Cornell Turns to Iowa (Again) for a President

David Skorton says he hopes to emphasize undergraduate education and uniting university's campuses and programs.
January 23, 2006

Cornell University announced on Saturday that David J. Skorton would be its next president.

Skorton is currently president of the University of Iowa, where he has been a popular leader on the campus and a highly successful fund raiser off it. He has won praise in a long administrative career at Iowa and from Cornell's search committee for the breadth of his interests and his ability to see how the different parts of a university relate. Skorton is a medical scientist by training (his expertise is in cardiology and biomedical engineering), but he has pushed hard for the humanities and arts at Iowa. He has worked as a jazz musician, continues to study flute and saxophone, and hosts a jazz radio show in Iowa City.

At Iowa he has placed an emphasis on connecting with undergraduates -- notably creating a profile for himself on Facebook, and using the popular Web site as a way to stay in touch with his hundreds of undergraduate Facebook friends. In an interview Sunday, he said that he wanted to continue efforts at Cornell to improve the undergraduate experience and said that he realized that there were particular challenges to undergraduate education at a research university. He also said that there were significant benefits -- and that he believed that a president could improve them "if the undergraduates can help me understand."

Skorton also said that there was an "explicit" desire by Cornell's board to have him play a role unifying the university's programs and campuses. Cornell is based in Ithaca, has a medical school in New York City with a branch in Qatar, and has research facilities and academic programs all over the world. Skorton said that he would try to "understand the different cultures of disciplines and programs," but also promote a sense of collaboration. He will hold faculty appointments both at Cornell's engineering college and medical school.

The appointment of Skorton comes seven months after the sudden and unexpected departure of Jeffrey S. Lehman as president of Cornell, after only two years in office. Both Lehman and leaders of Cornell's board have been largely silent on what caused his split with the board. That silence has led to many complaints from faculty members, who have said that they need to know more about the issues involved -- although both Lehman and trustees have suggested that there were not clashes on key policy matters.

Skorton said that he has "great respect" for Lehman, specifically citing the way the former president sought the views of students, professors and alumni in setting his agenda, and his interest in international education. And he said that he thought he would "build on that momentum." But he said that he didn't think it made sense to focus on the split or to talk much about it. Skorton said that he found trustees "very open" and that he believed he was off to a "hugely positive" relationship with his new board.

Much of the campus speculation about Lehman's departure focused on the role of his wife, Kathy A. Okun, who had been a senior fund raising official at the University of Michigan before moving to Ithaca when Lehman was named president. Okun had an office in the administration building, attended numerous administrative meetings, and was seen as a key policy adviser to Lehman. The vagueness of her role rankled many, although she also had many fans on the campus. Because previous presidents' wives at Cornell had played more traditional roles, some of Lehman and Okun's supporters (and others) feared that Lehman's departure with debate about his wife's role would make it hard for the university to attract a president with a spouse with a successful career.

Skorton's selection may well put those fears to rest. He is married to Robin Davisson, an associate professor of anatomy, cell biology and radiation oncology at Iowa. Davisson -- whose research has won grants from the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association -- will move her lab to Cornell and hold faculty positions in Cornell's veterinary school in Ithaca and medical school. Skorton said that he doesn't like to speak for his wife, but that she has said that the model she will use in Ithaca is similar to that she used in Iowa City -- working as a full-time academic and also supporting various projects that relate to the "first lady" role.

Those roles at Iowa have included fund raising, organizing block parties for students and setting up literary readings.

One issue on which Skorton and Davisson worked together at Iowa was international education. They traveled to Malaysia and Indonesia last year to meet with scientists and university presidents. In an article in The Wall Street Journal when they returned, they wrote of their concern over the skepticism they found about American universities' intentions in Asia. "Some thought we were there to 'set up shop' in their country, to siphon local funds into the American educational enterprise or to attract their students to the U.S., perhaps never to return to enrich the local economy," they wrote. As a result, they wrote, it is essential that American universities promote "authentically bilateral exchange."

Returning to the United States, they wrote, they experienced "unusual scrutiny" going through security and they wondered what that experience would be like for a foreign student. "Imagine how a young Islamic college student on her first trip to the U.S. must feel when pulled aside for an even closer inspection of her baggage or person."

Respect for others' views is a Skorton hallmark, according to many who know him. In May, that quality was evident when he testified before a U.S. Senate committee about animal rights groups. Skorton strongly condemned an attack on laboratories at Iowa as illegal and unethical, and described the losses in detail. But noting that he is a vegetarian who thinks that there are legitimate issues raised by some animal rights groups, he objected when some lawmakers tried to classify the animal rights movement as terroristic and he insisted that it was appropriate for universities to have people talk about animal rights on campus.

On Sunday, he said of his general approach to issues, "I have a hard time with black and white on issues on which reasonable people can disagree." In the case of animal rights, he said that the use of violence "would never be acceptable." But just because some animal rights supporters engage in such tactics doesn't mean campuses should be closed to others, he said. "If the university isn't going to be the market place for ideas, where is that place going to be?" he said.

The University of Iowa may increasingly be seen as a market place for -- among other things -- university presidents. Skorton's three immediate predecessors left for the top jobs at the University of Michigan (Mary Sue Coleman), Cornell (Hunter R. Rawlings III, who preceded Lehman and has been back in Cornell's president's office since Lehman left) and Dartmouth College (James O. Freedman). In 2003, Texas Tech University hired Jon Whitmore, then Iowa's provost, as president.

Is there something in the water in Iowa City? Skorton said that Iowa's political leaders and regents have been strong supporters of higher education, even in tight fiscal times. More broadly, he said that Iowa, like other Big 10 institutions, is a large university with the complications that come from having a medical center as part of the university.

Ann Die Hasselmo, managing director of Academic Search Consultation Service (which was not involved in the Cornell search), said she believes the explanation isn't so much the institution that sent out the talent as it is the individuals themselves. "Success predicts success," she said, and the various Iowa presidents were attractive for what they had done.

Bill Hines, a law professor at Iowa, said he thought that it was interesting to see the success the Iowa presidents had experienced even though none of them had prior presidencies and only Coleman had been a provost previously (and only for a short time). "I think we've caught people who were rising at the time they came to the job at Iowa," he said.

Asked if they had been good presidents, Hines noted that he had served as law dean from 1976 to 2004. "You don't serve as dean that long unless you have outstanding presidents," he said.


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