October 25, 2011

Skorton, University Assembly Discuss Leadership

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President David Skorton defended his handling of the University administration at a meeting of the University Assembly on Tuesday, saying that he has always strived for transparency when making administrative decisions.

The meeting was an opportunity for members of the assembly to question Skorton on pressing campus issues. Skorton appears before the assembly once a semester.

Skorton highlighted many of his decisions in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as evidence of his leadership style, including his decision to shrink the size of the upper levels of the administration.

“When the recession hit, I made a few decisions that I’m very proud of … that caused other things to happen through sort of a ripple effect,” he said. The steps taken by Skorton after the financial crisis began included reducing the scope of the provost’s office and a nearly 10 percent reduction in the size of the University’s staff.

Skorton spent much of the discussion describing his leadership style. An important goal, he said, was to ensure that students, faculty and staff were involved in discussions about administrative decisions that affect them. Skorton also emphasized the importance of delegating some functions to lower administrative levels.

“I think there are some areas of decision-making in the University that are devolved to the faculty,” he said. “Administrators like me … who grew up in this system of old traditions, will fight to the death to make sure that the content of courses, admissions decisions, those kind of things, are faculty-centered.”

Some members of the assembly expressed concern about a perceived fear within the Cornell community about students, faculty and staff making light of campus issues.

“There definitely is a trepidation about bringing things up … no one wants to be the squeaky wheel,” said Jim Blair, director of administration for the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center.

Skorton responded by saying he sought feedback from a wide range of the Cornell community and is more transparent than previous University administrations.

“When I first came here, I gave everyone my personal email. I’ve told students, faculty, staff, parents and alumni that they can email me,” he said. Still, Skorton promised to work on improving the campus atmosphere.

After Skorton left the meeting, assembly members praised Skorton’s emphasis on openness and transparency.

“David Skorton has done a tremendous amount to change [the campus atmosphere] from [president emeritus Prof.] Hunter Rawlings III’s authoritarianism and fear,” said Prof. Emeritus Howard Howland, neurobiology and behavior.

Other assembly members commented that taking questions before a committee such as the Undergraduate Assembly was a sharp departure from past University presidents.

Original Author: David Marten