February 10, 2011

A Year After Suicides, Skorton Defends Application Numbers, Discusses Progress of Bridge Barriers

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With early admissions applications to the University down this year and regular decision applications stagnant, President David Skorton sat down with The Sun on Friday to weigh in on these and other issues affecting the campus community, including rising tuition and the upcoming anniversary of last spring’s suicide cluster.

The Sun: Early admissions applications decreased this year. Regular decisions increased this year, but by less than one percent — a pretty small [increase] compared to our peer institutions, since they saw between five and 20-percent increases. So, demand for Cornell was lower than it has been in previous years.

President David Skorton: Oh boy. So, demand for Cornell is still 12 applicants for each spot … It’s absolutely true that the one year increase was less, but I think over the course of five, six, years, since everyone went on the common app, none of the Ivies has increased as much as we have … If next year they’re down or something it might be a trend, but from one year it’s very hard to tell.

The Sun: Did you see a relationship between the high profile nature of last year’s suicides and the decrease of applications to Cornell?

D.S.: I don’t, based on the parents I’ve interacted with — though obviously I haven’t interacted with parents who didn’t apply here. And so not knowing what the denominator is, I don’t know. It’s a fair question. I think that the things I’ve been told, in addition to that, that people thought about it even if they did apply, for sure people thought about this as a hyper-stressful campus as a general category. People talked about how discouraging it is to apply to a place that — the acceptance here had gone in half to something in the teens — that just seems daunting to the point of people not wanting to apply to a place that’s become more and more selective.

And also the price. The price is a big deal. The S.A. asked me about the tuition and there’s obviously this gap between where our threshold for financial aid kicks in on the low side and what families can really afford to pay for a Cornell education — and we’re still not meeting the need.

Those are the things I’ve been hearing about. I guess there’s a fourth one, that the place has a reputation for being very, very rigorous in terms of the demands on the students and undergrads.

The Sun: Those factors do not seem unique to Cornell compared to it’s peer institutions. Do you have any idea why the applications at Cornell [stagnated]?

D.S.: The basic premise I’m not accepting is that we are having some problem with applications. If it’s true that over the last six, seven years we’ve had bigger increases than any other Ivy, then I think one year doesn’t make the argument. If next year they’re really down, we should keep talking about this. But you guys know, it’s one year on a curve. … I think it’s very fair to wonder if the mood about the suicides, as well as the reputation for rigor of the classes, the very high selectivity, were those things that might have affected it? I don’t know.

The Sun: We’re coming up on the one-year mark of last year’s suicides. There are fences on the bridges now, and I’m curious what you think of the progress we’ve made since then, and what you think the next step is.

D.S.: What I say so often, because I say it from the heart, is that students have supplied amazing leadership [and] tenacity at moving things along … I think people are feeling calmer and more connected to each other on this one issue — or people are not thinking about it as much in the front of their minds right now.

Secondly, I feel very comfortable that logical progress is happening on the decision about means restrictions on the bridges themselves, which obviously are just a small piece of this. The Gannet upping of availability of services based on more staff and more hours is moving along at a pace. I asked to greet Gannet staff and they had all staff meeting and allowed me to come. They’re bearing a huge brunt of the one piece of this, which is the therapeutic piece and public health approach they pursue, they’re moving along, in terms of hiring and in terms of extending the availability [of services]. And, finally, there is a student group working on one of these spirit lifting things … I think we’re making decent progress, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that I think about these things and what was going on last year at this time and all the tough stuff we went through. And I think about the students themselves who we lost and I think about the families I interacted with after this happened, and I’ll probably never forget it.

The Sun: What do you think is the next step that needs to be taken?

D.S.: All these things I talked about need to be run to ground. We need to finish the discussion about the bridge [barriers]. We have to continue, forcefully, to garner resources for Gannet so we can keep up with the staggering increase in need for mental health services everywhere. [We] have to continue to follow the students’ lead … and remember what happened, not forget, not let it drift out of our consciousness.

Original Author: Sun Staff