April 18, 2008

Skorton Considers Legacy

Print More

Last night, President Skorton gave his hypothetical last lecture in the Last Lecture series organized by the Cornell Mortar Board Honor Society. His speech followed a long line of professors asked to give a lecture as if it were their last.
Skorton chose to impart some “last-minute” wisdom in the form of three main messages: the importance of humanity and humanitarianism, the tiny differences that separate the powerful from the powerless and the nonlinear, unpredictabile nature of life. He used his life experiences, from his time as an undergraduate to his career as a cardiologist to his current administrative post, in order to demonstrate the three lessons.
The first lesson was based on his past as a physician when he contributed to medical breakthroughs for young adults and adolescents with heart defects while working with patients to treat them.
“Working with these patients and their families taught me the value of humility, that no matter how much I learned about the diagnostic process, no matter how hard I tried, I would lose many of my patients, and I did. I [also] learned the importance of listening, of hearing the hopes and fears of patients and their families, to find a way forward together,” he said.[img_assist|nid=29992|title=Final thoughts|desc=David Skorton gives his “Last Lecture” in HEC Auditorium yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
He also recalled the many times that a “reversal of expectation” would occur.
“I saw physicians become the patient, physician friends of mine who woke up one morning with an issue, a problem, a symptom, that turned out to be a lethal disease that would change that person’s life. I knew patients of physicians who themselves had become ill, but the patients, having gone through a definitive surgical procedure, now had an outlook that would go on years or decades. We must all remember that especially coming from a powerful privileged place, like any research university but especially an Ivy League university, how small changes in life circumstances can render us less than powerful. We must remember our inextricable linkage with those who appear to be powerless but have the same right,” he said.
These first two lessons helped him demonstrate his last: the “nonlinearity” of his own life, where an entry into the administrative realm as president of a university was completely unforeseen.
“I never would have expected to be in a career in administration or leadership or management,” he said. “It happened quite by mistake. I was in a division of general internal medicine, and the chief of the division decided to move onto a different life calling. The director of that area of that university cast about to see if someone would be willing in the interim to take leadership of this position and asked me to do it.”
He even offered anecdotes of his inexperience in leadership, let alone a medical department or university.
“When I was in the band, I was the follower not the leader. I was the one who was frequently told, ‘Come on squirt, let’s hit that f-sharp, not f.’ But I found the skills I have learned as a human, as a physician, and as a scientist, were enormously well-suited to administration.”
Among the primary skills he recounted were the art of listening and the enabling consensus to be formed among a individuals in a group. He ended the lecture with a vignette of how his Cornell experience combines all the messages he wished to convey as he described how a student approached him one day wanting to talk about his column in The Sun. Skorton, expecting praise, instead learned that he took too long to “get to the point.”
“I learned two lessons from that experience: one, get my point out earlier in the column and two, what an amazing and immense joy and privilege it is to be in an institution where you and I can learn to trust each other enough to tell the president that his column sucked.”
After his speech during the question and answer session, Skorton fielded questions ranging from the philosophies of leadership and happiness to the more concrete ideas about issues student leaders on campus should tackle next.
The Mortar Board hosted the Last Lectures series in the past and featured faculty members like Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, and Prof. Paul Chirik, chemistry. This year, however, the organization decided to host the event semiannually in the interest of the students who came to the lectures.
“We want to give students the opportunity to hear professors and other people in any department,” said Sonia Borker ’09, vice president of the Mortar Board. “We’re normally very localized in each college. I think it’s one of the opportunities that every Cornellian should have, to hear someone speak about a relevant topic. The point is to get people within the Cornell community to start having meaningful conversation.”
Overall, the audience seemed to enjoy the general messages communicated by Skorton, laughing at his anecdotes and taking in the more serious tenets he had to offer.
”I enjoyed it very much,” said Edward Tsoy ’75, who was visiting the campus with his son for Cornell Days. “I didn’t know much about President Skorton since he’s relatively new. Since my son’s going to be coming here, I kind of have a renewed interest in what happens here. This opportunity to hear the president talk just fell into my lap; he just happened to be talking during Cornell Days.”