David Skorton - President of Cornell University
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Today is September 21st, 2009 and we’re here with President David Skorton. Thank you for joining us. The listeners to eClips are always interested in a little bit about the person’s background. So, the place I want to start is really – you have such varied pathway and I’m wondering what influences in your family have, in your early life, gave you the confidence to take the turns that you’ve taken in your career?
I wish I could portray my different background as some an interesting plan or it was somewhat of a tumbleweed effect to some extent, but I think the story begins with my dad and his family in Western Russia, in what is now Belarus. And my dad and the family moved to United States – actually, during the influenza pandemic, interestingly – and he had quite an interesting life. And the family decided to come to the United States because it was viewed economically and socially as the promised land and still is in many parts of the world, the developing world and developed world. And so, he came to the United States and for economic reasons wasn’t able to go beyond high school, not even sure he finished high school, but his dream for me was that I would have a more stable, predictable life than he had and he, even though he had no experience nor did anybody else in the family with higher education, he believed that the key to that more predictable future was higher education. I was a budding musician. Obviously, not very good because I wouldn’t be with you and the eClips audience today, but my dad insisted that I at least go to college and see what it was like. And so, higher education changed my life and it was my dad and the family’s burning desire to improve a lot of their children and their children’s children by coming to America and to access the American dream. It sounds so corny these days to talk about the American dream, but I’m an example of that dream being realized, so really, a lot of it started with my dad.
One of the things that I wanted to ask you, it’s such an -- I’m sure that you are running into parents who are stressed out over their children and you yourself had a son that just got out of school and got a job. What advice would you give to students and others who are thinking now about shaping their lives in what they see is a very turbulent time?
One of the challenging things about being a president at Cornell University is its large size and I believe that contact between the president and the undergraduates, graduates and professional students is really critical, so I try to stay in touch with the undergraduate students whatever ways I can. We have office hours for undergrads periodically. We -- my wife and I stay in the freshman dorm for orientation week each year. We stay in one of the west campus dorms in the spring and I tell you all that just to let you know that I have a surprising amount of contact with students. In my monthly column in The Daily Sun, I try to respond to what the students are knocking on my door about, so to speak, and beginning about a year ago when we began as a country to peel the onion on this recession, students began to tell me how concerned they were about their economic futures, so I wrote a column – I can’t remember exactly when it was, about a year ago – with some advice especially for the then seniors. And this advice came partly from just thinking about the common sense in the common sense way, partly from talking to my own son who was going through the very same thing at the very same time and partly by listening to these students. When I was living in the freshman dorm for, the freshmen were concerned about whether they were going to get a job four years hence. So, the first thing I advised the students and the parents is that they should stick with and finish a college education because in my family, it was not a given that anybody would start in college or finish in college, so I let them know that it is important to finish college and to get a four-year degree and usually, that’s not a big discussion to convince someone at a place Cornell but still, I think it’s important especially when the families are straining to pay the tuition and to deal with the cost of going to Cornell.
Secondly, I tell the students a little tiny bit about my funny nonlinear career and let them know that it’s not only unlikely that they will stay with the very same thing their whole career but likely that they will go through multiple iterations of careers as many of us have, and as the statistics show. So, if that’s true, I say to them why not think broadly about what you want to get out of a Cornell education and in addition, not instead of but in addition to education that could, of course, lead to work, to think broadly about liberal education, which I think is one of the pillars of Cornell for the 144 years, is to learn to think critically, learn to have contact with disciplines other than one zone and that can only help you anywhere from a job interview or if you were a bit more worldly and a bit more communicative. It will only help in an interview all the way to changes that may have to occur because of the economy. I advised them to think about the nonprofit world. If they can’t not – can’t get a dream job, think about helping in the nonprofit world. I’m so proud of Cornell students for being so engaged in applying to teach for America Peace Corps and many, many other public engagement endeavors and there’s nothing wrong with taking a year or two to work in the nonprofit world. I think it only increases one’s ability to eventually get a job, if you can’t go right down the path to begin with. I advised them to look into the Cornell Career Center and I learned, when doing my research, that almost half of the students in the prior senior year who got jobs, which was almost everybody, almost half of them got their jobs through the Career Center, which I was very surprised about. And finally, I reassured them that there were two other things to remember. One was entrepreneurship and secondly, was the wonderful network of Cornell alumni in virtually every field of endeavor. And I’ll give you this one example. One student who wanted to go into the real state business asked me, “Was there something out there that the alumni could do for him?” And our real estate network has 1,400 active alumni networking with each other and helping graduates of Cornell to get placed. And may I just add one more thing? It’s not only rising seniors who are worried about jobs. It’s Cornell alumni who had been out in 10, and, 20 and 30 years, and we’re actually putting more and more efforts through alumni affairs into getting Cornell alumni from the 80’s and 90’s connected with other alumni who can help them reconsider their lives after the company they worked for has downsized, perhaps a company that they are in charged of has not made it through this terrible recession, and so that advice, of course, is different but the commonality is to think about Cornell alumni.
