March 30, 2011

Skorton Defends Decisions on Africana, Bridge Barriers

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Correction appended

President David Skorton sat down with The Sun on Monday to discuss his decision-making regarding Greek life, staff cuts, suicide prevention and the controversial folding of the Africana Center into the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Sun: Do you feel that the relationship between the administration, IFC and Panhel is going to change in the wake of George Desdunes’ ’13 death at SAE?

President David Skorton: I hope not. I’m a big supporter of the Greek system and the aspirations that it has. I think that the Greek system is very prevalent on this campus … and leadership, public service, networking during and after being in Cornell, attachment to a sort of larger community, are all very strong attributes of being in the system — both on the sorority and the fraternity side. So I feel we should be able to deal with a problem that goes beyond the Greek system — which is harmful drinking — which goes beyond the college age group. All you have to do is open a newspaper. I think that it’s important to separate those two things [the Greek system and harmful drinking]: I think its important not to demonize the Greek system, but I think we have an issue that we have to take very seriously.

Sun: With changes to the Greek Recognition Policy last semester, are you satisfied with changes that were made, or do you think something more needs to be done in terms of cracking down on hazing and freshman drinking?

D.S.: Hazing and problem drinking do not necessarily have to go together. Do we have problem drinking outside the Greek system? Yes, sure we do. Hazing is something that is not so much outside the Greek system.

Sun: In regard to the decision-making process leading up to major decisions recently — such as the administrative changes that upset many students because they didn’t feel as if they had a voice in the decision making — so after all the protests, are you planning to make decisions in a different way?

D.S.: The debate has made me think a lot of the decision-making process and people’s perspectives about it. I’m thinking of writing a piece on this. Here are some of the broadest outlines of what I’m thinking: One is that I maintain that people need to remember that most major decisions on campus are not made by the administration … The administration doesn’t try to influence what major you declare or courses you take, so individual student choice, the biggest element of your careers here, is in your hands and in the hands of you and your advisor … Then there’s another level of decisions that’s made by departments or colleges. Are we going to offer a degree in x? It’s done by testing the demand for that degree. You know, checking with students, doing research into what students may want to do, going backwards and seeing how students voted with their feet for their courses and so on and making a decision on whom to hire for a faculty slot. Those things of course have to be done at a level one step higher than the individual faculty. Then there’s some decisions that the deans need to make, with discussion with the faculty, but at the end of the day somebody needs to make a decision. Decisions like consolidating Theoretical and Applied Mechanics into Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering two years ago made people very unhappy in the faculty and in TAM, but at the end of the day, the responsibility of the dean is to make a decision about the number of departments, and that’s a very delicate dance done in faculty and student input …

The question always is ‘Was there sufficient input, and was there the perception of sufficient input?’ … One decision that was widely debated and is still being debated is the Africana decision. I’m not trying to convince you of anything because I’m very comfortable with the decision that was made, but remember the decision made was to leave Africana as an internal organization, the way faculty have it, and leave it in the facility that was developed for it … That was one decision that’s been very controversial and another decision that’s been controversial was deciding to eliminate the Department of Education in CALS, which was a dean’s decision, and that was based on a variety of thinking.

Let’s talk about three or four decisions I made … When the recession hit, and this is really what I was thinking, and we had this gap, a gaping chasm in the budget between expenditures and revenue because of the market going down in value, reduction in philanthropy, state support going down because the state budget was very tight in revenue, I decided not to balance the budget by dramatic increases in tuition … I made that decision to balance the budget on the expenditure reduction side, and we reduced the staff workforce by 9 percent, half by retirement incentives and half by layoffs and atritions. In that context, very few things on this campus are receiving increased funding. I reduced my staff in this office by two people. If you go outside you’ll see an empty desk. I reduced my salary by 10 percent and did not let it go up since. I eliminated two vice presidencies — one had a person in the job — and we’ve changed all kinds of things. There have been only a handful of cases where we’ve decided to put very significant resources — one of them was Africana. It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be concerned about it, but in the context of very much reduced revenues and expenditure reductions, we have decided to go ahead with the Ph.D. program, hire more faculty, and maintain everything else, so I believe the evidence is that there’s going to be more support.

The problem is a problem of credibility and trust, that people who feel that their cause, their concerns, have been marginalized in the past are concerned that they will be marginalized again in the future, despite reassurances, but I can tell you that I and the provost will not allow the CAS to take that allocation, change it, reduce it, so on, we’re guaranteeing a pass-through of those funds for Africana.

