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Supportin’ Skorton: Cornell’s Sad Loss is Smithsonian’s Big Gain (with video)

Cornell University President (soon to be Smithsonian Secretary) David Skorton

Cornell University President (and soon to be Smithsonian Secretary) David Skorton
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If you followed my Twitter feed last week, you already know how I feel about the upcoming ascension of my alma mater’s 12th president, David Skorton, to the top spot at the Smithsonian Institution.

A cardiologist who has spent more than seven years in his current post (after a three-year stint as president of the University of Iowa), Skorton has been the least controversial and most popular of the six Cornell University heads whom I’ve known as an undergraduate and alumna. He’s always had clearly defined, forcefully articulated ideas of where he wants to go and how he’ll get there—renewing the faculty; diminishing fraternity hazing; opening architecturally distinguished new academic buildings and art museum expansion, and, most ambitiously, planning a cutting-edge (although, to my mind, somewhat problematic) Cornell Tech campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island.

He has repeatedly and very publicly gone on record as a strong supporter of the arts and humanities, both at Cornell and nationally. Of particular interest to this English major: a new humanities building is about to rise on the Ithaca, NY, campus.

That said, Skorton doesn’t fulfill this wish that I had expressed for the next Smithsonian head—that he or she be drawn from the ranks of arts scholars, reflecting the fact that 10 of the 15 constituent museums are focused on art, design and/or culture. But what he lacks in professional knowledge of the arts he makes up for in enthusiasm and amateur participation.

The press has looked favorably on his new appointment, which will not take effect until July 2015, which means that the Smithsonian to operate for a few months under an (as yet unnamed) interim head after G. Wayne Clough‘s retirement at the end of this year. Skorton has been tirelessly touting Cornell’s 2015 sesquicentennial (insisting that we all learn to pronounce and spell that word), and he undoubtedly wants to remain in Ithaca long enough to preside over the celebrations of the university’s 150th birthday.

Skorton’s Cornell bio and the press accounts I’ve read about him since the Smithsonian’s announcement (except for this one, posted online last night by the Washington Post) have missed the essential human qualities that I referred to in my second tweet, above—“his warmth, approachability, disarming sense of humor.” The two stilted video clips of Skorton that are posted at the end of the Smithsonian’s announcement of his appointment convey nothing of his personal flair.

As a corrective, come join me at a national event that I attended two years ago, where Skorton, in typically good form, held forth to the delight of a receptive alumni audience. In this CultureGrrl Video, he begins by vigorously hyping the plans for Cornell Tech, urges everyone to “get in my face” with suggestions, gives out his e-mail address and then launches into a personal digression, wherein you’ll hear his (probably embellished) version of how he came by his awkward last name:

an ArtsJournal blog