Yeah. It’s a great, great idea. To your earlier point, sometimes I think those of us in – graduated in the 70’s had a little bit less anxiety over this like linear path. I think that it’s great that you’re encouraging them to think more broadly. You mentioned entrepreneurship and I want to make a shift in that direction and I wonder, when you think about the word entrepreneur, I’m always curious to see what that – what comes to mind for people when they think about that word. What does that word mean to you?
In spending a lot of time in the musical world especially when I was younger, I think about the musical definition of entrepreneur is someone who is In charge of music organization, but most of us think about an entrepreneur as someone who starts a business, starts something new. I think about it more broadly than either of those definitions. I think about an entrepreneur as someone willing to take a risk and do something different than it has been done before, so to me, that means that not only as someone who starts a business that’s never quite been conceived of before – a service, a product – not only is that person an entrepreneur but you are an entrepreneur. The faculty at Cornell who think about (pedagog) differently than it’s been done before. Every faculty member at every university who writes a research grant to a federal institution and knows that the odds of getting funding are 1 in 5, 1 in 10, 1 in 20 is taking a risk in doing something different. So, I think of entrepreneurship as an attitude, a willingness to take risk and think differently about things. And we have this clichés like think outside the box and every cliché, of course. has a kernel of truth and accuracy, which is why we say it so much. And the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met not only thought about that in their business for which we are celebrating – for example in the entrepreneur of the year celebration each year – but they have that attitude about things in general. They are not put off by trying to solve a problem that hasn’t necessarily been solved before. They’re not put off by trying something differently. They are not afraid to try and fail and, therefore, they often try and succeed.
That broader definition is very appealing especially in our university-wide Entrepreneurship Program focus, and I wonder for you, personally and your entrepreneurial mindset, did that play a role in some of the choices, the changes that you made in your career?
It’s a good question. Did entrepreneurship have something to do with changes I made in my career? I wish I could say yes but I don’t think so. I don’t so unless we broaden that definition of entrepreneurship to include not being exactly sure of what you want to do and so choosing something. I wish it was more courageous and focused but I certainly have been at that latter stage. I certainly believe the broader definition of entrepreneurship somehow fits in a way that may not be initially obvious with my medical and research careers in the past because to do research, especially to get the financial support for research, one has to be entrepreneurial. To solve or attempt to solve or dream about solving problems whether in painting or poetry or molecular biology or physics, one has to believe in one’s ability innately to find a new way around an obstacle, and so perhaps in that way, I might have (even) some entrepreneurial qualities.
This entrepreneurial nature of research and entrepreneurship in an academic setting is always so interesting to me because I think there’s a natural tension between the academic researcher who doesn’t want to have any boundaries around inquiry, right? And then -- but the push to make sure things don’t just sit on the bench or on a shelf and actually get moved to the real world and I’m wondering how does the university balance that? How can the university benefit from commercialization and in what ways do you think it needs to be cautious?