A couple of other decisions: I decided to increase student financial aid; it went up 25 to 30 percent at the time of the recession because I knew there would be a lot of families that wouldn’t be able to afford Cornell. It’s because of my background: I’m a first generation college student, a first generation American, and it took me over two decades to pay my loans off. I know what it was like to barely be able to afford a private education. I went to Northwestern, and so I went to the board, and I said even though the endowment is shrinking, I want to take money out of the endowment and devote it for five years. Extraordinary devotion to student financial aid … made everything worse, because on top of the deficit we had anyway, we had to dig ourselves out of another hole of 35 million dollars a year. And I’m glad I did it … There was really no time and no way to raise up a campus consensus on whether we should really increase financial aid, whether we should get through the crisis by having tuition 7-8 percent on the endowed side, whether we should quickly make up for other revenue problems. I was hired to make some decisions about the direction of the university, and the result of my background as the first one in my family to finish college was that I  didn’t want to see people priced out of this college education, so I just made those decisions and I don’t apologize for them and I don’t apologize for the process, but I point out those handful of decisions to say that those are the only decisions I have made. In eight years of being president, five at Cornell and three at University of Iowa, I made these types of decision because I thought they were right.

Sun: In terms of the communication and the timing of those decisions — most recently with the changes to the Africana center, last spring, right before spring break, with the bridge barriers and right before this spring break, with removing recognition of SAE. Those decisions were made right before students left campus for academic breaks. That has been perceived on campus by some as a deliberate move by the administration to quash any effort to react to those decisions immediately. Please address that.

D.S.: Let’s take each one of them in turn. The decision to put the fences up was my decision. I’m a doctor, for 28 years I took care of people your age with inborn heart disease, many of whom had emotional issues related to them and their parents being told from the time they were infants that their kids may not live, may not have normal life, can’t get married, can’t have babies, can’t do whatever. I have a lot of experience in this area … I had done a lot of thinking about means restrictions, and I just decided it couldn’t wait any longer to do it. It had nothing to do with when spring break was or wasn’t, it had to do with other circumstances that were happening. I didn’t ask for campus-wide discussion on that.

I think there are three steps in preventing suicide. One is ID’ing people at risk. Second is making sure those people have access to services, which means in society — in general — having health care reimbursements for mental health services and so on. Here it means staffing Gannet sufficiently and so on. But the third step, which is what happens if someone is not ID’ed or is ID’ed and doesn’t want to accept services because of the stigma … is you’ve got to have a safety net. One of the safety nets we have on campus is that we don’t allow guns on campus. It’s one of the reasons homicides are uncommon on college campuses. Your age, the three commonest causes of death are auto accidents, homicide and suicide. Your age on a college campus, accidents and suicide. You don’t see homicide on campuses because we don’t allow guns. So it’s another kind of means restrictions, so that only had to do with my perception and conclusion that we had a suicide cluster, a suicide contagion, and it had to be stopped. There was nothing more than that.

Africana: The year before I was president, in 2005, there was an external group that came in, an external group that said this reporting relationship was an anomaly. We are the only one of the top Africana programs that does not have the program reporting to an arts and sciences dean. Now there are faculty and students related to Africana who don’t buy what I’m going to tell you, but I believe … that there was no surprise that this was a consideration for the administration. It cannot be a surprise if it was talked about from the year 2005. Now there are assertions that the timing of the announcement was a surprise. I have no idea if that is correct or not, you’ll have to ask the people who say its a surprise, and you’ll have to talk to the provost. But the thing I reject is that all of a sudden this was brought up one  day, and it had never been talked about before. That’s just not correct. … My desire is very sincere to want to be transparent. My overriding desire is to do the right thing. And once again,  just for the sake of saying it again, at the risk of being redundant, I …  reject the idea that there is some particular plan at work here to sneak decisions by. The facts don’t stand up for that.

Correction: A previous version of this story contained several transcription errors. The article previously quoted President David Skorton as saying that 90 percent of Cornell’s support staff have been cut. In fact, as Skorton said, nine percent have been cut. The article also previously stated that Skorton said the University has “decided to cut very significant resources” from the Africana Center. In fact, he said the University decided to “put very significant resources” into Africana. Additionally, Skorton was quoted arguing that Gannett Health Services should ensure that it is “aiding” people at risk and that, in suicide prevention, it is dangerous “if someone is not aided or is aided and doesn’t want to accept services.” In fact, Skorton said that Gannett is “IDing” — as in “identifying” — people at risk and that it is dangerous if someone “is not IDed or is IDed and doesn’t want to accept services.”

Original Author: Sun Staff