July 11, 2006

President Skorton Arrives at Cornell

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The Sun was pleased to welcome Cornell's 12th president, David J. Skorton, to Ithaca on his first day in office Monday. He took the time to answer some of our questions and better introduce himself to the community.

The Sun: The Sun heard a rumor that you will be living in the North Campus dorms for a short period.

President Skorton: As soon as classes start, my wife and I are going to live in one of the dorms for a week, 10 days, two weeks, something like that. They haven't decided exactly how much they can take of us.

The Sun: Do you know which dorm?

Skorton: I don't know. We asked Susan Murphy [’73, vice president for student and academic affairs] to pick one out earlier. We think that it will be a good thing to do, mostly to learn about the campus; it will give us a chance to be there and see what they go through. We are also freshman in a way, my wife and I. We thought it would be fun to do that; I'm not sure if the students will think it’s fun. … We’re also going to try to have some students out [at our house]. It's a place that doesn’t have a lot of parking. Last year, at the University of Iowa, we had all the freshman at our house – at least we invited them all. A thousand of them came, but it would be a production to bring 3,000 students out to this residential neighborhood [in Ithaca]. We will have some students there.

The Sun: Have you met a lot of people so far?

Skorton: They had us meet with some students on the search committee and faculty and staff as part of the search process last fall and winter. … I have been back I think four or five times, and I've had a chance to meet with student leadership – both undergraduate and some graduate and professional students – with faculty leadership, with almost all the deans and with the staff leadership. I've had a chance to meet with those people who are representative of the different groups on campus. Then we came for reunion weekend last month, and that was fantastic. We met dozens, maybe hundreds of people, over those two-and-a-half days; it was just fantastic. But the hardest thing for me at Iowa – I'm sure it will be here, too – was getting to know the student body, such a large student body. I plan to meet with the student leaders every single month and the faculty leaders every single month and the staff leaders every single month, but I also want to make an effort to go out and met people who are not elected leaders.

The Sun: Do you have any impressions of Ithaca so far?

Skorton: I do. It's a town of about the same size as where I have been living for 25 years, and it's reminiscent of that town in the sense that it's the middle of what would be a rural area otherwise and has a very – I'm not sure what word to use exactly – sort of an urbane feel. There are a lot of sophisticated places to see culture, hear music and have great meals here and enjoy the farmer's market – things like that, things you might not see in a town otherwise that size. … For example, Saturday we went to the Dewitt Mall – just bumped into it. We're both vegetarians, and the Moosewood Restaurant was there. She has all these Moosewood cookbooks, so it was sort of a big deal to see the mothership, whatever you'd call it. … I guess to summarize it, the impression I've got is that it's a very interesting town that I bet selects for the kind of people who like the kind of culture here but also has this funny imbalance of size of a small town with this enormous institution. I think that leads to some terrific things and some challenges as well; I didn't recognize any of the challenges so far but got the impression that it's the same kind of situation where there are people in the town who are here because Cornell is here – faculty and students and people who work on the staff. There are also people at Cornell, I'm definitely one of them, who were partly attracted by the kind of community there is here.

The Sun: What do you like to do in your spare time? What were you involved in before academia?

Skorton: I grew up in an immigrant family; my dad was from Belarus – what was western Russia and is now Belarus. It was a multi-lingual family. He lived in Cuba for two years on the way over from Europe. … In the house there was Spanish, a little tiny bit of Russian, and he spoke Yiddish and read Hebrew. In junior high and high school, I got very interested in music and really wanted to be a professional musician. In fact, if I was good enough to be a successful professional musician, I probably wouldn't be in this office talking to you right now. … I worked my way through college. I went to UCLA for one year in the afternoons while I was in high school and one year as a regular student and then two years at Northwestern. I worked my way through giving blood, playing music, borrowing money and selling women’s shoes. I was actually all set to go into the practice of medicine in west Los Angeles, but I got interested in research during my advance training in cardiology. I followed a research career for 20 years and then got involved in administration, but music is a big part of my life; I still play sax and flute.

The Sun: How do you feel about leaving Iowa?

