David Skorton, Cornell University’s highly regarded president, is to lead the Smithsonian


David Skorton is the new director of the Smithsonian. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

President Skorton sounded too fussy. Mr. Skorton sounded too formal. David sounded too familiar.

But they needed some way to refer to him, these employees who became friends. Some way to transmit that he was the boss, but kind of their buddy, but really the boss, but really their buddy. They settled on “The David.”

The David is the guy who wants so badly for you to like him, the one who starts meetings with a joke.

The David is the guy who listens to what you want but gets what he wants.

The David is the guy who is always, always, always going to make The Ask.

In eight years as president of Cornell University, David Skorton — who was named last week to head the Smithsonian Institution — has floated purposefully between two worlds, two realms of perception: the lofty and the lowly.

He is the $5 billion man, a fundraising juggernaut who jets to London to woo a mega-mogul to give money for Cornell’s new tech campus. He is the college president who bunks in the dorms at the beginning of each academic year and shivers outside in pajamas with the freshmen during fire drills.

Skorton’s eclecticism is vast and ever-evolving. Yes, as was repeated over and over during his Smithsonian rollout, he is the cardiologist who plays the jazz flute. But the 64-year-old college president is also the beekeeper, the tae kwon do black belt (“I won this by breaking things that don’t hit back,” he says, holding up a trophy), the dog enthusiast (Newfoundlands), the budding short-distance triathlete, the hobby gear-head and, above all, the master salesman.

He sharpened his skills of persuasion as a child in the Los Angeles shoe store owned by his Belarusan immigrant father, Sam. Dad imposed two inviolable rules, Skorton says during a chat in his sleek and glisteningly white Euro-cool office at Cornell. The first, Skorton recalls: “Don’t try to push something on the customer that they don’t want.” The second: “Nobody walks out of here without buying a pair of shoes.”

Back then, Skorton says, he wondered aloud, “How do you reconcile that?”

His father responded: “You go figure that out!”

Since arriving at Cornell in 2006, after a three-year stint as president of the University of Iowa, few have been able to walk away from Skorton without writing a check or — and this tendency could get interesting once he arrives in Washington — hearing his political views. Several years back, Gen. David Petraeus — then head of the U.S. Central Command — visited Cornell for an ROTC ceremony. Uniformed cadets stood at attention as Petraeus and Skorton strode past to review them.

Cornell University Police Chief Kathy Zoner noticed Skorton’s lips moving.

“He was saying, ‘I want to know what you’re going to do about this Don’t ask, Don’t tell thing,’ ” Zoner recalls.

Skorton, who wears black, thick-framed glasses, crops his hair his close and is quick to smile, chuckles when asked about buttonholing Petraeus. “He was very gracious,” Skorton says. Then Skorton launches into an explanation of his position. “Sexual orientation should have nothing to do with one’s access to anything in our society,” he says.

Skorton has spoken in favor of the Dream Act, a proposed law that would grant legal residency to undocumented migrants’ children who were brought to the United States as minors and complete college courses or serve in the military.

He has advocated gun-control measures to prevent weapons from being taken onto college campuses. He chose to publicly discuss those topics, he says, because they are relevant to education. And he doesn’t think he’ll stop talking about controversial topics once he takes over at the Smithsonian in July 2015.

“I want to be a public voice if it’s relevant to the institution,” he says. “But you won’t hear me intoning on things I don’t know anything about.”

On the political spectrum, he says, “Everybody says they’re a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, but I really am.”

The 2008-09 U.S. financial crisis tested Skorton’s fiscal skills, and those perilous days provide some insights into how he might manage the sprawling and perpetually financially challenged Smithsonian. Cornell donors were fleeing. The university’s endowment, some of which was invested in risky interest-rate swaps, was being pummeled and losing value.

Skorton took a gutsy step, first laying out the university’s financial troubles to the board of trustees at a meeting in January 2009 and then doing what he does best: making The Ask. Instead of decimating the budget, he wanted the trustees’ blessing to make more investments. He wanted to increase financial aid and issue new debt.

“I’ll never forget that meeting,” says Joanne DeStefano, Cornell’s chief financial officer. “They were concerned, and there wasa lot of discussion.”

Yet they went for it. Skorton, as usual, got what he wanted. But it didn’t come without pain. He cut more than 9 percent of the university’s non-faculty staff through early retirements and layoffs, prompting tearful farewells at this picturesque Upstate New York campus. Deans grumbled about across-the-board 5 percent cuts to their budgets and raids on their reserves, but they also basked in a new sense of personal prestige because Skorton invited them to attend board meetings from which they’d previously been excluded.

