March 24, 2014

HENRY | Working With Us

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Last week, I (like all Cornellians) heard the news that President Skorton is departing to lead the Smithsonian Institution. The outpouring of congratulations started almost instantaneously and definitely precipitated a pang of nostalgia for us departing seniors.

I think it’s safe to say that people really like President Skorton — I certainly do. His affable personality and many talents have served him and this community well through a turbulent decade. But as I considered his departure, and the changing role of the university president nationwide, I realized that there’s a lot we — and hopefully the Board of Trustees — can take away as we move into a new chapter.

President Skorton has certainly amassed quite a laundry list of accomplishments here. He oversaw the application process and — most recently — the signing of the lease for our new NYC Tech Campus. In the words of a founding member of Cornell’s DREAM Team, President Skorton played a key role in making Cornell one of the friendliest universities in the country for undocumented students. He pioneered the launch of MOOCs at Cornell. He completed the means restriction response to a devastating spate of suicides on campus. He has also oversaw record-breaking fundraising, enabling the University to commit to a host of future programs.

Some of his choices have also angered people. He signed, along with former University President Hunter R. Rawlings, a letter from the Association of American Universities strongly opposing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions (and generated plenty of student responses). He has repeatedly rejected calls for divestment from student groups and the Faculty and Student Assemblies. His administration has made controversial edits to the University calendar in spite of widespread student opposition.

Some of his most sweeping initiatives — his anti-hazing campaign, as one example — are not yet complete and face serious hurdles. As he departs for Washington in a few years, he will leave the seeds of culture-shifting ideas still fresh for the next President and turnover administration to develop.

This turnover issue isn’t unusual, though. The American Council on Education’s most recent comprehensive study of American institutions of higher education revealed that average length of service of university presidents has decreased to seven years in 2011 from 8.5 in 2006. This decrease raises questions about how responsible presidents can be for creating and initiating the realization of their own large-scale, institutional visions. When faculty employment outlasts presidency tenure by a factor of three or four and students last half of that same tenure, their voices become increasingly important to the debate about institutional direction.

Friends of mine who have spoken with University administrators recently have mention their emphasis on President Skorton’s willingness to discuss changes with people. In the past, University presidents have been less open to student involvement in University policy decisions. Still, however, there are instances when student opinion is largely bypassed regarding issues that most directly affect them. Facilitating opportunities for even more conversation may not be the problem, given how available President Skorton has made himself. But there will need to be a culture shift towards encouraging more student feedback, and the administration could have a powerful role in making that a reality.

In the vein of the University’s aim, I read a column by Rebecca John last week where she wrote, “institutions like Cornell are not the scenic havens of knowledge and learning that we might imagine.” Her description, in reference to an overall conversation about the material impacts of the University’s refusal to boycott Israeli academic institutions, made me think. It occurred to me that I don’t imagine that Cornell is a haven of any kind. I don’t want it to be.

Rather, the University’s obligation, to me, is to create a forum for learning and exchange of ideas. Its obligation is to talk about things — ideas, policies, books. This column isn’t about Rebecca’s piece. But that one sentence got me thinking about what it is that we should be trying to get out of future University presidents in making Cornell the best forum for exchange of ideas as it can be. President Skorton has not neglected this responsibility, but a cultural focus on allowing student opinion to actually influence, rather than just exist, would be an excellent normative project for a new president.

Cornell hasn’t created a haven for me, or a bubble. I haven’t been shielded from very real (and sometimes very harmful) decisions that big institutions of all types make every day. President Skorton is always down to talk, and when people don’t solicit him he still writes his Sun column and volunteers more information than for which he’s asked.

Our next president needs to do this and more. As university presidencies get shorter and shorter, student and faculty vision will increasingly need to influence long-term projects to ensure correlation with real university population needs. Hopefully the search committee is willing to factor this into their search.