Skorton: It was hard. The hardest thing for me was leaving my patients at the clinic. I had that practice for 24 years – 25 years. There were over 400 families that I followed, and it was very hard to say goodbye to them after so long. It was hard to say goodbye to my friends and so on, of course, but it was especially tough for me to say good-bye to my patients. On the other hand, this is such a fantastic opportunity for me to be here; it's such a great place. In addition to all the advantages that I'm sure lead students to come here – good education, very strong research and so on – from afar, I've always been struck how well balanced it is in different disciplines. There is good strength in the sciences; there is great strength in literary disciplines, in writing, art; there is strength in the social sciences. That was very exciting. The other thing that made it easy to leave Iowa is that I think higher education is of a common character; most big research universities are more similar to each other than they are different. The land grant aspect of this school especially makes me feel very much at home because, even though Iowa isn't a land grant school – Iowa State is the land grant in that state, there is a big public research and public service element in any state-run school.

The Sun: How do you feel about the overall structure of this University?

Skorton: Cornell has a reputation – and I've already seen that it's true – of being much more decentralized that some institutions, where the colleges are able to blaze their own paths and go in their own directions. Also, I was a ’60s kid, and I was an anti-war activist in my way at the time; Cornell has a reputation for being an activist campus periodically over the years. … I think the big thing here is that the students are vocal; I have been contacted a
lready by student publications on the right side of the political spectrum, on the left side of the political spectrum. I have been contacted already about students who are concerned about issue A, issue B, issue C, and so one new impression I have – not from reputation, not from afar – is that the students are active and vocal both as individuals and as organized groups, which is very interesting. Another impression I have is that the place is proud of a history of independent thought. I was sent by three different people copies of Carl Becker's essay, “Freedom and Responsibility,” in which he talks about a Cornellian or a professor as one who “thinks otherwise.” That idea of feeling comfortable with disagreement in a community, comfortable with debate, comfortable with a marketplace of ideas, I feel like that's played out very strongly on this campus, even the little time I've spent here so far. The third impression I've gotten other than those two is that the students on campus are very interested in a public service plank of their studies.

The Sun: What do you think the role of a president within the University is?

Skorton: I've thought about that a lot over the years; I don't know that I have a better handle on it than anybody else has. I think the number one thing a University president does is act as a medium of communication on the campus; I listen to a lot of people who come into my office or stop me on the street or meet me at alumni events, so I have a chance to hear a lot of different perspectives, maybe more perspectives than anybody else on campus hears – some because you ask, some because you don't ask and they think you should of asked. … I used to have open forums at Iowa where any student could just come; sometimes four kids would come, and sometimes 700 students of all levels would come. I think communication is a huge part of [the role of the president]. The second part is that the president has this representational function, whether it’s to the state legislature or federal agency, with alums or people who are potential or past contributors to the University or the media. The president is often considered to be the spokesperson for the University along with the chief professional communications staff. The president has to know a lot about the University, and usually I think presidents tend to know a little about a lot of things on campus. I think it's important that the president tries to have a breadth of understanding about the campus and also depth on areas where there are issues, where things need to be dealt with. The last thing is that the president has to be able to strike a balance between his or her vision for what the campus might become and a very clear realization that these kinds of institutions do not work best if the leadership is too top down. In other words, the direction of scholarly activities, the direction of educational activities should largely be determined by the dance between the students and the professors. Students vote with their feet by signing up for certain courses, taking certain majors; professors have their own ideas, whether a professor is composing a symphony or looking for a cure for cancer. They follow their own lead. I think the president should sound the depths of the university and find out where the strengths are, where the aspirations are and where the dreams are and try to help people achieve those dreams in the most efficient way possible but not to tell people, “we're going to focus on X, and the whole campus is going to turn in that direction.” I do think there is a role for a president to be able to remind people that despite whatever it is we are doing in our individual lives everyday – and the hundreds and hundreds of things that happen on a campus that have nothing to do with each other – that there are some areas of common discussion. We tried that at Iowa by having each year designated as the year of something to sort of focus on a little bit no matter what else you did. So I had a year of arts and humanities … we had a year of public engagement where people could think about public service regardless of what they did.