SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
JASON BEEKMAN: Hello. I want to thank all of you for coming today. My name is Jason Beekman. And I'm president of Der Hexenkreis, which is Cornell's chapter of Mortar Board National Senior Honor Society. Der Hexenkreis has been an active presence on Cornell since its establishment in 1892 and was one of the original founding members of Mortar Board National Honor Society in 1912.
We seek in our members excellence in leadership, scholarship, and service. And Last Lecture is one of our long traditions. I would like to hand it over now to our Last Lecture chair to introduce our wonderful speaker today.
ELLIE BUCHOLZ: Good evening. And welcome to Mortar Board's presentation of the Last Lecture. My name is Ellie Bucholz, and I am this year's Last Lecture chair. As Jason said, Mortar Board is an all senior honor society. Our oldest and signature sponsored event on campus is the Last Lecture, where we invite esteemed faculty members to deliver what would hypothetically be their last academic lecture should they decide to retire and leave their field of study. Previous lectures have featured Alice Hansen from the Department of English, Paul [INAUDIBLE] from the Department of Chemistry, and Brian Wansink from the Department of Applied Economics and Management.
Tonight we have a very special treat. It is my pleasure to introduce our 2008 Last Lecture with Cornell University President David J. Skorton. President Skorton, Cornell's 12th president, is a highly esteemed scholar holding professional appointments in internal medicine, as well as computer and biomedical engineering.
While in Iowa, he was the co-founder and co-director of the University of Iowa Adolescent and Adult Congenital Heart Disease Clinic. He's published prolifically in the areas of cardiac imaging and imaging processing. Additionally, President Gordon is a national leader in research ethics. He has served as the charter past president of the Association for the Acquisition of Human Research Protection Programs, Inc., the first entity organized specifically to accredit human research protection programs.
In addition to his long history of work in higher education administration, academic research, and study, he is also a jazz musician and enthusiast. And so is it is with great pleasure that I present to you Cornell's 12th president, and true Renaissance man, Dr. David J. Skorton, and invite him to present his last university address.
DAVID J. SKORTON: Do I need this mic, this one? I do need it. OK. Let's start again. I sort of messed that up.
So you have to come introduce the whole thing and let's just start over again, so it's cooler than me. Never mind. That's all right.
Well, it's an honor and a bit frightening to be giving a Last Lecture for Mortar Board. This is the oldest Mortar Board chapter in the country, predating the national organization, I've learned, by 26 years. And as we just learned, or you probably knew ahead of time, this was one of the first four founding chapters, along with Swarthmore, University of Michigan, and Ohio State University. I had the opportunity to interact with Mortar Board at the University of Iowa. And it's a great pleasure to be here with you tonight.
Here we are, two weeks before slope day. Come on in. You're plenty of time. This is just the warm up the part. The real speech starts in about two minutes.
Here we are two weeks before slope day, finals and commencement fast approaching. And some of you probably know, or are planning in exquisite detail, what you'll be doing next month, next year, perhaps a decade from now. At least, it may seem that way today. Others are still weighing your options, work, further schooling, perhaps some time off.
Tonight, in my Last Lecture, looking backwards, I'd like to share some reflections on my own life journey, including a career that has included three distinct components and in which music, the arts, and the humanities have been a common thread. From that, I'm going to attempt to extract some observations that might be helpful to you along your own path.
There are three messages I'm going to try to convey to you in this conversation. And I consider it a conversation, not a lecture. Number one is the importance of humility and humanitarianism. Number two is the tiny, thin differences that separate the powerful from the powerless, and three, the non-linearity and unpredictability of life.
First I want to share with you the story of my dad, whose family immigrated to America from Western Russia, what is now Belarus, in search of a better life. It was an act of courage for them to leave the old country and arrive here, having to learn the language, to fit into a new culture, to find a way to gain material support. My father believed that education was the key to a better life, although he himself was unable to go beyond secondary education because of economic constraints. This influenced my own path. In my immediate family, I was the first one to complete a journey through higher education.
I very often think about how much I owe my father and his family for their willingness to take the risk of coming to America in pursuit of the American dream. Like so many other first generation Americans, I would have had a very, very different life had they not made the choice to come to the US and if America, somehow, had not made good on its promise of opportunity.