The full effect of Skorton’s approach may not be completely clear for years to come. He increased the university’s debt and for several years presided over big budget deficits needed to pay operating expenses, but recently the university’s finances have stabilized and DeStefano says the campus, which has a $3.6 billion annual budget, is now essentially breaking even. Skorton attracted more low-income students by sweetening financial aid deals but has also administered tuition increases — following a national trend that Professor Joseph Burns, dean of faculty, says is “unsustainable.”

Skorton’s grandest legacy at Cornell will rise in his absence now that he’s moving south: Cornell Tech, an applied sciences graduate school that he secured for his university after a spirited competition with Stanford. It is expected to open in 2017.

Skorton’s selection to head the Smithsonian was one of those rare Washington secrets that actually remained a secret. His wife, Robin Davisson — a molecular physiology professor at Cornell — and her close friend, Gina Giambattista, wouldn’t even type the word S-m-i-t-h-s-o-n-i-a-n in messages to each other, Giambattista says. They took to texting each other with an emoji — one of those cutesy symbols that come on many cellphones — of a castle, a nod to the Smithsonian’s famed castle building.

Skorton has given few hints about his plans for the Smithsonian and its $1.3 billion annual budget. Asked whether he favored maintaining free admissions to the Smithsonian’s museums, he says, “It’s too early for me to be pinned down on specific questions.”

But he stopped short of saying the free-admissions policy was untouchable. “I’m not aware of any aspect of the nonprofit or for-profit world that doesn’t have to take another look at their business models.”

Throughout Cornell’s roller-coaster financial dramas, Skorton has managed to remain remarkably popular with students, a function — in great part — of the extraordinary access he affords them. In his welcoming remarks to each new class, Skorton gives out his e-mail address, and he encourages students to visit him during regular office hours.

“Even though he doesn’t agree with us, he’s been willing to work with us,” says Sarah Balik, a 20-year-old junior animal science major from New Rochelle, N.Y., who has tried without success to persuade Skorton to divest university investments in fossil-fuel companies. “He’s very calm and genuine.” Skorton has told students that divestment would hurt the school’s fragile finances and imperil aid programs, says Balik, the student assembly vice president and president-elect.

In 2010, Skorton angered many African American students and faculty by supporting a decision by university Provost Kent Fuchs to fold the once-autonomous Africana Studies and Research Center into the College of Arts and Sciences. Critics viewed the move as clumsy and insensitive to the history of the center, which was formed in the late 1960s amid a wave of racial tensions and demonstrations. “None of the ethnic minority programs at Cornell — none of these things — came about because the university benevolently bestowed them; they came out of strife,” says Ulysses Smith, a 23-year-old senior from Jacksonville, Fla., who is president of the student assembly. “It just seemed to undercut a lot of history.”

Skorton appeared at a public meeting to address protesters, and “that was the first time I’d seen people actually yelling at him, cutting him off,” Smith says. Skorton didn’t change the decision, but critics left the meeting feeling, at least, that they’d been heard. “Ever since then, I think he’s been more conscious of history,” says Smith.

Also in 2010, three students apparently committed suicide within a month by jumping off bridges into the deep gorges that cut through campus. In crisis mode, Skorton ordered temporary fencing installed, a decision that was “very unpopular” with many faculty, staff, students and residents of the city of Ithaca, which borders the campus, says Susan Murphy, Cornell’s vice president for student and academic services. Skorton listened to countless complaints but stuck with the decision. The fencing has now been replaced with netting suspended below the bridges, a multimillion-dollar project that once again led to complaints — about the cost and the aesthetics — but that Murphy and other supporters say is vital to discouraging jumpers.

Time and again, staff and students say, they’ve seen Skorton defuse what might have been tense conversations, either through humor or verbal detours or self-effacement.

John Carberry, now Cornell’s media relations director, was the opinion page editor at the Ithaca Journal when Skorton was hired to run the university. Before Skorton’s first visit to the newspaper, the staff was primed to pepper him with tough questions. That didn’t last long once he arrived at the office. “Pretty quickly it went from, ‘We’re going to kick this guy’s butt’ to ‘What a nice guy,’ ’’ Carberry recalls. “We ended up talking about dogs.”

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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