colleges, different areas and different disciplines can occur even if they are all on the same campus; I have dealt with that a lot at Iowa. Our medical school is a four-minute bus ride from our main campus, but there are differences in culture and in activities. The first thing to be done is listen to the people, for example at the medical school, and ask them what can be done better by working with and in parallel to the science departments on the Ithaca campus.

In terms of mechanisms for getting people together, one of the things that worked at Iowa was creating funding that could only be used to create new interactions between the campuses. I believe that a lot of that is already going on, but I would like to push that concept. We also need to make sure that the bus system is as good as it can be.

In addition, we can use telecommunications technology to do many things between the campuses, from research conferences to The Cornell Daily Sun doing an interview in front of a camera with someone on another campus. There are plenty of ways to get around the 230 miles, and I think it is critically important to do so.

The Sun: Since you are a medical doctor, are you going to be at the medical school more than previous Cornell presidents?

Skorton: My wife is going to have a very significant presence on both campuses. I have a medical practice here at Iowa. I take care of people your age with congenital heart disease. I am going to give that up as a regular practice because it will be too hard to be 200 miles away from the clinic where I see them. But, I do want to be in New York as a faculty member, doing teaching rounds and teaching at the college about my field.

But my immediate impression is that the huge majority of my time has to be spent in Ithaca. Second to that, I need to spend enough time in New York to learn about the medical school and also the other Cornell facilities there. So, I can’t tell you exactly how I will partition my time, but I think right now it is important that I am in Ithaca the vast majority of the time.

The Sun: The president of the University of Iowa’s Board of Regents resigned last year because of controversy surrounding his position of chairman and chief executive officer of Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield after there was debate over whether he should be allowed to make decisions regarding the University of Iowa hospital system’s insurance coverage. Did this controversy have anything to do with your decision to leave Iowa?

Skorton: The reason I was open to Cornell was because it is an unusual opportunity in higher education. It is just something that you have to think seriously about. And being in a two-career marriage, to be in a place where both of us can thrive is very important. The only proof that I can give you is that I did let other opportunities go by. I can’t tell you what they are because of confidentiality, but there were other opportunities that went by since these events with Blue Cross and Blue Shield happened at Iowa. Also understand that the fact that Cornell is such a distinguished school academically and culturally, but is also a land grant school and so it looks outward beyond the campus is not the easiest combination to find. And it’s very important to me.

I think that too much has been made of a connection between my leaving Iowa and this Blue Cross thing. There was really nothing unique about what happened at Iowa. The people on the Blue Cross side were doing just what they were supposed to do in keeping their costs under control, and we were doing just what we were supposed to do in trying to maximize the revenue of the University of Iowa hospitals and clinics. We own and operate that hospital so it is important for the president to do what’s best for the employees of the hospital. So, sure it was a difficult situation, and there was a lot of press about it and a lot of tension here, but we got past it, things changed and I was still president here for months after that happened which was months before the Cornell opportunity even came up.

So, Cornell is an opportunity that I would never have been able to ignore and particularly with an opportunity for my wife. That’s why I am going to be there.

The Sun: Last year, a group of students chained themselves together in protest of a new parking lot on campus that required trees to be cut down. What is your position of this kind of student activism?

Skorton: Not only is student activism important on Cornell’s campus, it’s important on all university campuses around the world. Student activism has made phenomenally important changes in government decisions, certainly at the local and university level. When I was a college student, which was in the ’60s, I was a very active anti-war activist. I am very comfortable with the concept of student activism. It doesn’t in any way make me uncomfortable, and I will welcome the students’ input whether I agree or disagree with them. In terms of how that gets expressed and how we can work together, we work with student activist groups on the Iowa campus all the time. For example, right now I am working with a group called Students Against Sweatshops, having to do with how we deal with licensure issues for apparel. It’s a national movement.