I've had a chance to travel quite a bit around the world, thanks to the linkages through academia and the different fields that I've been privileged to work in. And in every culture that I have encountered, in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, parents want their children to achieve broader, bigger, happier, safer lives and a higher quality of life. And one of the chief pathways to this dream, for parents, is through education.
Certainly in my case, higher education was a ticket to career choices that my dad could only have vaguely dreamed about. And my own experience has contributed to my very strong belief in the power of higher education to build human and societal capacity and thereby address global challenges throughout the world. In my first commencement address at Cornell last year, which was divided-- the message was divided between the medical school and the Ithaca campus-- I raised the question of how Cornell, in particular, and higher education, in general, could build on our long standing efforts in international research, education, and outreach. I see a very important opportunity for universities in the US and many other nations to cooperate with partners in the developing world, governments, foundations, non-governmental organizations, to assist developing nations and educating their citizens to the level that they believe is needed for participation in a robust local and global economy, and to address urgent problems that only get more urgent in global health, climate change, agriculture, food policy, and sustainable development, and poverty alleviation.
We are moving forward in this issue on campus through the efforts of many students, through the efforts of many faculty, through the efforts of many staff. And well we should move forward to try to make a positive difference in the world. We are privileged people in a privileged place with a chance, an obligation, to make a difference.
Now let's go back to my life story. My career has had three quite distinct components. At first I was a medical practitioner, a clinician in internal medicine and cardiology.
Next I had a phase where I was able to participate in research in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering. And then more recently--
[AUDIENCE MEMBER SNEEZES]
--gesundheit-- I've been a bureaucrat and administrator. You may know Indiana Jones' rule of living. "I don't know what I'm doing. I'm making it up as I go along." But each stage has taught me very, very important lessons and provided insights that have been useful to the next stage.
Before I go further, I want to reflect just for a moment on why you've asked me to give this talk. You don't know me well as a teacher yet, and I don't do very much teaching on campus. I have had a chance to meet many of you, a surprising number, through living with freshmen for a couple of years, that we're going to do every fall in a freshman dorm, through office hours in my office, through student leadership meetings, and so on.
But really you're asking me here because I'm the president of the university and because I have a leadership position. And I'm here to warn you against dependence on false gods. I'm here to warn you that I can learn just as much from you, if you will reflect on your life experience, as you can learn from me. And so we need to really and truly have a conversation tonight about those three messages that I talked to you about earlier.
And please keep those in mind not only as you listen to my story, which on the surface will sound like a certain level of accomplishment. But I will try to indicate at each point how I got to that point, and as I mentioned earlier, the non-linearity and the unpredictability of that path. Please also be very, very proud of yourselves for getting where you've gotten so far, for being members of Mortar Board, for being, very likely, leaders in the world of tomorrow.
But don't be too proud. Remember the very thin veneer that separates the powerful from the powerless. And let's think about that as we go through this story.
My undergraduate experience was devoted to trying to become a musician while taking enough credits in college to keep my family comfortable that I might have a more secure future. As I approached my junior year of college, I needed to declare a major so that I could stay in the school. My undergraduate degree was psychology.
In medical school, I became interested in cardiology, and so pursued an internship and residency in internal medicine, and then a cardiology fellowship, and then specific training in the care of adolescents and young adults with inborn heart disease. Permit me a digression about this kind of medical practice. The commonest birth defect in this country and everywhere in the developed world are heart defects. About one out of every 100 live born babies has a congenital heart defect, a staggering, high incidence.
So if you're in a room with 200 people, the chances are a couple of them have a congenital heart defect. Some of these defects are as common as 2% of the population. And so for years and decades, these children were diagnosed at birth. And most of them did not live to healthy adulthood.
At the time that I began my medical training in 1970, most of the children did not live to healthy adulthood. Now, over 85% of those children live to healthy adulthood. The women and men are pursuing every occupation imaginable. The women are having children.
The change over in this population is virtually unmatched in the world of medical care in switching in one generation, in 30 years, from a population where most did not make it to adulthood to one where most make it-- not only to adulthood, but to healthy adulthood. And so when I was in my training, this massive change and outlook was beginning to occur. And I pursued training in that transition age from childhood to mature adulthood.
