'We benefit from the concept of being good neighbors and partners all over the world': President Skorton discusses Cornell's international role

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The internationalization of Cornell was the topic of a Feb. 6 Cornell Chronicle editorial board meeting with President David J. Skorton, who during the winter break spent nine days traveling in India with a Cornell delegation. In his regular column in The Cornell Daily Sun, Skorton recently referred to Cornell as "the land grant university to the world." What he means by that phrase served as the jumping-off point for the interview:

Skorton: While at first I was a bit skeptical, the phrase, "the land-grant university to the world," fits. We act that way, and we take it as a serious responsibility in many parts of the university. When I met with the directors of the Einaudi Center [an umbrella organization connecting many of the university's international programs], the faculty at that meeting reminded me that there are two kinds of international functions the university performs: international studies, which may require time overseas collecting primary data, and international activities that have an outreach or service flavor. In that second sense, Cornell, again, does seem to act as a land-grant university to the world.

We have a wonderful reputation throughout the world as a place that values and nurtures international students and scholars on campus. Of the 21,000 students here, we now have 3,224 students from over 120 countries. Just perusing the list of centers that are part of the Einaudi astounds me. The range of international work and scholarly activities is enormous, both broad and deep. So, we benefit from the concept of being good neighbors and partners all over the world, by being recognized for what we do, and by the fact that our history of long-term intercultural exchange is taken seriously abroad.

Chronicle: Do you expect tangible results from your successful visit to India in terms of new joint programs with Indian universities?

Skorton: I think it's important for me to represent the campus, the students, the faculty, the staff and not to make commitments or lead partners in the direction of thinking that we're going to do something substantive just because I think it would be a good idea. When it comes right down to it, the president is not the one who does international studies or international exchanges; obviously, it's the faculty, staff and students who do it. I bend over backward when I go on these trips not to sign MOUs [memorandums of understanding] but rather to represent the institution as best I know how -- while learning a bit of the language, culture, customs and etiquette wherever I am going. So I view [such trips] as a way to celebrate and cement prior work that's been going on and look for new opportunities. That was the first point of the India trip.

The second point was to rejuvenate our contacts with alumni, asking them how we can do a better job of communicating and keeping in touch with them about what's happening at Cornell -- the good news and the challenges. Today I met with the deans and shared with them my impressions and [addressed] areas where I thought we could maintain and further our good partnerships with India, and I asked them to seriously consider that. I've also communicated with Provost [Biddy] Martin, the idea of a follow-up trip led by the provost with some of the deans to explore some of the doors that are now open. Also, there are many, many Cornell alumni in career positions of responsibility in the Indian government. We had a breakfast one day and the whole room was filled with Cornellians in government positions. Additionally, we have Cornell alums in high positions in institutions of higher education. At the distinguished Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, we had a morning meeting with 11 Cornell doctoral alumni who are on their faculty.

With our half-century history in India, [we have] thoughtful and influential trustees, who can help guide us to open doors, as well as alums highly placed in government and higher education positions -- it's a very good fit.

Chronicle: Cornell programs already exist from Asia to Latin America. Are there specific areas of the world, or certain countries, in which you would like to see more of a Cornell presence?

Skorton: As I announced at my inauguration, the Africa Initiative: We're doing so much in Africa and I believe even on campus here in Ithaca [that] people may not be aware of each other's good work and [of] international studies in Africa. I think it's important that we pull together the hugely impressive work under way at Cornell into an Africa Initiative. [Provost Martin] and David Wippman [vice provost for international relations] held the first open forum [Feb. 5], and they got a good-sized turnout.

Chronicle: How do you intend to keep an appropriate balance between international initiatives and concerns on the Ithaca campus, both from the point of view of the division of your time and of university resources?

Skorton: This is a complicated organization. So this job takes a lot of focus and concentration on the task at hand. But as someone who is new to the campus, where we just kicked off a big campaign, it's very important that I'm mostly here with my sleeves rolled up. And by here I mean Ithaca, New York City [Weill Cornell Medical College] and Geneva [the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station] -- the largest three campuses that I have to pay attention to. It wasn't an accident that I chose to go to India on the break; it was down time for the university, the campus was closed for much of it, and the students were mostly gone.

Chronicle: In addition to divestment of endowment assets in oil companies operating in Sudan and in obligations of the Sudanese government, what else is Cornell doing to involve itself in the situation in Darfur?

Skorton: Biddy [Martin] and David Wippman have been working very diligently on collecting ideas of other things, beyond divestment, that we can do. I still think divestment is a very, very important move in this unusual case. But that's more of a negative statement, and we are focusing now on positive things that we can do. There's also a student-organized forum on Darfur coming up in March during a campuswide Darfur week.

Chronicle: Does Cornell have a documented administrative commitment to development in nations that need help, or is it up to individual schools, departments and programs and their donors?

Skorton: It is up to individual areas except, of course, when it comes to using my administrative position as bully pulpit to encourage and support ongoing activity, such as the Africa Initiative. And I am using my office to encourage people to talk to each other, to make the most use of ongoing international activities.

Chronicle: As you travel the country and meet with alumni, are you asked specifically about Cornell's international role? Do you find an enthusiasm for an expansion of this role?

Skorton: As I've traveled and met with alumni and through other contacts, it is clear that international alumni do want to help support activities that benefit their country. Alumni here in America are in support of this because they understand the importance of internationalization. Alumni and trustees and overseers, whose business careers have been influenced by globalization understand the importance of Cornell having an international presence. For instance, we already have footprints in many parts of the world, such as in Doha, Singapore, Beijing, Hyderabad, London, Paris, Rome, Mwanza [Tanzania] and, of course, in Puerto Rico. So there has been and continues to be enthusiasm for the role of Cornell in the world. There have been questions raised about how to proceed with internationalization in a more selective, strategic and focused way. Biddy Martin and David Wippman and the deans are reviewing the colleges' plans and aspirations in the international arena.

Chronicle: You said in the recent Daily Sun article that foreign exchanges in higher education are one of our country's most effective forms of diplomacy. But how does this diplomacy directly affect Cornell?

Skorton: Every culture that I've visited and every culture that I've heard of has the success of its children as a chief aspiration. One of the ways people want their kids and the next generation to do better is to have opportunities, and many of those opportunities are related to education. A strong statement indicating that Cornell is engaged with the world, that we want to have doors open to international scholars and students, that despite our concerns in the wake of 9/11 we want to be welcoming and nurturing -- that's a very important form of diplomacy. That message is going to be significant in the eyes and ears of parents thinking where their children might study, scholars thinking of where they want to work, and students themselves thinking where they want to go. So I actually believe that one of the most positive functions that our country performs abroad flows through higher education -- whether it's education itself, [or] research activities that are helping both us and our neighbors at other institutions, other countries and in other cultures.

Chronicle: By 2015 when Cornell celebrates its sesquicentennial, what sort of international presence would you hope for Cornell?

Skorton: By 2015 we should have at least the awareness that we have now of the importance of understanding cultures around the world. Whatever one's interests in looking outward from the United States -- if it's intercultural understanding, if it's economics, if it's national security, if it's the solution of problems one cannot solve without an international partner such as international economics or law or comparative social science studies, culture -- whatever it is, I would hope that we would be at least as robust in 2015 as we are now. We should not retreat behind national security interests, and we should maintain international activities and act on our knowledge of the importance of partnerships, studies and work overseas.

This interview was conducted by Chronicle staff members David Brand, director, Joe Wilensky, managing editor, Susan Lang, senior editor and senior science writer, and Franklin Crawford, senior staff writer.

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Franklin Crawford