The Sun: What do you bring to the table for Cornell? Why did the selection committee choose you?
David Skorton: Well, you would have to ask the selection committee to be fair because I didn’t make the choice. They did. I’m very honored that they did. I can tell you what I think I have to offer the campus. I have been in higher education administration for 14 years at VP or president level at Iowa, and so I have a certain amount of administrative experience. I have a good handle on why universities exist, who the very important stakeholders and constituencies are in universities. I’ve had my chance to make plenty of mistakes in administration over the years. Hopefully I’ve learned from them.
Sun: What specific initiatives did you launch there?
Skorton: I suppose this will sound like I’m getting cozy with you, but I was very interested in undergraduate experience at research universities. I tried very hard to find ways to get some experience with undergraduates. When I was doing research, I had many students in the lab over the years, a lot of undergraduates, many master’s students, and one single Ph.D. student in electrical engineering. … These are things that I felt good about at Iowa, and I plan to initiate here right away. One is having regular meetings with the elected leaders of the student body, both undergraduate and graduate/professional. … Vice President Murphy and I are going to sponsor what you might call fireside chats, where anybody who wants to come will be welcome, but they’ll be focused on the student concerns. … We’re planning to begin this semester and we’ll have them as often as students want to come.
The one thing that I did not have a chance to start at Iowa, but I’m thinking about … having some kind of ‘office hours’ where only students could come in for brief periods of time. … Just leave it open and it’ll depend on the schedule, but I intend to be on campus during the vast majority of my time. So hopefully there’ll be some way to do that.
Sun: How do you think Cornell’s humanities will be different five years from now?
Skorton: Well, first of all, that’s really important to emphasize that the humanities and the social sciences and the arts are all really strong already at Cornell, and as you guys know, this is one of the real, rarified distinguished institutions in the world, so it’s not like they’re struggling, and I’m going to do something brilliant and all of a sudden they’re going to be good. They’re very, very strong. And the administration, Biddy Martin, the people around her, the vice provosts, have put enormous efforts into raising the profiles of those fields and deciding what resources would be necessary to make them more distinguished. I did one of those Google alerts right after I received the offer for the job, and I’ve been reading everything in the Google alert about Cornell, seven days a week since January, and I’ve been reading The Sun a lot, and you just don’t see as much in the media about those fields anywhere, as you do about the hard sciences. Naturally, it’s more newsworthy to talk about biomedical discoveries, astronomy, the physical sciences — things that bring enormous grants. It’s interesting that from afar, you see literary programs here, philosophy, history, economics, a lot of these programs that are not physical and biological sciences, you see them as very distinguished from an academic perspective. But I think the public, both on campus and off, people outside of those fields, don’t hear as much about them. You may not agree with me, but my observation is that the vast majority that’s written about academic things are physical and biological and medical sciences. I hope that they’ll be more visible, number one, in answer to what they’ll look like in five years.
Secondly, to the extent that we have opportunities for fundraising, they’ll be a focus in the new philanthropic campaign to be announced in a few weeks, as well as the three areas that President Lehman and others developed in the last few years, which are very important areas. But there will also be a visible, well-publicized attempt to raise money for those disciplines, so hopefully there’ll be more money available to do the work here.
Sun: U.S. News and World Report rankings came out and we moved up to 12th. I want to know your feelings on why rankings matter to Cornell, and what you’re going to do to help us move up?
Skorton: Sure. On the topic of rankings, you know it’s a very controversial topic. If you’re doing better in the rankings, you say they’re very important and a critical measure of success, if you start going backwards, you say, they’re specious and there’s all kind of methodological problems. So of course, I’m thinking the U.S. News and World Report people are very astute because we moved up in the rankings. If you look carefully at the factors that are used in higher education rankings, there are two very general universes. One is reputational rankings and those are quantitative, they’re qualitative, they’re subjective, it takes a long time to change people’s minds about institutions. If institutions get better, it takes a while for people’s opinions to change; if they get worse, it takes a while for people’s opinions to change in that direction, so I think that reputational rankings have all the weaknesses that you would think about this subjective method.
When you ask me what I’m going to do to make them better, it’s the factors that go into the quantitative variables are the only things that people can work on. If, for example, amount of research expenditures affects graduate rankings for U.S. News & World Report, my way of supporting that will be to do my part in funding the facilities, do my part in recruiting people personally, making students feel like they have a part in the governance of the university, so that they will tell other generations or students in their family, their friends or high schools … to think about going here. So my role, the president’s role is always a secondary role, backing up the people who are doing the front-line work.
Sun: Could you tell us what you’re going to say in your inaugural speech?
Skorton: Not exactly because of the nature of the speech, and I’ll be glad to share it with you but I hope it doesn’t sound too vague. The arts and music and the humanistic disciplines are really important to me. Not just rhetorically, but emotionally and professionally important to me. So the whole nature of the inauguration, I’m trying to make it centered on Cornell and not on me. And I’m not saying that so you’ll say what a great guy I am. I’m really trying to focus it on Cornell and not on a cult of personality about David Skorton. I’m trying to focus it on the broad breadth of cultural and humanistic offerings at the University. How can I put this without giving it away to 21,000 students who read the Daily Sun? It’s going to be a multimedia speech and a multimedia presentation. Multimedia has a wide variety of meanings, and so you’re just going to have to come.
In terms of the topical content of it, I’m going to discuss many of the things that we talked about today. I’m going to have some emphasis on the staff of the university. I’m going to be talking about the undergraduate experience. I’m going to be talking about the importance of the humanities and social sciences. I’m going to be talking about the need to look outward from the university and see ourselves as part of a bigger world. It’s very, very important to me. And so, I’m not making any secret about the themes, the same themes, I only have a certain number of themes, they’ve been my themes for years, I still feel the same way about them but the particular way of getting them across I hope people will enjoy.