September 7, 2006

Skorton Leaves Behind Rich Legacy at U. of Iowa

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Michael Hogan is a busy man. The University of Iowa’s executive vice president and provost oversees more than 200 degree programs spread over 11 colleges; juggles big issues like diversity, financial aid and student enrollment; and is currently working on two books about American history and diplomacy.
But this past Tuesday afternoon, when The Sun called to talk about his former boss, the man who never has time for a lunch break called back in five minutes.
“Anything for David Skorton,” Hogan explained by way of greeting.
His words capture the general sentiment at UI, where Skorton has made his mark in the last 26 years as academic, administrator and most recently, as university president from 2003 to 2006.
On, Skorton has 3,463 friends from UI. His wall overflows with page after page of goodbyes.
One senior says a simple thanks: “I really appreciate what you have done for me over the years.”
“Take care, and I hope you fit right in at Cornell,” offers another student. Then he changes his mind: “Wait…on second thought, I hope you don’t, and you are forced to return to Iowa (where you belong!).”
And of course his friends reminisce: “P. Skor…So many good memories at your place…Don’t forget Iowa OK?”
Amir Arbisser, a practicing physician in Iowa, described his longtime friend as someone who “generates intense loyalty among the troops.”
The loyalty was necessary. During his presidency at UI, Skorton encountered several major challenges: campus vandalism by animal rights activists; a heated contract fight between the university’s hospitals and its insurance provider; a tornado that swept through Iowa City and left dozens of students without homes; and constant pressure to trim an already slim budget, exacerbated by state funding rollbacks.
Animal Rights
In Nov. 2004, animal rights activists broke into research offices and laboratories at UI. Their actions — which included soaking documents in acid, wrecking computers and lab equipment, and releasing hundreds of mice and rats — racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and displaced hundreds of students who had classes in the buildings, according to The Daily Iowan.
In the polarized debate that followed — a debate that went all the way to Congress — Skorton was careful to give consideration to both sides. In Senate hearings the lone academic denounced the criminal conduct of those who had vandalized UI property, but at the same time, continued to support activists’ rights to protest and call attention to the mistreatment of animals.
There is a “whole area of constructive discussion” in which “reasonable people can disagree,” he told the Senate, according to a May 2005 Inside Higher Ed. article.
He was true to his words; a few months after the break-in, he approved a student group request to have Steven Best, an extreme advocate for animal liberation who supported property destruction as a valid tactic, deliver a talk on campus.
Insurance Fight
More contentious than animal rights, however, was a prolonged, seven-month fight between UI’s hospitals and its largest private insurance provider, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Skorton announced in Jan. 2005 that the university was terminating its contract with Wellmark to negotiate a new agreement, which called for $39 million more in reimbursements to cover unique services, such as prisoner care.
Wellmark saw no reason to make a special case for UI hospitals. Tensions mounted when two Board of Regents members involved in the negotiation resigned because of their affiliations with the insurance company; one was the Wellmark CEO.
The final contract, signed in late June, increased UI’s reimbursements by five percent, the same rate that all other hospitals working with the company received.
The Challenge From Nature
This past April, the president had to handle a crisis of another type. A tornado swept through Iowa City and wrecked a sorority house, as well as several other residences around the university.
“This [tornado] hit about 8:30 in the evening,” recalled Robert Downer, an attorney in the city and a good friend of Skorton’s. “Immediately when [Skorton] heard about it, he went into those areas that were hit the greatest extent. He got over university officials involved in the process of finding housing for these students.”
He also invited some students to live with him, said UI senior John Henineman.
Downer, who has known Skorton for more than 15 years, said his friend’s leadership that night was something he would always remember.
Budget Crisis
In addition to other challenges, UI witnessed a sharp drop in state funding over the last decade. Two years before Skorton became president, UI’s General Education Fund received $255.8 million from state appropriations; by 2005, that amount had plunged to $220.1 million. At the same time, inflation, energy costs, unioned salaries and other expenses continued to rise.
Everyone had to tighten their belt, Arbisser said. Departments across the board had to reduce costs, and the consequences were visible in things like larger class sizes, reduced library hours and longer waiting lists for popular courses. Faculty members left for higher-paying institutions.
To combat UI’s eroding quality, Skorton created a task force to divert $12 million from UIowa’s General Education Fund towards faculty salaries, which ranked near the bottom among peer institutions, and towards the creation of new programs. At the same time, tuition rates, which were also extremely low compared to those at similar institutions, were hiked up.
Now, three years later, Skorton has moved on to a new institution. But many at UI will have a hard time forgetting him.
“I’ve worked with a lot of presidents – you remember them as presidents,” Hogan said. But “I have memories of [Skorton] that are also quite personal.”
Indeed, the picture that emerges from The Sun’s conversations with his friends, colleagues and students is of a president who made time for his students, a scientist who cultivated a passion for the arts, an accomplished musician who hosted his own radio show and a community leader who forged links between the city and the university.
But perhaps former hospital colleague Dr. Richard LeBlond put it best: “[David is] not a university president; he’s not a doctor; he’s not a jazz musician. He’s David Skorton.”