Well, the question of how this university and if I could broaden that, universities in general, how we the sweet spot between allowing faculty to do what they want and study something for the sake of learning about it, which is where the best research comes from. That on the one hand, the tension with the desire of society to cash in on the enormous expenditures made especially for science; that’s a healthy tension and I’ll be glad you to tell that I don’t think I have ever found the right balance in 30 years working in higher education and 11 years overseeing research part business incubator of patent office and being president for almost seven years now between two universities. It’s very hard to find the right balance. Most faculty, in most of what they do, will not come up with ideas that merit commercialization and that’s nothing to be apologetic about. That’s the beauty of letting a thousand flowers bloom by hiring good faculty who think entrepreneurially in a broader sense, but there are two subsets that we have to take care of. One is the subset of faculty who really want to commercialize something either because they found an idea and it’s obvious that it would have application in the broader world or because they found in discussion with someone else that, that someone else – a business person, an entrepreneur, another faculty member – has said, “That idea is a pretty good idea.” That’s one whole set. The other whole set of things that will emerge that could be commercializable are things that are sitting in our portfolio of protected intellectual property that maybe we don’t know enough about the business world to know that something is really a good idea. Certainly, often in my career, I have thought something was a terrific idea only to find out the business world did not agree with me but it can also happen in the reverse. There can be something that is just not obvious, and so the university has to accurately portray this balance and accurately take a part in the stance where on the one hand, we need to not pressure faculty to try to commercialize or try to orient their research toward commercialization because, in fact, it rarely works. If you look at some of the great discoveries that have changed our lives and the broader lives of citizens around the world and you go backwards through the nonlinear iterative path of discovery, they often are based on something that I, at least, would not have ever had a line of sight forward to see that final product or service. So, I think it’s very important not to pressure faculty. On the other hand, it’s important to show success stories and I think faculty-to-faculty communication is the most effective way to get faculty to think differently. Believe it or not, and I know this is going to be very hard for viewers of eClips to believe, but emails or memos from the president are not the most effective way of getting faculty to rethink things. Faculty-to-faculty communication, peer communication, success stories -- well, I know so-and-so and she had a good idea, made a disclosure and a patent was applied for and a patent was received, and a license was granted to Company X or I know someone and had an interesting idea and he thought it was so interesting, he started his own company and they’re making it. And so, I think that that peer-to-peer communication is really important.
In watching commercialization happen, what do you think are some of the major barriers that university is faced?
There’re multiple barriers to commercialization. The first one is just imagining that something can be commercialized and -- I guess ever since John Lennon, I use the word imagine too much – but I think just having the confidence to think that something could be a broader interest; that’s one. Another obstacle is the imperfect mechanisms we have to connect the business world and a higher education world. Imperfect mechanisms. Now, eClips is a terrific mechanism for doing that. There’s other mechanisms that you and other colleagues in the entrepreneurship at Cornell do but I hope you would agree that we’re imperfect in our linkages of these two sometimes very different world. A more nitty-gritty focused problem in New York State is the apparent lack of success at accessing venture capital, especially early stage venture capital. I had the great honor of chairing a task force for the Governor of New York on the diversification of our state economy based on industry, higher education partnerships and I think part of the reason I got this great opportunity is that I’m currently the chair of a national organization called the Business Higher Education Forum and I work a lot with business leaders. And here’s a statistic that the viewers of this video may find interesting and these numbers are approximate, but a couple of years ago when these data were compiled, universities and other research laboratories in the State of New York brought in about 4-1/2 – excuse me -- about $4 billion of research funding and research expenditures, $4 billion in a year. That was the second biggest state performance in United States after California at about 6.5. So, think of that ratio; 4 billion in New York, 6.5 in California. But of all the venture capital nationally, California researchers and California businesses accessed 47% of the venture capital nationally and New York State 4%; 4%. So we’re missing the boat. We are missing the boat as researchers. Some venture capitalists – Angel Funders, Seed Funders – are missing the boat on technology created in New York and think about the institutions in New York State from Buffalo to Sloan-Kettering, from Upstate Medical Center to Rockefeller, not to mention Cornell, Columbia, NYU, Stony Brook, Rochester, Syracuse all of these fabulous universities and we’re getting 4% of the venture capital. So, we’ve heard that again and again and again. I’ve decided to have public hearings on this task force. We had the first one at the University of Rochester Medical Center last week and we have one coming up in New York City on October 9. And, of course, we hear a lot helpful things but the most common two things that we hear are the two things I told you about. Imperfect mechanisms for somehow connecting in networking business and higher education especially researchers; and secondly, lack of venture money especially at early stage.
I’m curious if they also -- I don’t know if this is number three, but do they – have they mentioned lack of management talent at all or their ability to access the leaders -- the business leaders that could take these things forward?
Yes, for sure.