I think there are three principles that I have tried to live by here at Iowa, and they won’t change when I come to Cornell. The first one is that I take anything the students bring to me whether it’s a single student or a thousand students or a petition. I take it very seriously, and I review it at the highest level of the university and try hard to listen, and I should have a good reason not to go along with something that is a widely held concern. Second, is that I need to develop a relationship with students, faculty and staff in which they will allow me to give my perspective on issues. This may mean open forums, bringing speakers to campus or sitting in my office all night talking about it, whatever it is. Third, which I think is really important, is that the leader of any kind of institution in which people are supposed to think independently, where people aren’t supposed to just snap in line, must make it clear that certain issues aren’t open for discussion. The vast majority of the issues will be open for discussion, that’s the nature of the beast. Once in a while there may be an issue that can’t be decided by committee or with a group effort, and the leader of the institution just needs to make a decision and do it. It is important to identify what those issues are so that I do not make people feel that I am being disingenuous and making people feel that they could input when they can’t. Those issues should not be very frequent, but they do come up, and I just have to make a decision and do what I think is right.

I know quite a bit about Cornell’s leadership in environmental stewardship. I work with Engineers for a Sustainable World here at Iowa, and I know that whole business started at Cornell. I know that Cornell wants to go toward Kyoto goals in terms of carbon emissions, and I am very interested in doing that. I have acted as one small force at Iowa to get students interested in these issues and get them and the faculty working in the same direction going forward. The big sticking point always has to do with finances and feasibility, but that cannot be an excuse to try to do better. I’m very committed to it.

The Sun: Last week, there was a reportedly race-related act of violence on Cornell’s campus. What is your position on race and diversity issues?

Skorton: Cornell has a long history of activism in this area and with being ahead of the curve on diversity so I think it is important that we pay attention to this kind of an incident. We have to strongly denounce violence. Period. Whether it is race related, domestic or a sexual assault. There can be no place on a university campus for violence.

Race relations are still a critical issue in the United States. It is perhaps one of the most critical issues we have in our time period. I think an incident like this, that has some undertones to it, needs to be faced directly on campus like we would face any critical issue, which is to come together, talk about it, look at our systems and procedures and have an open willingness to see if something can be done better. I read President Rawlings’ statement and I thought it was exactly on the mark. And I know from my previous interaction with him that he takes this extremely seriously and will take any action necessary. I certainly take it seriously too.

The Sun: We have read that you did many unique things at Iowa to engage the students, including hosting events at your house and hosting a radio show. Do you plan to continue these types of things at Cornell?

Skorton: I have a number of things that my wife and I tried at Iowa, but I have to see if they make sense in the Cornell setting. For example, we invited the entire freshman class to our house this last fall, and like a thousand people showed up. We had the street blocked off, and we had food and music. The students liked it a lot, I liked it a lot, my wife liked a lot and my dogs liked it a lot. I know at Cornell the president’s house is away from the campus in a residential neighborhood, but that kind of thing was great at Iowa. I certainly would consider, after I get my feet on the ground to have a presence on the radio. I hesitate to promise anything now for fear of promising more things than I can deliver.

I have also sat in at local bars after Saturday football games at Iowa. I met a lot of undergraduates in that setting, during a break of a band set at a bar. And if that would be useful and someone could take pity on me and let me sit in with them then I will do that at Cornell too. But I guess the most important thing to say is that every campus has a different character and that I will ask the students what will work best.

The Sun: Would you be willing to write a monthly column for The Sun?

Skorton: Yes, for sure. Sign me up. I just don’t know which month I will start. But you can count on it.

The Sun: One last question. Do you have any comment on the recent resignation of Harvard President Lawrence Summers?

Skorton: That’s a tough situation. It shows the importance of the connection between the leadership and faculty of an institution. Having come up through the faculty ranks, I have always been involved in faculty activities. I have always thought that it has to be one of the most important relationships that the president of a university must have.

Archived article by Erica Temel
Sun Editor-in-Chief
and Eric Finkelstein
Sun Managing Editor