April 25, 2006

Skorton Aids Iowa Through Tornadoes

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While grapefruit-size pellets of hail, lightening, blasting thunder and deadly wind tore down entire houses just minutes from the University of Iowa campus, President-elect David Skorton somehow maintained his cool amidst the disastrous storm. Iowa, among many other communities in the Midwest, recently suffered through this month’s series of deadly tornadoes.

“We were lucky on campus that we did not incur extensive damage and had no serious injuries,” said Skorton, who is currently finishing his term as Iowa president.

He noted that, with the exception of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house, which was demolished, only a small number of buildings were damaged by the hail and the damage was minimal.

“We are trying to assist faculty, staff and students who have dislocated family,” he said. “There are lots of people who, within a day, lost everything they had.”

While the administration has taken a “coordination and communication role,” Skorton said, “The real leadership has been in the student body.”

By opening up their homes, organizing drives and mobilizing organizations on campus to help the Iowa community in its recovery, the student body has done, according to Skorton, a fabulous job in the University’s recuperation from such a drastic national disaster. Skorton also praised the campus newspaper, The Daily Iowan, for its extensive and informative coverage of the tornadoes both before the hit and in the aftermath.

As the tornado struck just weeks before the end of the semester, the administration is currently coming up with ways to address the “psychological affect” that the storm may had on students.

“We are formulating ways for students to finish up the semester given that their course materials, as well as many of their other possessions, may have been lost because of the storm,” he said.

While Skorton’s impressive background in biomedical engineering, pediatric cardiology and electrical and computer engineering is not directly linked to the role of a university president, there are aspects of his education and medical background that have helped him deal with situations throughout his current career.

“In dealing with a crisis situation, you win or lose before the actual event even occurs,” Skorton said. “Working in big hospitals has helped me deal with crises like this tornado. As a doctor, you have to make decisions under situations with a high degree of uncertainty in which all the necessary information is unavailable. There are many situations which come up as a university administrator that entail making decisions without all the necessary information, and working in medicine has helped me do this.”

Skorton, although nostalgic about leaving Iowa, is looking forward to implementing these skills as a leader at Cornell next fall. He reflects fondly upon the relationships he formed with various members of the Iowa community. After frequently meeting with a group of student leaders and getting input from them on a variety of issues around campus, Skorton looks forward to continuing this trend of campus involvement in Ithaca. He refers to his technique as a “consultative approach,” which features getting input from students, staff and faculty to understand what their main interests are.

“Students, staff and faculty are the fabric of a university,” he said. “Although it would be difficult to reach consensus if the entire university community were to participate in decision and policy making on campus, it is very important to get input from different parts of the university population in identifying what the main issues of concern are.”

While getting this input can be achieved in a formal setting, Skorton likes to branch out from the traditional conference room with coffee-cup-in-hand setup to form relationships with his students. As a self-described “enthusiastic amateur” jazz saxophone player, he enjoys using his interest in music to connect with students in a non-academic setting.

“I’m looking forward to engaging in a music scene around Ithaca,” Skorton said.

After playing in his own band at college, he has joined up with musicians at Iowa and has even played with students at local music joints in Iowa City.

Skorton’s goals, however, branch well beyond familiarizing himself with the student, staff and faculty body of Cornell. He is looking to fundraise for the University, with a specific target of the social sciences.

“Most of the money that comes to campuses is focused towards the physical and biological sciences. The liberal and performing arts areas have less access to philanthropy,” he said.

Skorton highly respects Cornell’s departments in the social sciences and thinks that, “no matter what academic field a person is interested in, in order to be intellectually mature in that field, having a core education in the humanities is necessary.”

Even sciences, Skorton said, are based in the humanities. For example, math is related to formal logic; many aspects of science can be traced back to philosophical roots.

“One shouldn’t judge the importance of a discipline based on its specific field,” Skorton said.

Slated to arrive in June with his wife Robin Davisson, a molecular geneticist who will teach at Cornell’s Veterinary and Medical Colleges, Skorton admits to having “mixed feelings” about leaving Iowa, his home for over 20 years but is “very enthusiastic about coming to Cornell.”

He said that the 200-300 Facebook friends he has from Cornell thus far is exciting and is especially looking forward to meet the CU students, who have a “reputation of being outspoken and participat[ive] in student activism.”

Remembering his college days, Skorton reflected on the role student activism played during the Vietnam-era of the 60s and 70s and noted how national and international issues are identified and communicated through college campuses.

Skorton will be inaugurated as Cornell’s 12th president on Sept. 7.

Archived article by Sarah Singer
Sun Staff Writer