David J. Skorton
Having served as president of both the University of Iowa (2002-2006) and Cornell University (2006-present), David J. Skorton is one of the nation’s premier educational administrators. Unlike most universities, Cornell University is funded both publically and privately, giving the university its unique “hybrid” status. The Imagineer chatted with with President Skorton and Thomas W. Bruce, Vice President for University Communications, about the present and future of the American education system.
Conducted by Alexander D. Farris
Imagineer: You have been associated with many universities all over the United States, including some of the most prestigious institutions in the entire world. Looking at the American education system as a whole now though, from kindergarten to graduate school, do you feel that the majority of American students are sometimes being educated more than they need to be? For example, in Germany, where I am currently studying, they have a graduated system where the less academically gifted students go to more vocationally oriented schools at an early age. Should the U.S. consider this graduated system or any other major variations?
Skorton: The beauty of the American system is that there is a huge range of options in terms of the amount of post-secondary education and the specific orientation. Right after high school in the United States, you could go to a community college. There you could get a certificate, or you could get an associate's degree. It could be vocationally oriented, i.e. in one of the trades, or it could be a stepping-stone to a baccalaureate education. If you wanted to immediately seek a bachelor’s degree, even then the range is quite broad. You could go to a liberal arts college with the focus on a liberal education, or you could go to a research university with a different kind of focus. It is true that different people’s lives and aspirations will point them in different directions in terms of how much education and what kind they need, but there is a broad range in the United States. Even though I am at a research university, it is far from the only option in the United States.
Skorton: Well, there is a lot of debate about that in the United States. Certainly the intention of the secondary school system throughout the U.S. is to prepare students for a variety of options upon graduating. Some will wish to enter the work force immediately after high school, some will want to go onto post-secondary education, and some may want to work for a while and then pursue post-secondary education. I think you’re asking a very important question that is at the center of a lot of debate in our country. I believe that most of the post-secondary options in our country are dependent on learning skills in the secondary school system. I think that, in general, students graduate with learning skills. The question that is raised a lot is whether specific areas of focus are pursued enough. There is a lot of debate, for example, on whether we emphasize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics type preparation enough. I am one who believes we should have more rigorous emphasis on mathematics in the secondary school system, because so many walks of life now demand comfort with mathematics.
Bruce: In most of the best schools in the country, the students are very well prepared. The question with the debate occurs as to whether that is true for the overall system.
Imagineer: Cornell is unique as it is a “hybrid” institution, harboring characteristics of both a public and private institution. Given your experience not only at Cornell but also as president at the University of Iowa, a completely public university, how much more control does the educational institution have when it does not have to rely on the government for fiscal sustenance? Have your decisions and actions as an administrator ever been dictated by members of government?
Skorton: Never dictated in my twenty years of being an administrator; swayed: absolutely. That is the way that the system ought to work, though. The people who have the fiduciary responsibility for the university ought to have the ability to interact with me and my senior colleagues, to persuade us, and to push us in certain directions. I have felt quite autonomous. I will tell you, I certainly feel there is autonomy at Cornell University.
Bruce: When it comes to a question of curriculum, that is truly in the hands of the faculty.
Imagineer: What matters can be swayed by members of government?
Skorton: In most fiduciary organizations for universities, whether they are public or private, the board of governors or trustees have the final responsibility to approve many things; for example: the level of tuition or the issuing of debt to run the university and complete certain projects. The decision on who gets into the university, what the admissions criteria are, what the curriculum is, what the criteria are to finish the curriculum, and those kind of things are almost always left in the hands of the faculty. I think it’s a good balance. I think that the students and their families, who are sometimes paying very substantial tuition, deserve another pair of eyes looking at that to ensure that the money is being spent in a careful fashion and that tuition is high enough to support what needs to be supported but not higher. So, those are the sort of experiences that I have had. I think there is a good give and take. Have there been some circumstances where we have disagreed and have had to come to some meeting of the minds? Sure, absolutely. But in general, I have not felt that there has been any sort of inappropriate power plays by the board.
Imagineer: As part of the Ivy League, Cornell not only offers the highest quality education, but it also has a relatively high level of tuition. What makes institutions like Cornell and its peer institutions worth paying the extra money?
Skorton: The experience of going to different kinds of institutions of higher education—whatever type it is: community college, public university, private university, liberal arts, research—varies enormously. I think, depending on the student’s needs and aspirations, different colleges fit each individual student better or worse than other ones. The element that makes the expensive private universities of higher quality to some individuals is the use that is made of those resources. In other words, if you look at the U.S. News and World Report rankings, for example, you have to get down a couple of dozen universities until you find the first public university; usually it’s the University of California, Berkeley. What does that mean? Is the education definitely better at the number one school than at the number thirty school? No, I don’t think so. It depends on the individual student. In general, these additional resources at the universities—substantial tuitions in addition to philanthropy from alumni—are used to build up capabilities that students and their families see as a high value prospect.
To go one step further, you could ask why people apply to these schools—the Ivies, MIT, Stanford, Washington University in St. Louis, or Northwestern. Some of it is because of the status of the education and the networking that will occur from knowing alumni. Some has to do with the quality of the institution, and some of that quality has to do with the additional resources that are at the disposal of the faculty. I think that the people who lead large educational institutions have a special responsibility to the students to make sure that they are getting extraordinary value for the the extraordinary cost they pay in tuition.
Remember that most students do not pay the so-called “sticker price” that you will find if you go on a website. At Cornell, for example, almost seventy percent of students get some sort of financial aid. You have to actually figure out what the net cost of education is. It is still high—no arguments about that—but it is important to understand that these schools tend to have very robust financial aid systems. For example, at Cornell, families that have a family income at or below the median family income for the U.S., about $60,000, do not have to take debt and have no parental contribution. So, it is a little more complex than just the price that is listed if you look for the raw tuition.
Imagineer: Just as any industry must evolve and revolutionize, so too must the education system. What are you doing at Cornell to help drive and trailblaze that future as president of such an esteemed university?
Skorton: We are reexamining Cornell University. The term we use is “reimagining.” With input from faculty, students, staff, outside consultants, our board, and alumni; we have an effort to look at those things you are asking about: What have been recent trends? What’s the environment like? What is the budget of the university likely to look like? What can we do to be the highest quality university we can going forward, assuming that resources are not infinite, but that they are finite and a bit constrained for the foreseeable future? What we are trying to do is be in a planning mode where we talk with each other on campus and listen to those who have been here like alumni and management experts. We try to do the best job we can of conceptualizing how to do things in a better, up-to-date way.
A great example, not because he is with us now but because he is actually out there doing this, is Vice President Bruce developing a plan long before the economic downturn for how the communications system should work. He has initiated a drive toward a more paperless environment. One major university publication that gets about one hundred thousand online readers is mostly not being printed now. It is set up in a mode where you can print it if you would like, but it is all accessible online. Communications initiatives that he has also done have allowed us to be in touch with alumni around the country by having online conversations. That is just one example. It is not curriculum; it is not research, but it is an example of how being in a planning mode allows us to do things in a new and more thoughtful way. We are working hard toward a better future here at Cornell.
Imagineer: We appreciate your time and thoughtful answers. Thank you!
Skorton: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Goodbye.