September 7, 2006

Skorton Elicits Optimism

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As president, David J. Skorton may face both censure and praise from the backbone of Cornell: its faculty. But today, at his inauguration, many of Cornell’s professors and administrators anticipate a successful presidency for Skorton.
“It’s great news that we have a new President. With new leadership comes the possibility for exciting change,” said Prof. Cathy Enz, the Lewis G. Schaeneman Professor of Innovation and associate dean at the School of Hotel Management. She added that an ideal president would have courage and be an innovator, “not just a bureaucrat, but someone who is willing to re-think the idea of a modern university and challenge faculty to do things differently.”
Enz explained the importance to a university of having a president, rather than an interim president or an ongoing presidential search.
“Now that we have a president, we can get on with having a future and moving toward it. There are periods of transition for any institution, but the benefit of having a new president arrive is to gain clarity of direction and movement,” she said.
Cornell is well known for its broad range of studies: the 2006-2007 Course of Studies book is inarguably enormous. As big as the University is, many departments and majors intersect and affect each other. A class that Enz teaches, H ADM 443: Innovation and Dynamic Management, encompasses three different majors from two different colleges. Entrepreneurship at Cornell, an initiative for business education that spans the nine colleges at Cornell, also shows the interdisciplinary nature academics have at Cornell.
“Skorton has to enable and facilitate those kind of institutions — even if they’re beyond arts and sciences,” Enz said.
Enz cited Entrepreneurship at Cornell as a program that’s already going strong, and one the president must support and enhance.
“It’s viable and illustrative of the interconnectedness of academics at Cornell,” Enz said.
In reference to Skorton’s promotion of arts, humanity and community at Cornell, Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi, architecture and dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, said, “In the context of the University’s previous ambitions, emphasis has been on the sciences. As a symbol, it’s good for Skorton to promote the arts and humanities.”
Mostafavi also said, “With Skorton, there isn’t a split between the sciences and humanities. With his interests in music and language, he’ll be able to mediate between all the various realms at Cornell.”
Skorton’s diverse background was received positively by College of Human Ecology as well: “We are very excited about the inauguration of David Skorton as president because of his fundamental understanding of health implications both nationally and globally,” said Prof. Kay Obendorf, textiles and apparel and associate dean for research in CHE.
On the president’s decision to withdraw investments from Sudanese oil companies, Mostafavi responded, “It’s not good to have a President that isolates the University from what’s happening in the outside world. Too many presidents shy away from stuff that may have political repercussions.”
He added, “Skorton is not shy to do what he believes in,” and that the choice to divest was “not a controversial action anyway.”
Skorton’s North Campus immersion experience also elicited approval from faculty.
“Besides the fact that he’s a very sociable person, it’s important for people in leadership positions to understand what students are going through, to give them a better understanding of social and physical issues,” Mostafavi said.
“That kind of interaction between students and administration is great in making Cornell feel like a smaller institution,” said Prof. Bruce Rusk, Asian studies.
People skills like that — being able to live with freshman for 10 days — combined with Skorton’s wide-ranging interests, will help him facilitate communication across the Cornell’s seven colleges.
“Skorton’s multiple perspectives and big interests in a number of areas will help his ability to communicate with different groups across campus,” Prof. Geri Gay, communication, said. “Traditional boundaries are breaking down at universities, and he’s the perfect President for that.”
And, both his ability to communicate and diverse interests will help make his campaign for capital successful: “he’ll be able to talk to a wide range of alums for fundraising,” Gay said.
Gay identified fundraising as one challenge Skorton will face. She said, “Newer initiatives need funding, and that Skorton will need to get people excited about those that cut across many academic bases.”
She added that new and emerging areas need to be supported, as well as traditional programs.
Skorton’s education background fits in with previous non-Cornellian Cornell presidents — Lehman was the only Cornellian.
“This isn’t an issue. He’s a quick learner and I think it’s more important to understand the ethos and conditions of a place,” Mostafavi said. “It’s good to come in as an outsider, you get a different view and perspective on aspects of tradition in a university.”
Enz echoed, “Skorton will not be better or worse as a president because he didn’t go to Cornell.”
Mostafavi said that the overall current atmosphere of optimism at Cornell is only what can be expected at this still-early point: Skorton has not been officially inaugurated yet, and it’s best to have hope for the future.