Sept. 9, 2008

Skorton addresses diversity, sustainability and free speech in open radio forum

Got a question for Cornell President David Skorton? Getting his view was as easy as showing up at a live radio broadcast in Willard Straight Hall Sept. 7.

On WVBR's Sunday Forum, Skorton took student questions on issues ranging from Cornell's role in the upcoming presidential elections to how the New Student Reading Project book is chosen.

His first appearance on the monthly show, which is co-hosted by Cornell Vice President for University Communications Tommy Bruce and WVBR General Manager Kara Capelli, featured student leaders who had submitted their questions in advance -- as well as time at the end for audience participation.

The discussion began with a question from Nate Shore '12, on whether students can help select the reading project book.

The answer? Sure.

"In general students have not been a major player in choosing the book -- it's more like a professorial assignment like any class you take," Skorton said. But while administrators and faculty will make the final decision, he said, student involvement in the selection process is definitely a possibility. Interested students should contact Michele Moody-Adams, professor of philosophy and vice provost for undergraduate education, he added.

To a question from Katherine McEachern '09, president of the student group KyotoNOW!, Skorton said the university is making good progress toward climate neutrality in a variety of ways, including by setting strict standards for new construction projects, reducing coal burning with the Combined Heat and Power Project and examining the sustainability practices of university investments. He promised to keep the campus updated in his column in the Cornell Daily Sun.

Ryan Lavin '09, president of the Student Assembly, asked about Cornell's role in the upcoming presidential elections -- and about how students living in Collegetown should respond to a spate of recent noise ordinance citations.

"Keep doing what you're doing," Skorton said to the first question, noting that students should stay engaged and take part in the process. On the second question, he emphasized the need for students and city officials to work together -- and promised to bring up the issue in his next meeting with Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson.

Skorton also spoke on his decision not to join college presidents from across the country in signing the Amethyst Initiative, which calls for debate on reducing the legal drinking age to 18 from 21 (data show that raising the drinking age to 21 has reduced driving accidents and fatalities, he said).

To a final question from audience member Sasha Lopez '10 about the recent protests on campus in response to two articles reprinted in the freshman issue of the Cornell Review, Skorton responded:

"There is no place, no place on a university campus for hate speech or for speech that's hurtful or that cuts down dialogue and separates people, but there is a place on a university campus for people to express politically diverse opinions, including opinions about all kinds of things. There has to be a way of maintaining a certain decorum so that people will feel safe and appreciated."

Later, Lopez said she was satisfied with Skorton's answer. "I liked that he promised he would look into it," she said. "I'm glad they're bringing it beyond student groups to the university level. I'm really looking forward to that dialogue."

"I thought [the show] was great -- really impressive," added Lavin. "It's essentially a public meeting brought to everyone's homes or computer. It's perfect."