September 7, 2006

Skorton’s Lower-Key Inauguration Sets Tone

Print More

Some years ago, Barton Hall was transformed from its normal staid brown into a sensational stage. Red smoke filled the room and dry ice clouds hovered over the thousands who had gathered for the climax of the day’s momentous events. An enormous screen welcomed an astronaut from millions of miles away and flag-bearing students from over 125 countries marched through the room in native attire. Indeed, the installation of Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 as Cornell’s 11th president was a sight to see.
Ezra and Andy’s Big Red Excellent Adventure, the title given to the Vegas-style spectacle, concluded with the Cornell Hockey Team — not known for its choreographed dances — performing a routine to the tune of “Gonna Go Round the Rink” while rollerblading circles around Lehman. The routine closed when Lehman, previously hidden within the circle, emerged wearing a Cornell Hockey jersey as thousands of balloons and streamers dropped from above and the alma mater blasted from speakers.
Lehman’s over-the-top introduction to the Cornell community stood in stark contrast to his shocking, but rather uneventful, resignation. Perhaps this was the moment that signaled the transition from the Lehman years to the Skorton years, even before Skorton had been chosen as Cornell’s next president. Lehman’s abrupt exit undoubtedly rattled some in the community who had just begun adjusting to the new president, and may have lead those on the selection committee to lean toward a more populist candidate who would more quickly bond himself to the Cornell community in Ithaca. If so, they found their man in Skorton.
Today’s inaugural events for Cornell’s 12th president, David J. Skorton, will be remarkably toned down when compared with those of his predecessor. While Lehman began his inauguration celebration with a whirlwind trip to Qatar and New York City, Skorton spent his first weeks at Cornell like every incoming freshman does — in the not-quite-presidential confines of a freshman dormitory. Moreover, Lehman spent the days before his inauguration shaking hands with business and world leaders while Skorton spent time “jamming” on his flute in JAM with students and taking his swim test in Teagle Hall. Is the tremendous disparity between the two inauguration ceremonies simply reflective of different personalities, or does today’s understated inauguration amount to an attempt by Skorton to extend an olive branch to an understandably rattled community?
Even so, for those unfamiliar with Lehman’s outlandish celebration, Skorton’s inauguration will appear to be an impressive event, befitting of a prestigious school like Cornell. Leading academics and musicians are participating, and the student body has been invited to the ceremony on the Arts Quad. However, some subtle differences in this inauguration may be very telling about the type of President Skorton will be. Notice, for example, that most of the speakers in the ceremony come from the Cornell faculty or administration as opposed to Lehman’s inauguration, where Ruth Bader Ginsburg headlined the event, and faculty played a secondary role.
Before Lehman’s inauguration, he had a town hall meeting with Ithaca residents and then held “three distinguished inaugural lectures offered concurrently on campus.” Conversely, Skorton appears eager to keep Cornellians together during his inauguration, offering only three very large public events. While this may have simply been the most logistically feasible schedule, given Skorton’s actions thus far, it would be no surprise if the joint events are meant to symbolize the importance of unity.
Additionally, Skorton chose not to follow Lehman, who spent part of his first week in New York at the medical campus, especially relevant for Skorton who is a practicing cardiologist, and instead chose to remain in Ithaca. Skorton, so far, seems more fixed on Cornell the institution as his first priority, while Lehman spent a considerable portion of his term effectively promoting Cornell around the world. In fact, Lehman was the only Cornell president in history not to deliver his first inaugural address in Ithaca, doing so instead in Doha, Qatar, where he declared that Cornell had “matured into the transnational university of the future.”
In Skorton’s first speech to students during the Aug. 21 convocation, he stressed community, ending his speech by saying: “I urge you, as you move through the wonderful and tremendous life experience that is Cornell, to think about the person next to you, the person across the hall, the person in your class and to help us build an even more caring community.” In this same spirit, it appears that today’s ceremony is meant to be more of a celebration of Cornell than of Skorton himself, a theme consistent with many of his actions so far.
If today’s inauguration is nearly as accurate as Lehman’s was at forecasting the mood and focus of the Skorton presidency, Cornell is in store for a much different style of leadership. Skorton’s campus-centric, faculty-inclusive and community-focused inauguration will no doubt set the tone for his presidency.