A little more than one week after the class of 2010 moves into North Campus dorms this August, Cornell’s third president in as many year will also move in — to Mary Donlon Hall. Incoming President David J. Skorton and his wife Robin L. Davisson will live in Donlon’s writer-in-residence suite for one week. It is all part of the president’s plan to get to know the student body.
Skorton arrives at Cornell at a tumultuous time for the presidency after the abrupt and controversial resignation of Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, who resigned amid shock and speculation over reunion weekend June 11, 2005 and was the shortest-serving president in Cornell history.
Last summer, former President Hunter R. Rawlings III took a break from teaching to serve as interim president in the wake of Lehman’s resignation. Rawlings previously served as president from 1995 to 2003 and, like Skorton, was president of the University of Iowa before taking over the top post at Cornell.
Lehman’s resignation left the entire Cornell community and many faculty members in an uproar. Much beloved, Lehman was also the first president who was an alumnus. Lehman’s own explanation was cryptic at best and hinted at an unbridgeable rift between Lehman and the Board of Trustees. When he resigned before a group of alumni after his state of the university address, he asked audience members to imagine a plane en route to Bali, on the other side of the world.
“It can get there by flying east,” he said. “Or it can get there by flying west.”
“But even if the pilot and co-pilot are each highly skilled, even if they have the highest regard for one another, the plane will not reach its destination if they are unable to agree about which direction to take.
He continued, “Cornell University is meant to fly. Its pilot and co-pilot must agree on the strategic direction to be taken. Since I now understand that it is impossible for such an agreement to emerge as long as I am president, I have notified the chairman of the board, Peter Meinig, that I will step down as Cornell’s eleventh president at the end of this month.”
As Rawlings moved to fill the gap left by Lehman, the trustees began a presidential search that cu 0lminated in the January announcement of Skorton’s selection and confirmation by the board.
Skorton comes to Cornell with expectations from the community that he will be able to stabilize the University and move it forward. His goals include developing a rapport with the student body and developing the arts and the humanities.
Skorton’s dorm life stunt is true to character for a president who, at Iowa, hosted his own jazz and blues hour on the campus radio station and was an early adopter of Facebook. At time of writing, Skorton had 4363 friends at Iowa and 257 at Cornell. At Iowa, Skorton’s Facebook wall has served as a forum for students to air concerns and poke fun at the president.
At Iowa, where Skorton was a professor and president for 25 years, the president’s residence is in between a freshman dorm and a sorority house. The Cornell president’s residence – just north of North Campus in the village of Cayuga Heights – is just too far away, and the week at Donlon affords Skorton time in the heart of the freshman campus.
“He’ll be going to work every day,” said Murphy. “[But] he’ll probably be eating in the dining halls” and participating in other programming that hasn’t been put together yet.
Skorton’s history confirms his open approach to communicating with students. In an interview with The Sun this spring, Skorton said he often played bingo with freshmen living next door and played saxophone – he also plays jazz flute – with the Iowa marching and pep bands.
Last fall, he invited the entire Iowa 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.
“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 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],” Skorton said in a July 10 interview with The Sun.
Thus the stay in Donlon Hall: “We are also freshman in a way, my wife and I,” he said.
Skorton also spoke favorably of the student press and extended his open door policy to representatives of student publications. At Iowa, he held a monthly question and answer session with the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan, and on the campus television station.
“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.”
In interviews with reporters his first day at Cornell, July 10, Skorton said addressing issues of racism and diversity is paramount to his first days on campus. The racial divide at Cornell was laid bare by this spring’s alleged stabbing of Union College sophomore Charles Halliday by Nathan Poffenbarger ’07 and the protests that followed. The incident was allegedly racially motivated. Skorton said he has requested diversity statistics from Cornell officials and that he will move to meet with students who protested what they called Cornell’s “institutional racism” to create a plan to move forward on diversity issues at Cornell.
Skorton has dealt with controversy before, standing at the center of a storm that swirled around the Animal Liberation Front’s destruction of Iowa biology labs. Although he’s a vegetarian who has called downtown Ithaca’s Moosewood restaurant “the mothership,” Skorton came down hard on the animal rights groups.
Skorton’s other interesting initiative has been his regular mentioning of the what he says he sees as a need to give attention to the arts, humanities and social sciences, especially with University administrators and undraisers recently so focused on the Life Science Initiative. Skorton is, above all, something of a renaissance man: university administrator, blues musician, vegetarian, recently practicing cardiologist and Cornell’s new president.
Skorton’s first day as president was July 1, and he moved into his Day Hall office July 10. Skorton’s official inauguration will take place on the Arts Quad at 3:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 7.