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Home >> Sci-Edu
UPDATED: 16:33, December 25, 2006
"To be a university president is the best job in the United States", interview
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The youngest member of the Ivy League, Cornell University was founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White as a coeducational, non-sectarian institution where admission was offered irrespective of religion or race.

At Cornell marks of distinction are evident: Twenty-nine Nobel laureates have been affiliated with Cornell as faculty members or students. Cornell awarded the nation's first university degree in veterinary medicine and first doctorates in electrical engineering and industrial engineering. It awarded the world's first degree in journalism and established the first four-year schools of hotel administration and industrial and labor relations. Cornell endowed the nation's first professorships in American history, musicology, and American literature. It was the first U.S. university to offer a major in American studies. Cornell is the only Ivy League university that also is its state's federal land-grant institution. Cornell was the first university to teach modern Far Eastern languages. Cornell University Press was the first university publishing enterprise in the United States and is one of the country's largest university presses. Cornell ranked third in National Science Foundation funding for programs in academic science and engineering in 2001 - 02.

Recently Yong Tang, People's Daily Washington-based correspondent, conducted an exclusive interview with Cornell University President David J. Skorton in his office on the campus.

Cornell University President David J. Skorton

Yong Tang and Cornell University President David J. Skorton (R), who holds a wooden paddle, a souvenir of the first dragon boat race held at Cornell University. Mr. Skorton is interested in dragon boat race and oriental culture.

Five Different Plans for Cornell

Yong Tang: It is an honor for me to be able to interview with the number one person at Cornell University.

Skorton: I am very honored that you are here. I had a chance to visit the campus of People's Daily. It was a great experience for me. I had worked at the University of Iowa for 26 years. The university is in the middle of the country. One of our Journalism professors had taught journalism in Beijing for many years. A few years ago I went to Beijing with her guidance. Some of her former students work for People's Daily, so a group of them took me to the campus of People's Daily. We spent half a day there. It was a great experience.

Yong Tang: We have a wonderful headquarters!

Skorton: Wonderful headquarters! Large and very impressive! We met with a person involved in provincial coverage. We also met with a journalist who writes for Science magazine. She is not a People's Daily journalist and she is based in Beijing. I also visited Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I am looking forward to going back to Beijing next year. So I visit China on a regular basis because of our close connections. So I am very excited to talk with you.

Yong Tang: Officially you started becoming Cornell President on July 1, 2006. The inauguration ceremony took place on September 7, 2006. So you are still quite new for Cornell. There is a Chinese saying that the newly appointed official starts off with the heat of three torches. Or you can say new broom sweeps clean. Do you have any big plans for Cornell?

Skorton: I have talked about five different areas. I can tell you briefly what they are. One is to emphasize undergraduate students' contact with research so that undergraduate students have an opportunity to do research or other creative activities. Number two has to do with being a good employer. We have about 10,000 employees including 2,000 faculty and 8,000 staff members. We are one of the largest employers in the State of New York, and to be the best employer, we have to be careful about compensation, about benefits and balance between work and life outside work. So I am committed to being the best employer that we can be.

Number three, our main campus is in Ithaca, New York state, but our university is in many parts of the world. For instance, we have the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. We have programs in Beijing, Singapore and Rome. We have a medical school in Qatar. We run a large radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Future discoveries in science are going to be in the junction between different disciplines, so I want to bring our campuses closer so they introduce premier studies.

Number four, although we do emphasize science, nevertheless the arts, humanities and the social sciences are very important in our culture as they are in yours. I want to be sure to emphasize those areas as well as sciences. As do others, our government spends most of its money for research in higher education on science areas. But I want to make sure poets, painters and musicians also have money to do their creative work. At least make their salary competitive with what is going on elsewhere.

Number five, we need a very strong commitment to public service. Our university is the "land grant" university of the State of New York. And even though each state has a land grant institution -- so called because the government granted, in the nineteenth century, land to encourage the establishment of universities in each state -- I don't believe there is any other university quite like Cornell, which is not only a distinguished Ivy League university, but also a land grant university committed to its public mission: to serve the public, to do our best to help with the economy in the region, to work with the local school system, to help in all kinds of ways to make sure that the life of people around us is better because of what we do. Not every university in the United States does that, especially not every private university does that.