And it was a humbling experience to be a part of this change. Why humbling? These children and their parents had been told since birth, and sometimes before birth, that they had a very serious problem and that the odds were high that they might not make it through a normal life expectancy. And yet, as time went on, sometimes decade by decade, sometimes year by year, and sometimes month by month, amazing changes occurred in the outlook for these patients due to new forms of cardiac surgery and new forms of diagnosis. So what appealed to me about that practice and why I pursued it for 26 years was the fact that we didn't know all the answers, that each individual, each family, each child, each adolescent, each high school student, each college student was a puzzle, him or herself. Perhaps some of you have read the Sherlock Holmes adventures.
Perhaps you know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician. And perhaps you know that the character Sherlock Holmes was based on Professor Joseph Bell, a surgery professor at the University of Edinburgh, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received his medical training. The deductive and inductive reasoning that led to the solution of crimes in Sherlock Holmes is a fictionalized account of the medical diagnostic process.
And I was taught by a series of wonderful clinicians who said that what I had to do is become like Sherlock Holmes. And so up to the minute, when I work with medical students, I give them a copy of The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and talk about that way of doing things. Now I'm telling you this because my background was not basically strong in science. It was a background in the arts and the humanities.
And of course, I took science courses and math courses to be able to get into medical school. But basically I looked at medicine and still look at medicine as a science informed, humanistic activity-- a science informed, humanistic activity.
Most of my patients in those 26 years were between the ages of 12 and 40, in what should be the prime of life. Working with these patients and their families taught me, first, the value of humility. That no matter how much I learned about the diagnostic process, no matter how hard I tried, I would lose many of these patients. And I did.
Second, I learned the importance of listening, of hearing the hopes and fears of patients and their families, to find a way forward together rather than assuming the role of an all knowing doctor, because there were problems that not even the best medical care could unravel and even if unraveled, could not rectify. Third and most important, understanding that life is unbelievably precious, that it is important to make every day count.
I recall clearly a 19-year-old patient who had a difficult cardiac disorder that could not be repaired. And he and I and his parents and his brother and sisters knew that he would not live a normal life expectancy. And he died during his 20th year, while he was 19 years old.
And I've carried the memory of what it was like to see him over the months and years that he was alive and to know that all of the science and technology behind me was not going to be enough to make a definitive change in his life experience. And that made a big difference in the way I looked at things and look at things in life. Toward the end of my training in clinical medicine, I became exposed to the field of medical imaging and computer analysis of medical images.
I was exposed to this field by a social contact who worked in the field of remote sensing, where computer methods were used to analyze photographic images of the Earth taken from aerial photographs. And some of the applications were military applications, and they were declassified and permitted to be used in the non-military sector. And a group of scientists and I utilized some of these methods to see if we could analyze and evaluate, quantitatively, images of the human heart.
My involvement in research depended really on curiosity, since I didn't have a very profound background in science. It deepened my curiosity. And to this day, if someone asks me what's the most important attribute for a student to have to succeed, what's the most important attribute for a scientist to have to succeed, what's the most important attribute for a citizen to have, to cast an informed vote, I would say that attribute is curiosity. If you will stay in touch with curiosity that you have had since birth, whatever you do, you'll enjoy it more, you'll be able to make more of a difference, and you will have a more satisfying life, in my experience.
Doing research also, of course, sharpened my critical thinking skills and taught me the value of organized skepticism. Scientists are professional skeptics. To evaluate the data at hand, to perhaps compare a supposition about how things should be to what the data actually show and, if necessary, to change that supposition to fit the data. It also taught me to distrust easy answers and to understand that today's certainty could be tomorrow's quaint memory. And finally, to be tenacious in building an evidence-based case for a promising idea-- how hard it is to remain true to evidence and data in a world in which it's easy to form strong opinions about matters political, social, and personal.
A career in administration, how I got here today, may seem like a dramatic shift away from the bedside and the research bench. But it brings many of the skills developed in these two previous endeavors into play. I mentioned earlier to you the non-linearity and unpredictability of life. I never would have expected to be in a career in administration or leadership or management.
It happened quite by mistake. I was in a division of General Internal Medicine in 1985. And the chief of the division decided to move on to a different life calling. And the director of that area at that university cast about to see if someone would be willing, on an interim, on an acting basis, to take leadership of this division and asked me to do it.
