Update: Cornell President David Skorton has left the university to head the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He is being replaced by Elizabeth Garrett.
Cornell President David Skorton speaks at Google. (Courtesy of Cornell.edu)

David Skorton has been president of Cornell University since July 2006.

Skorton, formerly the president of the University of Iowa, has been instrumental in the expansion of Cornell University, leading a successful campaign to win a new Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

Skorton has also been adamant about his distaste for hazing at Cornell’s many fraternities and sororities, writing a letter to The New York Times on the subject after the death of a Cornell student.

Skorton also guided the university through the recession, pushing forward sometimes controversial cuts to departments and reducing staffing levels.

He is expected to step down as president after the 2014-15 school year to lead the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex.

Click any of the following 9 questions to learn more about Cornell President David Skorton.

1 – Where and when was Skorton born? Where was he educated?
2 – What did Skorton do at University of Iowa?
3 – I remember when a fraternity brother died at Cornell. What did Skorton do in response?
4 – How did Skorton respond to the string of suicides at Cornell?
5 – How did that Cornell tech campus in NYC happen?
6 – How much is Skorton paid?
7 – Why would anyone leave being president of Cornell?
8 – Tell me something cool about Skorton’s personal life
9 – Too many words! Can I just watch Skorton act like Ron Burgundy?

(Did we miss an important issue? If so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com and we’ll get it fixed.)

1 – Where was he born? Where was he educated?

David Skorton was born November 22, 1949, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Skorton received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northwestern University in 1970 before receiving his doctorate four years later. It was after completing his medical residency and fellowship in cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (as well as becoming chief medical resident) that he became an instructor at the University of Iowa.

Skorton celebrating a birthday in 2013. (Courtesy of Cornell.edu’s Jason Koski)
Skorton celebrating a birthday in 2013. (Courtesy of Cornell.edu’s Jason Koski)


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2 – What did Skorton do at U of Iowa?

Skorton held several faculty positions during his 26-years at the University of Iowa that ranged from instructor to vice president for research to, eventually, president — a position that Skorton held between the years of 2003 and 2006. During his time as president, Skorton helped raise over $1 billion.

At the University of Iowa, Skorton was a co-founder and co-director of Iowa’s Adolescent and Adult Congenital Heart Disease Clinic. Skorton also researched congenital heart disease in adolescents and adults, cardiac imaging, and image processing.

(For the dizzying list of Skorton’s publications, click here.)

Somehow along the way, over the course of his career Skorton was also charter president of the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs, Inc., and worked — in different capacities — as part of the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, the Association of American Universities, the Council on Competitiveness, and the Korea America Friendship Society, according to Cornell.edu.

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3 – What did Skorton do about the death of a fraternity brother at Cornell?

Cornell University banned Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a national fraternity, for five years following the alcohol-induced death of a member in 2011.

Skorton met with Cornell students in 2011 to “develop a system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve ‘pledging,’” he wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

In that same article, Skorton wrote that it was “long past time … to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, which has persisted at Cornell, as on college campuses across the country, in violation of state law and university policy.”

In 2012, Skorton approved a variety of new rules for Cornell’s fraternities and sororities.

Those changes will force fraternities and sororities, according to Cornell’s website, to:

“Remove the ‘power differential’ between members and initiates, which often leads to coercive behavior, and construct a model that treats all members, prospective or current, as equals

Transition from a pledge model to a membership development model that focuses on the organization’s core principles and extends through graduation

Secure approval for orientation events, by Cornell and such partners as the national organization, before they occur

Shorten new membership orientation to six weeks in 2012-13 and to four weeks thereafter

Communicate transparently, including online postings, about all infractions

The full list of changes, which include two other phases, can be read about in full here.

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4 – What did Skorton do about the suicides at Cornell?

Cornell was rattled by a string of suicides in 2010. Six deaths that academic year were rules suicides, including three within one month. Ten students died that year, according to a story in The New York Times at the time.

Skorton responded to the suicides in part by authorizing the creation of fences on bridges overlooking the gorge that runs through Cornell’s campus — an action that proved unpopular with some staff, students and faculty.

Ultimately, Cornell opted to replace the fences with the installation of nets below many of the bridges that cross the gorges. That solution was widely viewed as a compromise from the fences, which obstructed views of the gorges.

President Skorton has been adamant about suicide prevention. In a 2010 interview with CBS, Skorton said that “we have to get used to the idea that it’s okay to raise our hand and say ‘I’m struggling’ … There was a part of my life where I had struggles, and I had counseling. And it turned me around and changed my life, and blazed a trail for a successful career for me. So, it’s a very, very important thing to get past that stigma.”

Cornell has increased its budget and staff for mental health services since the deaths, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.

The Sun reported in 2012: “Increased funding from the University, as well as alumni donations, contributed to an $800,000 net increase in Gannett’s budget for counseling and hiring staff last year, according to Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services for Gannett. “

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5 – How did that tech campus in NYC happen?

Pushed forward by President Skorton, Cornell’s bid for a new applied science and technology campus in New York City was accepted by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in December 2011.

Cornell, partnering with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, won the right to build the campus Bloomberg said would be “the most innovative and most entrepreneur-friendly science campus in the world.”

The story generated national press. A story in Crain’s detailed how Cornell beat out the heavily favored Stanford University in the contest:

From the start of the competition, Cornell was viewed as an underdog to mighty Stanford, which is richer and more prestigious in technology and academic circles. The mayor wants to create Silicon Valley 2.0 in New York City, and Stanford had already played a vital role in the growth of the original tech hub on the West Coast.

But Cornell outhustled its West Coast rival. From the get-go, Cornell took aggressive steps to try to close the gap, hiring powerhouse public relations firm BerlinRosen and Suri Kasirer, the highest-grossing lobbyist in the city. Cornell packed a Crain’s luncheon last summer, at which the mayor kicked off the competition, with notable alumni and top-level faculty.

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6 – How much is Skorton paid?

Skorton’s salary has ranked last out of eight Ivy League presidents’ salaries. In 2011, Skorton’s total compensation was $865,331, about $35,000 less than the next-highest paid president, Drew Gilipin Faust of Harvard University.

Of the reported $10,981,777 paid to Ivy League presidents in 2011, Skorton’s salary accounts only for about 8% of that total, with Columbia President Lee Bollinger making the most — a reported $2,327,344, about 21% of the total.

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7 – Why would one leave his or her job as president of Cornell?

Skorton was named in March 2014 to be the new leader of the Smithsonian Institution, which houses museums, research centers, and a zoological park. He plans to step down from his position as president of Cornell after the 2014-15 school year and will relocate with his wife, Cornell Professor Robin Davisson, to Washington, D.C.

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8 – Tell me something cool about Skorton’s personal life

Skorton plays the jazz flute, and even accompanied Billy Joel during a performance of “She’s Already a Woman” at Cornell in late 2011.

He also has a black belt in taekwondo, a belt that Skorton told the Washington Post he won by “breaking things that don’t hit back.”

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9 – Can I watch Skorton act like Ron Burgundy?

Kyle Friend

A senior at Cornell University, Kyle covers the affordable housing crisis for the Ithaca Voice. Reach him through e-mail: kyleafriend@gmail.com.