October 28, 2008

Skorton Promises Job Safety to University Staff

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President David J. Skorton gave his annual address to staff yesterday at Barton Hall. The speech came in the middle of the Energy Fair, whose organizers took a lunch break while University personnel gathered to hear Skorton discuss the state of the University and how staff will be affected by the recent economic crisis. The address was sponsored by the Employee Assembly, an elected body that represents Cornell staff.
Kicking off the staff meeting was Brian Cornell, chair of the Employee Assembly, who welcomed the audience and introduced Mary George Opperman, vice president of human resources. Opperman discussed her personal concerns over how staff and the University will fare amidst the financial turmoil.
She then introduced Skorton, who started his speech with some crowd-pleasing news — the winter vacation for staff now lasts an extra day, until January 3.
Getting to the core of his address, Skorton spoke to the concerns over the dire national economic situation and the University’s future. Citing last year’s accolade by the American Association of Retired People, which named Cornell the number one employer for people over 50, Skorton emphasized that the University would continue to be an “employer of choice,” despite job losses across the nation. Skorton cited some statistics that “keep me up at night,” including last month’s national loss of 159,000 jobs.
“The main message … is that we will not retreat from our commitment to being an employer of choice,” said Skorton. “It’s the human capital that makes us what we are.”
Skorton also explained that the financial situation of the University is stable, and although there may be a dearth of state funds, the University remains safe from the fate of myriad other employers.
“We are not in a severe financial crisis on this campus, but … the environment is changing,” Skorton said. “We’re going to remain committed to aggressively recruiting faculty and staff … We will look creatively and aggressively for ways to function more efficiently.”Surrounded by the various booths and displays of the Energy Fair, Skorton took the opportunity to explain Cornell’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, and encouraged staff to “learn what Cornell is doing here.”
“There’s a very strong cadre of faculty who are interested and active in sustainability,” Skorton said. He cited his signing of the President’s Climate Commitment in Feb. 2007. The document is an initiative by presidents of numerous American universities to achieve climate neutrality. Though exactly how the University will maintain a sustainable campus is unclear, Skorton explained that an official climate action plan is being prepared and will be finished by next September.
After finishing his speech, Skorton took questions from the staff. During the question-and-answer session, Skorton encouraged the staff to give feedback to the administration.
Skorton also cited the University’s diverse forms of revenue, including tuition, state funds and alumni, as safeguards against financial dissolution.
“Maintaining a positive morale is incredibly important,” Skorton said. “We’re in much better shape than institutions that don’t have these streams of revenue.”
Following Skorton’s interaction with the staff audience, Lynette Chappell-Williams, director of the Office Workforce Diversity Equity and Life Quality, was presented with the Employee Assembly Appreciation Award. Chappell-Williams was surprised by the award. She said she attributes the recognition to her “continuing to push for progress that benefits our employees, particularly in benefiting our work-life needs.”
Concluding the ceremony, Skorton and Opperman were presented with fruit and wine gift baskets from the University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.
Skorton was well-received by the staff, who noted his openness to their ideas and suggestions.
“Ever since he’s come here, he has really connected with the staff, faculty and students,” said George Taber, assistant to the director of community relations. “People really respect him … and he’s very conscious of the interaction with the surrounding neighborhoods.”
In a time of increasing ambiguity about the future of jobs and resources, the address was integral to keeping staff reassured and up-to-date, according to Brian Cornell, chair of the Employee Assembly.
“I thought it was very beneficial to the Cornell community to shed some light on the unknown economic situation at Cornell,” said Cornell. “There’s many of us who are unsure of what the future will bring.”