DSk: And thank you for pointing that out; that I see that as a subset of the imperfect mechanisms for linking business --
-- and higher ed –
Yeah, you’re right. Yes.
It is true that in that subset -- among the subsets of that problem are the business folks learning about the great portfolios of research and intellectual property. The university and other researchers not accessing not only venture capital but not accessing management expertise, CEOs and also, not accessing expertise in financial management of a cash poor company. How to use debt, how to access debt -- all of those things, to my way of thinking, are part of this imperfect mechanisms of bringing people together.
You had been really supportive of the entrepreneurship at Cornell our university-wide Entrepreneurship Program here, if you look out over the landscape of higher ed, what do you think is unique about entrepreneurship at Cornell?
Entrepreneurship at Cornell, in my experience, is absolutely unique. Now, perhaps there are other models somewhere I’m not aware of but let’s say in the models that I have run into for a few different reasons, a few different attributes – one is that it’s so broad across the university. I sometimes lose track but I think there is eight or nine colleges involved in entrepreneurship at Cornell. And the leaders in those colleges and the researchers in those colleges and the professors in those colleges, therefore, have a terrific opportunity to interact broadly. It’s not just putting one administrative officer in one college because all of us have to think entrepreneurially in the broader sense that we’ve been talking about. That’s one thing. Secondly, the many ways that the entrepreneurship at Cornell crew celebrate entrepreneurship and bring successful alumni and successful entrepreneurs back into the family to share their stories, share their failure, share their successes and get the juices going in the next generation of entrepreneurs whether that generation are sophomores, juniors, seniors, freshmen in college, whether it’s graduate students, whether it’s professional students, whether it’s post-docs or whether it’s faculty, new or seasoned. And I love the Entrepreneurship – Annual Entrepreneur of the Year celebration. I love being able to call up the person and tell him or her that they’ve been selected. It’s a terrific honor. I love listening to their words of wisdom but I have to admit, what I like the best is the banquet, the celebration, not just because of the good cheer and because of the very, very positive feelings but because people come out of the woodwork to go to that banquet. We seem to never be able to fit it in whatever room we choose to put it in, and the talk around those tables – I wander around restlessly during the dinner and I just try to catch a glimpse, a sound of what’s going on. And they’re not only catching up on each other, they’re talking about entrepreneurship. They’re not talking about it as some an abstract concept. They’re talking about how they live it. I love that aspect of it. And then finally, as I travel around the country and even around the world keeping Cornell alumni connected to the Alma Mater, I’m able to go to some of the Cornell Entrepreneur Network, CEN events around the country and those are terrific, terrific microcosms of this huge annual banquet and celebration, several day-long celebration.
Excellent. Thank you. I want to shift gears a little bit. From entrepreneurship-, obviously, related topic to leadership but -- and I’ve had more than 500 people sitting across from me talking about their entrepreneurial ventures and almost always, it seems to be -- come down to the fact that they might have a good idea but it’s not really about that. It’s about the execution of the idea. And I wonder what the parallels are for that in higher education?
Very interesting. A very interesting question. Is it the idea or is it the execution of that idea? Of course, both are really important but I would have to say with no false humility, that seldom do leaders in higher education come up with really truly brand new ideas that have never been thought of before. Sometimes they do. I’m not saying that others don’t just because perhaps I haven’t, but I think that it is somewhat execution and let me broaden, let me explore execution just for a moment. Leadership and higher education has to really be an inverted paramedic. It can’t be that I’m sitting up on Mount Olympus in Day Hall and that the faculty, staff and students are coming on bended knee to receive my wisdom. I see the -- I genuinely see the pyramid is upside down and I am gaining knowledge of what all of those 30,000 people are doing -- the students, and the staff and the faculty in trying to discern patterns and feeding those patterns back and saying if I’m hearing and perceiving and ascertaining these patterns correctly; that is if I have a good feel for what you are thinking, for what you are doing, for to what you are inspiring, here are some ways where together we can execute and get there. And those decisions about how to execute, once the leader has discerned the patterns, that has to be consultative and more by consensus at the university than in other kinds of organizations. It can never be totally by consensus. At the end of the day, I have to make a lot of decisions and I think what I owe people in an organization is complex and chaotic as the university is a clean differentiation between those decisions I’m going to make where I’m not going to really listen to much to input and there are a few of those. For example, regulatory compliance. We’re not going to talk about if we’re going to do it. We can only talk about some aspects of how. And so, it would be so disingenuous for me to pretend that we’re all going to reason together and link arms in areas where I just know we’re going to have to do certain things. Another example of that unfortunately is balancing the budget in a timer from a budgetarian balance but once again how we do it and at what pace is up for discussion, but those are exceptions. The vast, vast, vast majority of leadership decisions at higher education have to be done based on the only tool that the university president generally wields and that is persuasion. And that persuasion has to be based on two factors. One, did the faculty see me as someone who at least used to be a faculty peer? And secondly, did the faculty believe that I am being open with them and am open to their input; and those are the tools that I believe are most important to wield in higher education.
