Skip to main content

Cardiologist, computer scientist, jazz musician: David J. Skorton named Cornell's 12th president

David J. Skorton
University of Iowa
David J. Skorton

The six-month search for Cornell University's 12th president has ended with the announcement that David J. Skorton, president of the University of Iowa, will be assuming leadership of New York state's land-grant university and world-renowned research institution. The 56-year-old cardiologist, computer scientist, national leader in research ethics and jazz musician will take up Cornell's highest office July 1.

The announcement was made during a special meeting of the Cornell Board of Trustees at the Beck Center in Statler Hall today (Jan. 21).

Skorton also will hold a primary faculty appointment in Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC), where he will join the Department of Pediatrics as well. In addition, he will be a member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering on the Ithaca campus.

Skorton will take over from Hunter R. Rawlings, Cornell's 10th president (1994-2003), who has been serving on an interim basis since Jeffrey Lehman, Cornell's 11th president, resigned in June 2005.

The Iowa connection

Rawlings has known Skorton since his own days as president of the University of Iowa, where he appointed him vice president for research in 1992. "I have a very high regard for him as a person, as a professor and as a university president. He's a first-rate intellect with a great intellectual curiosity and a wonderful sense of humor. So he's someone who's very bright but doesn't take himself too seriously -- and to me that's a very good trait," said Rawlings.

At Iowa Skorton performed the rare act of rising from assistant professor to administrator to president within one institution. He introduced a state-funded Biosciences Initiative and the Arts and Humanities Initiative that fostered collaborative research linkages among faculty and staff members. Meanwhile, he held joint appointments in the Departments of Internal Medicine, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Biomedical Engineering. In addition to vice president for research, he also served as vice president for external relations.

Skorton, whose father was a Russian immigrant, earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1970 and an M.D. in 1974, both at Northwestern University. After serving his medical residency and cardiology fellowship at the University of California-Los Angeles, he joined the University of Iowa as an instructor in 1980. He has a son from a previous marriage, who is a student at Stanford University.

An avid musician who once worked as a professional jazz and R&B performer in the Chicago area, he plays saxophone and flute and is the host of a weekly program, "As Night Falls - Latin Jazz," on KSUI FM, the University of Iowa's public radio station.

He was appointed Iowa's 19th president in March 2003.

"I'm very excited that we have a dynamic, energetic new president with proven leadership, diverse interests and a strong background and passion not only for the sciences but the arts and humanities, as well, " said Diana Daniels, who led Cornell's 26-member Presidential Search Committee (PSC). "He has a demonstrated command of the complex issues facing a large research institution that also has a university hospital."

At a press conference Jan. 21, Skorton said he accepted the appointment, in part, "because Cornell represented an unusual opportunity and challenge that I did not think would come up in my lifetime." He added that it was a "we" decision that presented "extremely attractive" opportunities for both him and his wife, Robin Davisson, a biologist who will be assuming a joint appointment at Cornell.

"Cornell is such a distinguished institution with such a leadership in so many areas [and] a robust balance of disciplines" in the sciences as well as the arts, humanities and social sciences, he said.

Cornell's land-grant mission and its commitment to public service, economic development and technology transfer were also draws for Skorton, who devoted much of his energy at Iowa in these areas.

"It's a tremendous opportunity and challenge to be asked to sustain and extend Cornell's enviable traditions and achievements," Skorton said.

Robin Davisson
Robert Barker/Cornell University
Robin Davisson, wife of newly named Cornell president David Skorton, at the Beck Center on campus Jan. 21.

A dynamic duo

Davisson will join the Cornell faculty with a joint appointment in the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine and in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at WCMC.

"As an eminent physician, scholar and accomplished leader, Dr. Skorton has established an impressive record of leadership at the University of Iowa," Cornell Board of Trustees Chair Peter C. Meinig observed. "He has demonstrated a deep commitment to excellence in interdisciplinary higher education and a thoughtful appreciation for the role a land-grant institution plays in society. We are delighted that he will be bringing his wide range of talents and engaging personality to Cornell."

A co-founder and co-director of the Adolescent and Adult Congenital Heart Disease Clinic at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Skorton's research also has focused on cardiac imaging and computer image processing, and he has published extensively in all three areas.

"I'm very excited by the selection of David Skorton to Cornell University," said Antonio M. Gotto Jr., the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of WCMC and a professor of medicine. Gotto was a member of the search committee. "I've known him for over 20 years because of his work in the medical field and particularly in the field of cardiology. I have great respect for him. I think he'll be a superb president. With all his knowledge of medicine, he also has deep interest in the arts and sciences and in student life."

Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services who also oversees Cornell athletics, sees the appointment as good news for students.

"He will bring an energy and a commitment to engaging with Cornell students that I think will resonate very well at the undergraduate as well as the graduate level," said Murphy. "He's a first-generation college student himself. So I think he brings a personal appreciation for the value of a place like Cornell that continues to attract and enroll many first-generation students."

'A new day for Cornell'

President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes described Skorton's appointment as "a new day for Cornell."

"He has proven over a lifetime that he's a very dedicated scholar and a very committed teacher, and I don't think anyone should occupy a presidency who doesn't have those basic qualifications," Rhodes said.

As Iowa president, Skorton has focused on the university's commitments to diversity, economic development, the health sciences, intercollegiate athletics and public service.

"He spoke eloquently and with personal conviction about the importance of ensuring access and opportunity for success to people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, especially given America's rapidly changing demographics," said Elizabeth Moore, ILR '75, trustee and search committee member who interviewed Skorton.

Student-elected trustee and PSC member Douglas Mitarotonda '02, M.Eng. '03, now a doctoral student, said he was "impressed with Skorton's efforts at both maintaining diversity and his commitment to tuition affordability at the undergraduate level at Iowa."

"I was also struck by his willingness to stay involved with the concerns of graduate and professional students seeking to improve their status and quality of life at the university," Mitarotonda said.

Experience, energy, creativity

To advance the university's strengths in areas outside of health care and the sciences, Skorton declared 2004-05 the Year of the Arts and Humanities at Iowa, with two major arts festivals and dozens of events on campus and throughout the state. He serves on the Association of American Universities and the American Council of Learned Societies humanities steering committee.

"His medical and scientific expertise combined with his devotion to the arts and humanities and with his appreciation of the land-grant mission make him ideally suited to lead Cornell," said Cornell Provost Biddy Martin, who served on the steering committee with Skorton. "He will bring valuable experience, energy and creativity to the position. I look forward to working with him and am excited about what the university can achieve under his leadership."

Skorton has been a steadfast proponent of international education and research ethics throughout his medical and academic career. He served as charter past-president of the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs Inc. Earlier this month he joined college presidents, including Rawlings, and other educational leaders taking part in the U.S. University Presidents Summit on International Education in Washington D.C.

Skorton has been active in public service to his community and to his state, with past and current memberships on the Iowa City Area Development Group, committees of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors, the Iowa Business Council, the Iowa Department of Economic Development Board, the Governor's Life Sciences Advisory Committee and the Iowa Research Council.

"Here's a man who's been a president at a Big Ten university, someone with extensive administrative experience and someone who understands the missions of Cornell -- research, teaching and outreach-extension," said Rosemary Avery, professor and chair in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and faculty member of the PSC. She was part of the smaller group of PSC members who visited Skorton in Iowa. "I feel that once the faculty have had the privilege to meet David Skorton, they will be as enthusiastic as the search committee is with the arrival of our 12th president."

Media Contact

Simeon Moss