President David J. Skorton has frequently been described by the campus community as a “Renaissance Man.” Let’s face it: this guy can do everything. Board-certified cardiologist? Check. Published author and researcher? Check. Radio show host? Check. Flute and saxophone virtuoso? Check. University president? Check and check. And how many individuals have held academic appointments in departments of Internal Medicine, Biomedical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering? Not many. On top of that, the semester has barely started and he’s already written a column for The Sun, survived a week in Donlon Hall, played with the marching band and divested from Sudan. As the twelfth individual to hold the position of Cornell president, Skorton follows a long line of extraordinary individuals.
Like former president Hunter Rawlings, Skorton arrived at Cornell following his tenure as president of the University of Iowa. Of Cornell’s twelve presidents, five of them served terms as heads of other universities. Besides Rawlings and Skorton at Iowa, Livingston Farrand came from the University of Colorado, and Deane Malott had been chancellor of the University of Kansas. The only Cornell president to preside over another university after departing Cornell was Charles Kendall Adams, who went on to a successful career as president of the University of Wisconsin.
The connections between Skorton and Cornell’s former presidents go beyond his work with Rawlings at Iowa. For example, Farrand and Skorton are the only Cornell presidents to have earned medical degrees. Farrand and Schurman both studied psychology, the field in which Skorton earned his undergraduate degree from Northwestern University. Just as Skorton followed Rawlings at Iowa, Adams was Andrew Dickson White’s successor as professor of history at the University of Michigan. Cornell presidents seem to have a particular affinity to Michigan as White, Adams and Rhodes all had academic appointments there.
Every presidential term comes with its hardships, whether they are on the local, national or international level. Schurman and Day guided campus through tumultuous war years. Farrand ensured that the university survived the Great Depression. Perkins and Corson presided during the Straight takeover and its aftermath, while Lehman faced the battle over Redbud Woods. What will be the challenges for Cornell in the upcoming years?
Seven of the twelve presidents have been immortalized in the naming of locations at Cornell. Andrew Dickson White has his name scattered throughout campus: the A. D. White House, White Hall,and a statue on the Arts Quad. Jacob Gould Schurman has Schurman Hall in the Veterinary College. The administration is housed in Day Hall, named after Edmund Ezra Day. Malott Hall near the Ag Quad contains the Mathematics Department. Half of the combined Corson-Mudd Hall is named after Dale Corson, former provost and president. Frank Rhodes is celebrated by Rhodes Hall, containing Cornell’s supercomputers. And lastly, Rawlings Green on North Campus is a testament to President Rawlings’s work on the transformation of this freshman haven to its current state.
Strangely, that leaves four presidents (excluding Skorton) who have not loaned their name to a campus location yet. Where is Lehman Hall? Or Farrand Field? Or Perkins Plaza? Or Adams Apple Orchard? It’s perhaps most interesting to note that of these four presidents, three of them resigned the presidency under duress. Charles Kendall Adams was forced to resign after disagreements with the Board of Trustees over honorary degrees and faculty appointments. James Perkins left in 1969 following the campus and national uproar over the Willard Straight Hall takeover. And then there’s Jeff Lehman. The reasons for his unexpected resignation in 2005 have yet to be fully revealed, but disagreement with the Board of Trustees appears to be the theme. Does this mean that the Board of Trustees refuses to recognize Cornell’s former presidents if they departed on a sour note? If that’s the case, then why is no building named after Livingston Farrand? Farrand served a successful 16 years at Cornell, and was remembered as “one of the most likable, nay lovable, men this campus has known.” Perhaps he’s simply been overlooked.
With the start of the Skorton era at Cornell University, it’s important for us to remember those who served before him. From Schurman’s astounding 28 years here to Lehman’s all-too-brief two, each president has dedicated his own unique spirit to making our campus what it is today. As the most public individual embodiment of Cornell University, the president must be a dynamic personality who truly understands the distinctive combination of academic disciplines and goals at Cornell. David Skorton seems to be the perfect man for the job.
Corey Earle is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be contacted at email@example.com . Walking Backwards appears alternate Wednesdays.