Experience at Cornell U. key to choice of Skorton to head Smithsonian Institution


Smithsonian names David Skorton as its new director. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

To run a vast public enterprise such as the Smithsonian Institution, it helps to have run a vast academic enterprise such as Cornell University.

That is the thinking behind the announcement Monday that David J. Skorton, president of the Ivy League university in upstate New York since 2006, will become secretary of the Smithsonian in 2015.

Cornell, with more than 21,000 students, is a private university intertwined with public missions. It is a land-grant institution, meaning that federal support was crucial to its founding in the 19th century and that it has enduring obligations to promote education and research in New York State.

Its a main campus, in Ithaca, is surrounded by stunning gorges. It also has two medical colleges, one in Manhattan and one in Qatar. And it is partnering with The Technion, an Israeli higher education institution, to develop a campus known as Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

Hunter R. Rawlings III, a former president of Cornell, said that overseeing a university with global reach has provided strong experience for Skorton in his next job. “It’s very good background to have led something as far-flung as Cornell, and as complicated as Cornell,” said Rawlings, who is now president of the Association of American Universities. The Smithsonian, he said, “is itself far-flung and sophisticated.”

Fund-raising is key for any university president. In that respect, Skorton is no slouch. Cornell’s endowment was valued at $4.3 billion when Skorton arrived in Ithaca, ranking the university 18th nationally. Now it stands at about $5.3 billion. The university still ranks 18th, keeping pace with its peers.

Skorton allies said his fund-raising prowess helped Cornell and The Technion win a 2011 competition for the right to develop Roosevelt Island, edging out Stanford University. Skorton lined up a $350 million commitment from Chuck Feeney and the Atlantic Philanthropies to support the venture before it was even approved.

“I think it was instrumental in us winning,” said Daniel Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, which has opened with a small branch in the city as the campus is taking shape.

Will Skorton be leaving behind unsolved problems? No doubt. “Look there’s always new stuff going on that’s ‘unfinished,’” Huttenlocher said, “but I think he’s put the university in a great position for the future.”

Huttenlocher added: “Sometimes you get listeners who dither, or people who act without listening.” Skorton, he said, does neither. “He’s very good at listening and also very good at acting.”

Several of his fans at Cornell note that Skorton shepherded the university through the 2008 financial crisis, which took a heavy toll on higher education in all sectors. He arrived at Cornell amid leadership churn. A predecessor, Jeffrey S. Lehman, had left abruptly after serving as president from 2003 to 2005. Rawlings, who had previously had an eight-year run as president, filled in for a year until Skorton took over.

Skorton contributes to a blog at Forbes and has said he enjoys weighing in on public issues as a university president, while many of his peers these days shy away from controversy. He spoke out about the importance of colleges and universities teaching prisoners, for instance, which Cornell does in New York in partnership with a community college.

“All of us need to stop thinking about education of incarcerated people as some sort of luxury that they don’t deserve,” Skorton told The Washington Post last year. “It’s in their interest, but it’s also in society’s interest.”

“He’s been a very good president,” said Joseph A. Burns, a veteran astronomy and engineering professor who is dean of Cornell’s faculty. “He’s somebody who seems to reach out to large segments of the community, and is well-respected, right down the line from the board of trustees through the faculty to the students and the staff. He seems to have satisfied all of his constituents.”

Burns said Skorton has used various tactics to schmooze with constituents in Ithaca. He is known on occasion to play a bit of flute or saxophone onstage at public events. At the start of the school year, Burns said, Skorton and his wife typically will live for several days in a dormitory to mingle with new students. Skorton also has invited Burns, in his position representing faculty, to attend all of his senior staff meetings. That is apparently a rarity. “I am the only academic, besides David, in the room,” Burns said.

To succeed as a university president, Burns said, “you’ve got to be a very good spokesman for your ideas. He does that. He’s also willing to defend unpopular positions.” Burns cited an example: After student and faculty groups recently called on the university to divest from fossil-fuel stocks, Skorton told faculty: “We’re not going there.” The president stood by financial officials who worried about possible damage to Cornell’s endowment.

Skorton is a cardiologist, which comes in handy as president of a university with such extensive medical ventures. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology and a medical doctorate from Northwestern University.

As a young man, Skorton apparently tried to become a professional jazz player. “And that was not the career for him,” said Tommy Bruce, who was Skorton’s vice president for communications at Cornell until late last year. “Funny but true. And then he went into medicine.”

Bruce, now senior vice president for public affairs at Dartmouth College, said Skorton at one point worked in his father’s shoe store to pay his way through school. “He can tell you everything about shoes,” Bruce said.

Bruce added this: “Skorton is the kind of guy who will bring harmony to a fractious room. He has this uncanny ability to make sure that everybody’s heard and the group can move forward. I watched him do this time and again. He has the ability to help people see their part in a common project.”

This is a certainty: There will be plenty of fractious rooms waiting for him in Washington.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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