Dec. 12, 2008

Situation 'serious,' but 'actions will not threaten excellence,' Skorton asserts

Robert Barker/University Photography
President David Skorton in his Day Hall office.

The past few months have been among the most trying in any Cornell president's life. From the loss of state funding to a weakening economy and pressure on spending at every level across campus, the challenges facing David Skorton have been enormous. Here are some of the thoughts Skorton shared in an interview with Cornell Chronicle editors this week. Next Tuesday, Dec. 16, he will send an end-of-the-year e-mail to the campus community reporting on the financial state of the university and how Cornell plans to respond to the economic downturn.

What are the main fears that keep you up at night?

Every day, when I come to work in the morning and park my car in the Day Hall lot, and every evening when I leave, I look over at the bell tower and I say to myself, this institution has been here close to 150 years. It has become more and more excellent. It has stayed remarkably accessible. It has become at once more rarified and more relevant.

That's why I want to make sure that any actions we take will not threaten the future excellence of the university. In the rush to balance the budget and right the financial ship, which are certainly top priorities, I want to be sure that we serve the quality of the institution, protect student access and maintain our leadership role nationally and internationally, even as we become better stewards and greatly improve the transparency of how the university is managed. I worry about sacrificing future quality in the interest of short-term expediencies. I am determined to maintain our commitment to recruit, retain and support the most talented faculty. But we must do a better job of aligning expenditures with resources, and the market downturn has forced us to deal with this effectively and immediately.

I do not anticipate any across-the-board actions: That would be too blunt an instrument to use on a decentralized organization like Cornell. However, the fact remains that this is a very serious situation, and our solutions will affect real programs, real jobs and real people. As I've said from the beginning, unfortunately I'm sure we will have layoffs, but not as a first resort.

How could this economic crisis potentially affect the affordability of higher education, and what can we do about it?

The whole sector of higher education is in flux right now. If all higher education leaders across the country don't handle this right, we could end up with less access for poorer families and less attention to excellence. We have to be very careful.

On the other hand, there is something liberating about having to face inefficiencies that in better times we tend to ignore because there is less pressure to correct them. This is an opportunity for us to come together as one campus and make the campus organizationally more efficient. I believe that the very positive, constructive attitude of the deans and vice presidents to form a new leadership team, the overwhelming outpouring of ideas through the online suggestion box -- I think it numbers over 400 at this point -- and the willingness of people to look beyond individual interests to the interests of students and families struggling to afford a higher education of the quality of Cornell: All of these things continue to make me very optimistic about the future of Cornell.

Why did I ask that the deans and vice presidents comprise a new leadership team? We need to think more as a single institution while assiduously protecting the strength of the individual colleges and units. Most importantly, we need much more transparency in our finances, in our aspirations and even in our concerns.

Have you also been meeting with state officials regarding funding?

Reduction in state funding has a significant impact on higher education throughout New York. So far, the cuts made in fiscal year 2008-09 at Cornell have totaled $6.7 million on a $159.7 million base.

I have discussed the state budget situation with several officials and leaders in education, and several members of Cornell's administration and faculty have been in contact with the state officials about the governor's executive budget, which will become available Dec. 16. Cornell representatives have tirelessly worked to impress upon the leaders in Albany the tremendous negative impact that further cuts in education would have on New York's colleges and universities.

Do you believe that cost-cutting measures will be sufficient to avoid layoffs?

No. I wish we could avoid all layoffs, but I don't think we can. I believe that hard choices will have to be made about activities that we can no longer continue and services that will have to end. When that happens, we will have to end jobs. What we hope to do is think about programs that will help us move people into continuing jobs when we can; that is why we instituted the hiring pause. When people do lose their jobs, we plan to help them with outplacement assistance, to try and help them find work elsewhere. Our goals remain, though, to look for ways to realign our workforce as we can -- to offer part-time work to those who want it, to help those who want to leave do so and to look for efficiencies across the campus that will help us minimize job loss. But I cannot say now that I think we can avoid all layoffs. We have had some already, and we will have them going forward. I will say that staff reductions will be considered only when all other cost-saving methods have been exhausted.

How do you manage to maintain your personal equilibrium despite the challenges?

The people around me -- the deans and especially the senior staff -- are so selflessly devoted to Cornell, it's a high bar for me to match. These folks are literally working 18- and 20-hour days to understand the problems, to think of innovative solutions and to find ways to communicate openly inside and outside the university. That immediate support and example that the senior staff set is a very important way for me to maintain my equilibrium. Of course that's true of the board of trustees and Chair Pete Meinig, as well. They've all just been terrific.