"We See It Very Important To Have Public Service Mission"

Yong Tang: Yes, as I know, Cornell is a combination of private and public. Cornell is a private university but among its 14 colleges there are four colleges operated under the contract with the State of New York. It is very interesting. Why does Cornell have this kind of combination?

Skorton: It is a tradition. The university was started as a land grant and private in 1865. The beautiful thing is that over 141 years it has never changed. People continue to emphasize public mission and public service. For example, we have had colleagues in China in the agriculture field for many decades. Part of that was because of students going both ways, part of that was because of scientific collaboration going both ways, part of that was because of the feeling that if we could help our neighbors in China to have better yields in crops and thereby improve the quality of their lives, that is something we should do. That is a very strong tradition here.

Yong Tang: What is the benefit of having four contract public colleges in a private university?

Skorton: There are many benefits. One is that we think it is the right thing to do to help our neighbors in New York and elsewhere. It is a very important motivation for us. Another one is that we get some financial support from the State of New York for these contract colleges.

The third is that it is important to support the state economy. New York State is a state where agriculture remains an important cornerstone of our economy. We work with farmers in many ways to make their operations more efficient. This is also a state with a growing wine industry, and we are working and developing new kinds of grapes and new methods of making wine that help the wine economy. The state economy depends to some extent on animals, and we have the number one veterinary college in the United States. There is also transfer of university technology. So we are working with the state as a partnership. By helping the state economy, we get some support from the state's citizens.

Yong Tang: Is there any disadvantage of having some public colleges in a private university?

Skorton: I don't think so. But I must say my whole career before coming here was in public education. I had been in the University of Iowa for 26 years. Before that I was at UCLA (University of California at Los Angles). I had been in public higher education for 30 years. So I am very comfortable with the transparency and openness to the media and so on. So I don't see any disadvantages.

Yong Tang: The number of contract colleges will decrease or increase?

Skorton: I think it will probably remain the same.

Yong Tang: So the policy will not change at least during your term?

Skorton: Yes. You are right.

Yong Tang: When applying for those four contract colleges, students from the New York state will be given preferential treatment, is that true?

Skorton: Yes. But overall if you look across the United States, in some of those states with big public universities system, they will take over half of applicants. In some of Ivy League schools, they accept only 9% or 10% of applicants. Cornell is somewhere in the middle, taking about 25% of applicants. We have very very good students both from the U.S. and overseas. Excellent students have a reasonable chance to get in here. I like that balance.

Yong Tang: So you like to stand in the middle? You don't like being too private or too public?

Skorton: Yes. We are in the middle in two ways. We see the advantages of the distinction of being among the Ivy League and the distinction of working with the best universities in the world. For example, the link we have in China with Peking University and Tsinghua University and other very distinguished universities in the world. That is an advantage to us. But on the other hand, we see it very very important to have public service mission. I would not have looked at the job anywhere that didn't have that balance.

Yong Tang: Someone said students from private colleges here are better than those from contract colleges since contract colleges have a lower threshold for in-state student applicants; is that true?

Skorton: No, Cornell students are very strong across all the colleges. I want to underscore the point that two of our four contract colleges, the College of Agriculture and Life Science and the College of Veterinary Medicine, are number one in the U.S. Moreover, the ILR School and the College of Human Ecology are national leaders in their respective fields. So, the contract colleges are very distinguished indeed.

Yong Tang: Cornell is the youngest among the Ivy League. The founder said he wanted to create a university where any person can find instruction in any study. It seems Cornell is not as elite as other Ivy League schools. It is trying to cater to the big masses. Being elite is not a good thing?

Skorton: What you mean, I think, is to be excellent. We can be the number one in Veterinary Medicine, number one in Engineering Physics, number one in Agriculture and Life Science, yet be more open to serve the large number of people. That is a perfect balance. Excellence on the one hand and accessibility to the people on the other hand is a perfect balance to me.

"In Order To Be Relevant To The World, We Have To Be Competitive Globally"

Yong Tang: I know Cornell has a plan to become the first transnational university in America. What is the significance of this plan?

