September 8, 2006

C.U. Celebrates New Prez

Print More

“What is dance? A series of motions and steps, usually performed to music. To move rhythmically usually to music, using prescribed or improvised steps and gestures. But beyond literal meanings, what are dances?” asked President David J. Skorton to the 5,000 people who witnessed his inauguration yesterday afternoon in the Arts Quad.
Using the idea of dance as a unifying motif, Skorton’s inaugural address was titled “Dance: An Inaugural Offering to Cornell University.”
“Among all the other inquiry, discovery and creativity in our universe, there is dance, there is music, there is the seed of public culture that transcends the immediate, the routine, that of which we claim to be so sure but from which we are in truth quite disconnected,” he said.
Skorton also used the idea of dance to bridge the gap between the humanities and sciences at Cornell, an issue that has drawn growing concern from the University community in recent days. Some Cornellians have expressed concerns that Skorton’s medical background might lead to overemphasis of the sciences at the expense of the University’s humanities programs.
“Beyond the science, or perhaps underpinning it in ways not yet clear, are the movements and rhythm of the poem, the calligraphic journey, the dance …” he said. “These rhythms, too, are part of our Cornell.”
The address also emphasized the idea of optimism as a central, guiding principle of the University.
“Each application by a high school student, each grant application, each fresh, untouched canvas, each blank sheet of music paper, each empty computer screen, each dollar of philanthropic support, each course syllabus — is an act of great and profound optimism,” he said. “This is, above all, our chief motivator and work product: optimism.”
He further described the role of the president as that of “the chief, most reliably optimistic functionary,” as well as a “translator and transducer of the faculty’s aspirations and vision, of the staff’s commitment and creativity,” and “of the student’s unceasing and wonderful questioning.”
Skorton used the speech to underscore the important role that the faculty plays in the University.
“Make no mistake, the faculty dance is hugely improvisational, not to be constrained, not to be managed, but to be respected, nurtured, supported and set free,” he said. “For it is the unpredictability of discovery and creativity that defines Cornell and that will continue to do so, generation after generation.”
Former presidents Dale R. Corson, Frank H. T. Rhodes, Hunter R. Rawlings III and Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, were all in attendance for the ceremony, and Skorton quoted each of them, expressing his desire to “ensure the continuity” of their past visions.
The announcement of the new “Jeffrey Sean Lehman Fund for Scholarly Exchange with China” drew extended applause from the crowd. Skorton described it as a “faculty and graduate student exchange program” that will fund projects between C.U. and educational institutions in China.
As for his own vision for the University, Skorton asked for help from the community in “conceiving and notating the choreography” of his administration. He outlined five goals that would be his priorities in office.
First, he described the need to “continue and accelerate the transformation of the undergraduate experience at Cornell.” Skorton highlighted the North and West Campus residential initiatives as plans that were “clearly in the right direction,” but went on to ask what “specific steps” were needed to be taken to integrate undergraduate education with the University’s research focus, and to “further improve” diversity within the student body.
Skorton’s second goal was the optimization of “the environment for our staff.” He described the staff’s role as “critical” to the University’s foundation, and emphasized the need to improve the “campus climate” for them.
The third goal Skorton mentioned was the unification of C.U.’s geographically separated locations into “in essence, one campus.” He said that “interdisciplinarity” was one of the favored paths, and highlighted the need to more closely integrate all of the University’s operations world-wide.
“Many … examples might be drawn,” he said. “Are we putting up or tolerating needless administrative barriers to integration of the campuses? Is a Cornell student an enrollee of a comprehensive university of a single college? Do our policies and procedures support or inhibit the potential to bring Cornell’s many and various strengths together for an even more distinguished future?”
Skorton’s fourth goal spoke to the need for equal emphasis towards the arts, humanities and social sciences.
“If there was ever an institution that continually strives to offer ‘any person … any study,’ it is Cornell, and [its] offerings … must include and emphasize not only the sciences, but the arts, humanities, and social sciences,” he said. “These disciplines need greater visibility at the highest levels of the University and, as in all other areas of our institution, they need focus and support.”
The final goal mentioned was finding new ways to “positively impact the world” outside of the University. Mentions of the University’s Aug. 21 announcement that it would divest its resources away from oil companies that invest in Sudan, the first major policy decision under Skorton’s administration, drew hearty applause from the crowd.
“But,” he added, “divestment is not enough. Provost Martin and I are pursuing other avenues where Cornell can be a positive force in [Darfur] and other troubled parts of the world.”
The ceremony went well beyond the University’s expected ending time of 4:30 p.m., breaking up at around 5:45 p.m. instead. Attendees were able to enjoy the day’s pleasant weather; instead of problems with rain and cold, heat and humidity were the only meteorological concerns experienced.
Delegates from over 100 universities and groups from across the world participated in the ceremony, marching in the opening precession from Ho Plaza to the stage in front of the Ezra Cornell statue on the Arts Quad.
Aside from Skorton’s, several speeches were made during the ceremony. Peter C. Meinig ’62, chair of the Board of Trustees, spoke briefly and also performed the investiture ceremony in which Skorton was presented with the University charter, seal, and mace, and formally took office.
Antonio Gotto, Jr., provost for medical affairs and dean of the Weill Cornell Medical College, also spoke about Skorton’s character and “commitment to interdisciplinary learning, … national and international in scope.”
Provost Biddy Martin also attested to the character of the new president, as well as warned against the “suspicious voices of dissent” that she said were “making academic discussion seem like the enemy” in Western society, which drew applause from the crowd.
One of the most well received speakers of the afternoon was Prof. David M. Feldshuh, theater arts, who was the official inaugural speaker. Feldshuh, who has an interesting background in both theater arts and medical education, spoke energetically and dynamically about the nature of the University. He described Cornell as “the ultimate creative community” with a “legendary scope of interests” and said that its “penchant for questioning makes [it] a scrappy place.”
Feldshuh also pointed out love of the University, as with any love, did not necessarily mean a smooth ride; instead, he said, love entailed many “bumps and bruises.”
After the ceremony broke up, a reception was held on the Arts Quad, during which Cornell Dairy unveiled its inaugural “Banana-Berry Skorton” ice cream flavor. Other local vendors were on scene providing free food samplings to all the attendees.
“We must set our collective vision such that there will never be a boundary to where our imagination may wander, nor artificial limits to what we might accomplish,” Skorton concluded in his address. “One alone, a dyad, more, many, a society of dancers are we.”