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But Can He Walk the Walk?

Back in January, when the Board of Trustees first announced the appointment of David Skorton as the 12th president of Cornell University, I had a rather… skeptical… response to the news. I was concerned that a growing university commitment to the life sciences would crowd out other endeavors, and that the University’s research mission would begin to eclipse its focus on undergraduate education. I also expressed my disappointment in the fact that the public face of our very diverse university would be yet another white man.

But since then, Skorton has been able to appease my fears greatly. He’s repeatedly insisted that the University must continue to stress the arts and the humanities, and he has made allusions to the need to position Cornell as more of a force of economic development in Upstate New York. Moreover, he has demonstrated a zealous willingness to interact with undergraduates – most explicitly in the announcement that he will live on North Campus during the first week of classes, while pledging to deal with issues regarding diversity and racial inclusion. And, most importantly, he has appeared as a thoughtful and publicly minded leader that will work to ‘shepherd’ and not ‘coerce’ the University community.

The Ithaca Journal has posted a transcript of its interview with Skorton, where Skorton is able to speak out on many of his views. Although I would suggest reading it in full, here are a couple of highlights…

On the land-grant mission of the University

This being a land grant, the public mission is very, very important. Now take all three of those so-called classic missions of education, discovery and service, whether it’s land grant or otherwise, and think about the situation in our cities, rural areas of the country, including New York state, in poverty and international situations, racial tensions in the United States, on campuses, tensions between groups around the world. What better institution in society to talk about those things?

On diversity, transparency, and communication

I will focus on undergraduate education, diversity — I think we still have a lot of problems in dealing with diversity in a positive, forward-looking way. I think the international focus of the university is very important and particularly thinking about higher education as a diplomatic tool in the world.

An ongoing clearinghouse of communication is always paramount, always. On a specific issue — for example, the apparently racially motivated stabbing, the racially related stabbing, that occurred here, and all the concern around the country about what happened at Cornell and about what’s happening on other campuses — that’s an issue that needs to be dealt with squarely, whether people are comfortable or uncomfortable. We need to deal with the perception of tension and the reality of difficult things, unfortunate things like that incident occurring.

And if past behavior is a predictor of future behavior, you’ll probably see me making a very significant, visible effort to involve people at least in knowing what’s going on behind the scenes as much as humanly possible.

On the importance of the non-sciences

I am concerned and I have been for a decade that the country and educational institutions don’t forget about the humanities, social sciences and the arts — especially humanities and the arts, where public funding is very, very much less than it used to be at a time when we need humanistic thinking, social science thinking, I believe, more than ever because of social problems and because of ethical issues and because of the need for that creativity at a time of stress in society. So you’ll probably hear me more vocal on those issues, even though I know that both Jeff Lehman and certainly Hunter Rawlings, who’s a humanist, and Frank Rhodes were all very strongly supportive of those. You may hear me talk about it more, a little bit more than you’re heard recently.

On the importance of the capital campaign and alumni

Te capital campaign is big issue. Nowadays there’s no difference between public and private universities in how much we depend on the generosity of alumni and friends to do things differently. If there’s any different twist that I’ll put on it — probably there won’t be a hugely different twist — it’ll just be that as much as we need the alumni’s monetary contributions, of course we do, I also want their ideas and criticism. (ed. note – Ideas and criticism from alumni will always be found right here at MetaEzra.com)

Wherever I go to speak to an alumni group anywhere in the world, I will be asking them directly, personally to comment on decisions we’re making and to let us know what their concerns are and what they think could be done differently. It doesn’t mean that everyone can be responded to in a positive way, it doesn’t mean that every suggestion will be carried out. But I do think that idea of shared governance and self-determination by people affected needs to involve alumni, who are the people with always one foot in the university and one foot outside the university.

On the job of a president
And so my job, really, is to sound the depths of the university, find out the strengths and the dreams and do everything I can to support people’s aspirations.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on July 12, 2006 (#)

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