Skorton: Three important motivations make this possible. Number one, we need to be a welcoming place. We need to be attractive to international scholars and students to come here. We have 3,000 international students from 120 countries on the campus out of 21,000 students in total. We work very hard to make international students feel at home here. As President of the university, I need to be a strong advocate in our government for open doors to international scholars and students even after 9/11 and even with concerns people have. We are very much enriched by Chinese students and other international students here.

Number two, we have to show the commitment of our students and faculties to go to other universities in the world. We are doing this vigorously in China. Through our CAPS program, we send our students to China with excellent Mandarin skills and a good knowledge of Chinese culture. We have to show our commitment by going to our neighbors and friends as well as bringing them here.

The third important thing is to maintain our university as what I call a marketplace of ideas so that any discussion could occur here. It is a safe place to disagree. It is a safe place to look at different points of view. Just two or three days ago we entertained President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan at our Weill Cornell Medical College. Students invited him. So we are able to open our doors and have people of all opinions come in so that students can talk with them and question them. It is a good example of how we have to have an international perspective. So if we are welcoming to scholars and students from overseas, if we are sending our people there, if we are maintaining openness of discussion, then we are going to be a very good transnational university.

The extra advantage that we have is that Cornell has a very long history of international studies and international relations as a university. We have had over one hundred years of interactions with China. We have very long interactions in Africa and many other places. I believe we are one of the most effective internationally oriented universities in the country.

Yong Tang: I have interviewed a number of Presidents from major universities here. Most of them said they are trying to globalize their universities. It seems to me there is a revolution undergoing in higher education. Why is it so important to globalize a university in the 21st century? How do you define Cornell's position in this new turn of competition in global higher education?

Skorton: It is a terrific and very important question. Higher education, like any other enterprise, is very competitive. Your country has high excellence in science and technology and China is educating many excellent scientists and engineers. I have some colleagues in the medical world in China. The quality and comprehensiveness of China's higher education system is rising rapidly. In many other places in the world the same thing is going on. So we are competing for the best students and best faculties with people around the globe. We are competing with China, Japan, Australia and everywhere. In order to survive and be excellent, we should have some strategies to do that.

The second important thing is that, as Thomas Friedman said, "the world is flat." I agree with that. Not only can you and I talk to each other face to face and get to meet each other, we can also talk to each other with our computers with cameras even when you are on the beautiful campus of the People's Daily and I am on the beautiful campus of Cornell. So anything that we do that may isolate us will make us less competitive and less relevant to the world. So in order to be relevant to the world, we have to be competitive globally.

Our strategy for doing that at Cornell is an easy one because we have been doing this longer than most American universities. We have been having meaningful international exchanges for a very long time. So what we are doing is: talking to our colleagues overseas and asking them what they think is necessary to make those exchanges more effective. For example, it is important not only welcome many students and scholars from China, but also that when we send our students to China we are sending them with proper respect for the culture. Cornell has a long history of listening to colleagues overseas and responding to what they say is necessary. That is a strong advantage for us.

Yong Tang: How do you define Cornell's position among the Ivy League?

Skorton: It depends upon the fields. Not every university can be the best in every field. We have focused this university traditionally in a variety of fields. For example, life sciences, medicine, agriculture, veterinary medicine are very strong at Cornell. Physical science and engineering are extremely strong. One strategy is to maintain strength in those areas where you are already recognized. Another is to find areas for international exchange where we have a skill or quality that is complemented by other scholars from other institutions.

For instance, we have cooperated with Tsinghua University in China in Nanotechnology. The two universities are working to do things together that neither one would do alone as well. The humanities have been traditionally very strong at Cornell, and we are growing in excellence in the social sciences.

"Cornell Is A Medium Size University, Not Too Big, Not Too Small"

Yong Tang: Cornell has 21,000 students. Among Ivy League it has the largest number of students. What is the disadvantage of having such a large student body? Maybe it is difficult to register to class due to the limit of class size? It is difficult also to have personalized and individualized instruction?

Skorton: These are very important challenges. One is to make sure housing is available. Cornell has spent a long time understanding such challenges and has developed an innovative system of living/learning communities. We need to match student demand with course availability. We need to individualize instruction as a very high priority.

