Cornell’s Skorton Will Step Down to Head the Smithsonian

Cornell University President David Skorton will step down next year to lead the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex.

Skorton, a practicing physician who became president of Cornell in 2006, will depart in June 2015, the Ithaca, New York-based school said today in a statement on its website. The former head of the University of Iowa, Skorton has been spearheading a $4.75 billion fundraising campaign at Cornell that is scheduled to conclude next year, as well as the creation of a new technology campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

“Public service and accessibility have been the keynotes of my career,” Skorton, 64, said today in a telephone interview, adding that he admires the “comprehensive aspect to the Smithsonian bringing together arts, sciences, and education, and the public interface,” he said. “I’m not ready to retire.”

Skorton becomes the fifth president among the eight Ivy League schools to depart since 2012. Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey; Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, all have new leaders.

‘Enormous Legacy’

“He leaves an enormous legacy at Cornell,” John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in Washington, said in an e-mail. He “exhibits both great fundraising ability as well as great skill at managing complex organizations.”

Skorton’s title at Smithsonian will be secretary and he will succeed Wayne Clough, the former president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who joined the institution in 2008. Clough announced he was resigning in September and that he will stay through the end of this year, the institution said.

Clough is paid $542,000 a year, according to the Smithsonian. Skorton’s total compensation at Cornell was $865,331 in 2011, which made him the 62nd most highly compensated private college president, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Smithsonian was founded in 1846 and includes 19 museums and galleries as well as the National Zoo in Washington. The institution got an annual federal appropriation of $805 million, representing 62 percent of its $1.3 billion budget in fiscal 2014, it said in a statement. The 17-member board that approved Skorton’s appointment yesterday includes Vice President Joe Biden.

‘Keen Vision’

“David Skorton has demonstrated keen vision and skilled leadership as the president of two great American universities,” U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who serves as chancellor of the Smithsonian, said in the release. “I look forward to working with David to increase the impact of an incomparable American institution across the spectrum of arts, sciences, education and culture.”

Skorton, who trained as a cardiologist, arrived at Cornell when the university was in the midst of a building boom, expanding in Manhattan where it has a medical school as well as in Ithaca, which is located 223 miles northwest of New York City in the Finger Lakes region. In 2011, it partnered with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to win the right to develop a 2.1 million square-foot graduate school on a 12-acre site on Roosevelt Island.

150th Anniversary

“He has positioned the university very well for the future,” Sandy Weill, the former banker who with his wife has donated more than $600 million to Cornell, most to the medical school in Manhattan that bears his name. “David will have a chance to impact another institution in a positive way.”

The university, which was founded in 1865 and is preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary, broke ground last year on the $2 billion technology campus. The first phase is set to open in 2017.

Skorton elevated fundraising while committing to hold the line on debt even as the university kept expanding in the wake of the credit crisis and recession that ended in 2009. He is perhaps as well known to students and alumni for his dry, self-deprecating wit and periodic jazz flute performances at campus events as he is for his money-raising and management skills.

He and his wife, Robin Davisson, will relocate to Washington when he takes over the Smithsonian next year, according to the university.

“President Skorton brought a sense of warmth, stability and respect for Cornell,” Shane Dunn, an alumni volunteer in Boston who graduated in 2007, said in an e-mail. “He was the right leader at the right time.”

(Updates with Sandy Weill comment in 11th paragraph.)
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