And just extending that a little bit, you need also, obviously, to cultivate leaders with an academia who are going to help you to do that sort of execute these things in a consultative way when it’s possible and important. And one of the things I always find ironic is as academics, we live a very individualistic lives where we’re really rewarded to be the first author or the only author on our publications and by enlarge, you get here and people say, “Keep your head down. Don’t do interdisciplinary work before you have tenure.” And I always think, “How do you make that miraculous transition from this very individualistic life of writing your thesis as a graduate student and coming into tenure process and then cultivating a leadership mentality where it’s much more about the community?” So, how do you help people make that shift?
This is one of the toughest questions that I struggle with absolutely all the time. I struggle with this every single day. Every single day -- is how to balance the individualistic background that I have and my certainly at sometimes that I really know what’s the right thing because you have to have a certain level of confidence to do any of our jobs with the understanding of two factors. One is I could be screwed up; that’s one. And the second is even if I’m correct, we need to do this together with enthusiasm or at least embracing it together, and so I don’t have a glib answer for that one. I try very, very hard not to think only about the people that are immediately around me. I have an expression I say to myself when I’m thinking about issues in the university. Cornell has 30,000 people – 20,000 students and 10,000 staff and faculty. And I have about 30 people around me who I can go to for a quick advice -- deans, vice presidents, vice provost and various senior administrators. So, I try hard to think beyond the 30 to the 30,000 and the only way to really connect with those 30,000 is to put myself on the line for them to communicate to me, so I give my personal email out everywhere in my columns, in the alumni mag and in the Cornell Daily Sun. My business card has my personal email on it. I asked people to seriously consider telling me if they think we’re going in a wrong direction or no direction or the right direction – wrong direction, no direction or right direction – and people do. I get enormous, enormous help from the email traffic and from people stopping me on campus and at alumni events, on cocktail parties, and so that circuitous answer is to say that I do have to think about people as individuals and by -- once again ascertaining the patterns that I hear from them, I try to come up with some way to pursue the larger groupings of people but I’m ready to do that in a setting where they can quickly feedback. And so I love attending hall meetings. I love open forums because that’s the way where people are courageous enough because of the numbers and encourage enough to speak up if not right there in front of the webcast camera, half hour later in my email. And so, I have found over the years that it’s very important to be out there. The old expression in the old management literature was management by walking around, and I think it’s very, very, very important to do that.One other thing to mention and that is my medical background. The medical experience of the physician is also an isolated experience because at the end of each interaction, the physician, after advise and consulting books and online and so on, has to go back into that patient room and say we’re going to do X or we’re going to Y or sometimes, I don’t know what we’re going to do so we’re going to watch for a while and wait. And that management under conditions of uncertainty – management under conditions of uncertainty is very, very reminiscent in academic leadership to the medical experience and that may sound really wacky but that’s why I found it very comfortable to become a bureaucrat administrator after being a physician because I had to make so many decisions under conditions of uncertainty. I had to make so many decisions with the understanding that they might or might not be the right decision but that no decision was worse.
Yeah. I think actually it’s a really great parallel. It even connects back to what you were saying about sometimes you can do the work with the patient which is get them to exercise and eat well. Sometimes you have to do surgery, which is very, very take-charge environment, so that makes a lot of sense to me. Once of the things I noticed as a faculty member is you have not been at all absent in communicating during this difficult finance period and I wonder – one of the things I notice when I read your communications is there’s always this balance between – we can’t just stop in our tracks. We all need to push forward, but the balance of the reality – this is the reality, what we have to do. And I just – I really like that balance and I wonder how do you decide when and how you’re going to communicate during a time of difficult finance because you have a lot uncertainty and you might say something one day? I imagine it would be easy to postpone the communication until you know everything, but what is behind your thinking when you’re communicating in between?