I met with dozens of freshmen students in their dorm, just talking about those issues, about housing, about their class registration. I was very happy to find that people are getting the classes they wanted, they are getting the materials they needed to study. I even know of families who had a child here two or three years ago and now have a child here again. They think the situation is getting better every year. But you are right, it is a constant challenge. The bigger the school, the harder the challenge to deal with those issues. But I think we are dealing with them very effectively.

Yong Tang: That is why Princeton University President said small is beautiful.

Skorton: Yes. Everything is relative. Ohio State University has 50,000 students, UCLA has 40,000 students, and the University of Iowa has 31,000 students. So Cornell is a medium size university, not too big, not too small.

Yong Tang: But Cornell is said to have a plan to cut the size of its student body by reducing 50 students per year?

Skorton: I am not aware of such a plan. It is my job to make sure that there is a balance between the demands of students and resources to deal with them. Perhaps we will stay the same size for the time being. The Association of American Medical Colleges recently suggested that U.S. will not have enough doctors, and medical colleges should increase the size by 20�� to 30%. We cannot do that at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan because of space limitations and the cost of expanding.

Yong Tang:��There is a widespread criticism that in many American universities teaching assistants are not very qualified to teach undergraduate students. How is the situation at Cornell?

Skorton: It is a very important criticism. It is true in some cases. Throughout the United States, as in any other country, graduate students will help with teaching. How do you train tomorrow's professors? They have to teach their first class. There is no other way to train the next generation of professors. There is no other way to train the next generation of researchers. There is no other way to train the next generation of doctors. Somebody has to be their first patient. So it is our job to carefully watch over that and be responsive to concerns. Are we perfect in doing that? No. But Cornell pays a lot of attention to the items that you are talking about. I actually believe some of our finest teachers are international graduate students. Two reasons: one is that they are very talented students. Second is that they bring fresh perspectives.

"An Invitation To Speak Here At Cornell Does Not Depend On One's Political Views"

Yong Tang: There are so many famous Chinese students who graduated from Cornell. Can you name any of them?

Skorton: We had quite a number of them. Among the most notable are: S.C. Thomas Sze, Hu Shih, Y.R. Chao, Zhao Yuanren, Bing Zhi, Moa Yisheng and Shu Chun Teng. We are very proud of them. The best scientific collaboration that Cornell has today is with China.

Yong Tang: Lee Teng-hui, a notoriously former leader of Taiwan, is a Cornell alumni. Do you know that?

Skorton: Yes, I do.

Yong Tang: He was invited to make a speech here at Cornell in 1995. Do you know this?

Skorton: Yes, it is so.

Yong Tang: It was a big news at that time. Chinese government was very angry with this invitation. How do you think of the invitation?

Skorton: It is a difficult situation. We have realized your sensitivity regarding that issue. On the other hand the tradition of this country is to have the university be an open marketplace of ideas. Anybody could be invited here if students are interested in hearing them. So it is a balance. Not everybody is going to be happy with every decision that we make. In the U.S., universities tend to welcome every point of view.

Yong Tang: In the future does Cornell have any plans to invite him again to Cornell campus?

Skorton: I don't know of any plans. But I want to make a strong statement for the newspaper. An invitation to speak here at Cornell does not depend on one's political views. Instead, such invitations are linked to the idea that our university is a marketplace of ideas. But it is also very important to us to understand the sensitivity of our colleagues on and off campus. So every single decision like that is an individual decision, but in general the tradition of American universities and increasingly everywhere else in the world is that a university should be a place where we could have open dialogue on any subject. That is our philosophy.

Yong Tang: So in the future Mr. Lee would be invited again?

Skorton: As I said, it depends upon the circumstances and the interest on campus. You are trying to trap me into answering that question. (Laugh) Our tradition and philosophy is to make sure our university is open to all kinds of views.

Yong Tang:��If someone you are inviting happens to be a political dissident of one country, how do you maintain friendly relations with that country? How do you balance the situation here?

Skorton: Very hard. I would talk to my colleagues in that country, trying to explain to them what is going on. I would try to make sure there are balanced opinions expressed �C if at all possible. I would tell them there was not just a lecture, but also discussion and debate. That is the best tradition of international diplomacy like the United Nations. I think the idea is of balanced viewpoints and opening up to the multiple planes of views.