I had no previous experience in anything remotely related to management or leadership, no formal training and no life experiences. When I was in a band, I was the follower, not the leader. I was the one who was frequently told, come on, Skorton, let's hit that F sharp, not F.
But I found the skills that I had learned as a humanist, and as a physician, and as a scientist were enormously well-suited to administration. First of all, again, the willingness to listen-- it sounds so corny. But listening is the first piece of communication.
Secondly, building consensus-- and I mentioned to you earlier that the medical journey, the journey taken together arm-in-arm by physician and patient, is a journey that has to be a journey of true partnership. Partnership in gaining the consent of the person to medical diagnosis and care, a partnership and journey that is importantly involving the trust on both sides of the equation, the trust that the physician's advice is based on what's best for the patient and that the patient's attention to detail is based on a willingness to be open and listen to the possibility of advice.
A successful administrator, of course, listens first and learns to make decisions in an atmosphere of uncertainty, in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Medical practice and scientific research are great examples of endeavors in atmospheres of uncertainty. It's extraordinarily important as a physician, as a scientist, or a researcher of any kind, and as a bureaucrat not to be too heavily invested in any one point of view, so heavily invested that one cannot change one's mind and not be willing to see a different way of looking at things.
It requires great helpings of humility. And it has required from me the idea and the very strong belief that leaders serve everyone, not the other way around. Combining with a researcher's skepticism and humility, a willingness to gather evidence, devise new ways of testing hypotheses, and once you are convinced of the strength of the position, to have the courage to pursue it to a successful conclusion against all odds, those are the elements of leadership and management and the elements that I am continuing to strive to learn.
I mentioned to you that there were three messages I wanted to convey to you this evening. The first was the importance of humility and humanitarianism, and we've dealt a bit with those. The second is the tiny differences that separate the powerful from the powerless. I want to return to that theme for a few minutes.
I learned about that in two aspects of my career. The first aspect of the career was the medical bedside, in which I saw physicians, the powerful partner, so to speak, in the physician-patient partnership become the patient. Physician friends of mine who woke up one morning with an issue, a problem, something nagging, a symptom that turned out to be a lethal disease that would change that person's life.
And I knew patients of physicians who themselves had become ill. The patients having gone through a definitive surgical procedure now had an outlook that would go on years or decades, where the physician now had a very short outlook. It was moving for me to be in circumstances where there was this reversal of expectations and reversal of outlook.
And we must all remember, especially coming from a powerful, privileged place, like any research university but especially an Ivy League university, how small changes in life circumstances can render us less than powerful. And so we need to remember our inextricable linkage with those who appear to be powerless but have the same right to look forward that any of us does.
And finally, I said I wanted to leave you with a message about the non-linearity and unpredictability of life. In a university, you may have had the opportunity, in perhaps a much more focused and an appearingly smaller way, to see a change in your life outlook or life plans. Because perhaps after having invested a year, or two years, or three years, or more in a certain line of learning or line of endeavor, you did some self-searching and discovered it really wasn't for you.
And the question is, do we have the courage to respond to that non-linearity and unpredictability of life? If my father and his family had not responded to the opportunity to leave Europe during wartime and perhaps find a way to live in a safer, more peaceful, and ultimately more promising milieu, certainly I wouldn't be here with you now, whether I'd be here at all. And quite the other direction, the possibility of any of you, with your wonderful, wonderful accomplishments and very bright outlook, the chance of you having one, two, or three changes in career paths is not only possible, but actually highly likely, the way the world is now.
In the not too distant past, I had the fun of meeting many of the seniors at one of the Greek houses to meet and greet each other and sort of talk about the impending life change of commencement. And I had a chance to talk to many of you about what your plans are for the future. And one thing I want to tell you and perhaps you can share with some of your colleagues and friends is to jot down somewhere, in a journal or a book or a piece of paper that you tuck somewhere in a shelf, or inside a book, what you think your life might be like in 10 years. And then go back and look at what it actually is like. And then you'll do your own experiment about the non-linearity and unpredictability of life.
Your Cornell education has prepared you enormously well, no matter what path you follow, because you've been taught at an institution that for a century and a half has valued critical thinking above rote learning, skepticism in a positive way over the indulgence of received wisdom, and the ability to question authority. I want to share a vignette with you about one of your colleagues who is now a junior, or is about to become a junior. He's finishing his sophomore year.