Knowing when and how and what to communicate during a crisis, or even worse than an acute crisis, during a prolonged period of uncertainty is an art more than a science. I get great good advice here from our Vice President for Communications, Tommy Bruce, from many faculty and staff, the senior people in the organization; but at the end of the day, I depend on two things of my background and they both go in the same direction. One is our family. We had very, very challenging economic times when I was a kid and we just had to put one foot in front of the other, and there was just nothing else, no other way to deal with it. We had a small family shoe store, a discount shoe store in Los Angeles, and my dad worked there. My mom worked there. I worked there and we had one employee, and we just had to get out and do whatever we had to do. The balance the payments, so to speak, was always up for grabs. And then secondly, the medical world where once again, these lonely decisions of a physician, one just has to do the best one can. Keep communicating with the patient and then just somehow push forward. I’ve been advised by some people that you – that one can over-communicate; that people will, of course, interpret whatever you say, whatever one says, not based only on the words but based on how they perceive them like looking at a painting, but I reject that thinking. I think, and especially in a very pluralistic organization like a university, especially in a very uncertain time like a recession and especially when I’m still relatively new to the campus – I’m in my fourth year – and so, it’s different than someone who may have been known by the faculty for 10 or 20 years, it’s important that I’m out there a lot with words, with honest invitations to communicate to me, and the old saw about how listening is the first stage of communication. I absolutely believe that and, once again, I take no credit for that. It’s because it was pounded into my head as a medical student; that the first thing one does is observe. It was pounded into my head as a budding researcher. The first thing one does is observe.
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate it. Let me end with one final question and I wonder if you think back over the four years that you’ve been president. What do you think has taken you most by surprise?
What’s taken me the most by surprise at Cornell is a question I get asked quite a bit by alumni, by our current faculty and staff, and even once in a while by students. Many things have been mildly surprising about Cornell – how comprehensive the excellence is at Cornell, how much even the most distinguished, nationally and internationally recognized faculty, like to teach undergraduates, how talented the staff are, how excellent our employment practices are – but I have to say what’s taken me the most by surprise is how super the students are. Cornell students are hugely competitive to get into a place like Cornell. Last year, as I know you know, in the admissions process that resulted in this year’s freshmen, we got 34,000 applications for 3,200 slots and these students are unbelievable. I have – with Vice President for Student Academic Services, Susan Murphy, I have period office hours. And one day in my first year of doing this, the students came in and there was a young woman who was dressed up as if she was there for a job interview and she – I was waiting for her to tell me she had some concern about something and she handed me a portfolio, and she said, “I’ve started a nonprofit with some of my friends and here’s the perspectives, and we need your institutional and personal support of this nonprofit,” and I started sweating and I thought, “Wow.” And I’ll tell you another quick thing about the students. I was staying in Mary Donlon Hall with my wife – her idea, of course, as many of our good ideas are – to interact with the freshmen during orientation week. And five, six months later, I’m walking across the Arts Quad in the dead of winter and some student stops me and he says, “Hey, do you remember me?” And I said, “Gosh, I really don’t know. I’m sorry.” He says, “You don’t remember me? I met you in a fire drill in the parking lot at Mary Donlon.” And I said, “Gosh, I’m sorry. It must be my age or something. I just don’t remember you.” And he said, “Well, my name is so-and-so,” and he said, “I’ve been reading your columns in The Daily Sun.” This is a freshman. And I said, “That’s great. I’m glad you’re reading. I’m glad people are reading my columns.” Then he said, “Can I tell you something about your columns?” And I said, “Yeah,” waiting for him to lavish me with praise and he said, “You got to get to the point earlier. Students are not going to get to the fourth or fifth paragraph. You got to tell us in the first sentence what it is you’re trying to tell us. We’re listening to things. We’re online. We’re not going to wade through four or five paragraphs,” and I changed. I changed the way I write in those columns because of the student. The Cornell students have been a great, great sense of joy and a great surprise to me.