"To Be A University President Is The Best Job In The United States"

Yong Tang:��I have some questions about yourself.

Skorton: Sure. That is a boring topic. (Laugh)

Yong Tang: Can you tell me something in your childhood that contributes to your success today?

Skorton: I am a first generation American. My father was born in Belarus, which used to be a part of Soviet Union. My father came to the U.S. by way of Cuba and then lived in the U.S. Our family had economic challenges. My father's main desire in life was that his son would go on and do better than he did, like all of us want for our children. We had food everyday. We had a roof over our heads. The life was better than many people in the world. My father often said, don't look at the man across the street, just look at the fact that everyday we have something to put in our stomach. My father passed away a long time ago. If he could see me now in the wonderful situation I am in, he would be amazed and he wouldn't believe it!

I wanted to become a musician. That was my chief desire. But I didn't have the courage to stay in music since a musical career is very difficult and competitive. But I still have some music in my life as a hobby. I went to UCLA for 2 years, then to Northwestern University for 2 years. During that time, I tried to be a professional musician, but I completed college. So I went to medical school and received post-graduate training. Then I got a job at the University of Iowa where I stayed for 26 years. Then I moved here to Cornell in July, 2006.

Yong Tang: It took you 8 years to become a professor. It was rather short.

Skorton: Yes, I was very fortunate. The research of computer analysis of medical images was in its early days in that field and we made some contributions. Discoveries are sometimes easier when you are early in the field.

Yong Tang: You have many roles. You are Cornell President. You are still a professor. You are a physician. You are also a musician. You are a radio station host. Which role do you like best?

Skorton: I like all of them. But I am not a serious professional musician. Nor am I a serious professional radio host. I am a physician. I love the presidential job. I meet interesting persons like you. I get to work with students all the time. To be a university president is the best job in the United States.

Yong Tang: When he became Columbia President, former President of the United States Eisenhower said: "Well, I am even busier than I was in the White House! How come! " How busy is your life now?

Skorton: I am busy but it is a joyful kind of existence. For example, meeting you is very interesting because you are a journalist of one of the most distinguished media in the world. You wouldn't be asking me questions if I were not President of Cornell. So it is a great job. You can meet many interesting people. My wife is a professor here at the College of Veterinary Medicine and at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. So we spend a lot of time with students. They keep you alive and keep you young because they always ask you challenging questions. So it is challenging and makes one rethink everything.

Yong Tang: Can you describe a typical working day?

Skorton: Sure. I get up at about 5:45AM. I have two big dogs. One is 100 pounds and one is 130 pounds. My dogs wake me up every day and seven days a week. So we get up and feed the dogs and take the dogs for a walk. Then I have breakfast with my wife. I spend some of my time in my office, answering emails and telephone calls. I spend a lot of my effort to keep in touch with faculty, staff, students, alumni, state legislators, and trustees. A lot of my job is communication. I spend a certain amount of my time responding to people's concerns. So the biggest part of my job is communication. Another part is that I need to understand the dreams and ideas of all the different people on the campus and explain what Cornell is about to people on the outside.

Yong Tang: Why is the University of Iowa so close to Cornell in terms of presidency?

Skorton: A lot of universities in the U.S. go to big state universities to find their leaders because they are big and complicated universities. Iowa has 50% more students than Cornell and owns a busy hospital. If you have experience leading that kind of institution, you may be able to lead other kinds of institutions.

In The Future We Could see A Chinese American As An Ivy League School President

Yong Tang: It seems to me most of American university presidents are male, white, well educated. In American business and politics circles today, there are more and more minority leaders coming up. However, among higher education leaders, there are much less minority faces. Why?

Skorton:We have much more to do with diversity. More women, more underrepresented groups in the U.S. We have lot more work to do. No question about that.

Yong Tang:When do you think we could see a Chinese American as an Ivy League school president?

Skorton: I think that will happen. Two reasons: One is that higher education understands that there has to be more diversity. Secondly, very importantly, we have very strong colleagues who are Chinese Americans. They are great leaders, great professors and great scientists. They will rise to the top as well.

By Yong Tang, People's Daily correspondent based in Washington, DC

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