I worked into the fire drill at Mary Donlon in the first year that my wife and I were living with the freshman. Went out to the fire drill in my pajamas, which I thought were very attractive, actually. And met a bunch of students who, whether or not they felt they were attractive, were having a pretty good time looking at my pajamas.
And I met a lot of them and didn't remember all of them. And some months later, in the middle of the winter, I was walking across the Arts Quad and a young man came up to me and he said, President Skorton, do you remember me? And I honestly didn't.
And I said, no, gosh. I'm sorry. I just don't. And he said, well, you met me in the fire drill at Mary Donlon around 7 o'clock at night. And you had these sort of goofy looking pajamas on. And we talked about them. And you don't remember me?
And I said, I'm sorry. I just don't remember you. So we sort of got over that awkwardness.
And I said, you know, how are you doing? And he said, I'm fine. You know, I'm in the middle of my freshman year. It's really going well. And I wanted to talk to you about your column in The Daily Sun.
And I said, did you read my column? He said I really do, you know. And I said, God, that makes me feel great.
He said can I tell you something about your column? And I was waiting for him to shower me with praise about my column, any of my columns. And I said, please, tell me anything you want to tell me about my column.
And he said, you need to get to the point quicker in your columns. Because this is a different generation. And we're really busy.
We get a lot of our information electronically. And we really don't want to wait till, like, the fourth or fifth paragraph to get to the point. If you want to catch our interest, you've got to hit it right in the top paragraph.
And so I sort of shuffled my feet around in the snow on the Arts Quad. I thanked him. I went back and changed my next column. I learned two lessons from that experience.
One, get my point up earlier in the column. And secondly, what an amazing, immense joy and privilege it is to be in an institution where you and I can learn to trust each other enough to tell the president that the column sucks.
Now, with the foundation of a Cornell education in place, with the knowledge of these three messages about humility and humanitarianism, about the thin veneer that separates the powerful from the powerless, and of the non-linearity and unpredictability of life, and knowing that a conversation can occur between a freshman and the president in which the president gains and the freshman teaches, you will be on your way to the same kind of a life journey that you may have dreamed about. And it's a great privilege to share my Last Lecture with you. Thank you.
We have tons of time for mixing it up a little bit together, if you like. My habit is to give short enough talks that we always have time for a little Q&A. You can signal your interest in doing this by either sitting and asking me questions or getting up and leaving, whichever you like. So questions? There goes two.
AUDIENCE: You said that you didn't know anything about leadership and management until you got into [INAUDIBLE]. What about-- I know it's not the Navy, but what about ROTC?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Thank you for the question. The question was didn't I learn anything about management or leadership-- I was in the Army ROTC in secondary school. You know, to be honest with you, first of all, I didn't stay the course like you did. And so I didn't get to the rank where I was exerting any serious leadership.
I did learn how to field strip an M1. You probably don't even know what an M1 is.
DAVID J. SKORTON: Yeah. It's a rifle that's used in sort of symbolic things, parades and things like that. And no, I was the farthest thing from a manager or a leader. I was just sort of barely able to keep up.
But it's a great question. Had I stayed with ROTC, I probably would have had the chance to learn some tremendous skills in leadership and management. It's a very good question, especially for a Navy guy.
AUDIENCE: What's next? What's the next step?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Well, a big threshold for me, a huge watershed is giving my last lecture. Now that I've gotten this done--
--I'm cruising. That's number one. Because I never have to give my last lecture again. What's next for me is whatever happens tomorrow that I'm not expecting. That's what's next for me.
I have a schedule tomorrow that starts at a certain time and ends at a certain time and is scheduled, sometimes, to the point of every 15 minutes on the calendar. So in a certain way, I can tell you exactly what I'm going to be doing, not only tomorrow, but in June of '09. And believe it or not, I have things on my calendar that go out to 2010 already.
But I really don't know whether I'm going to meet another student who will teach me something. Or whether a patient I cared for years ago will somehow turn up again in my life, as happened recently. Or whether some lesson that I had tucked away deep in my temporal lobes where human memory is stored will come out at an unexpected time and remind me of the unpredictability and non-linearity of life. So at one and the same time, what's next for me is go home tonight, get ready for tomorrow, have a whole series of planned appointments, and end the day tomorrow by introducing a keynote speaker at a Failed States conference on Darfur.
But I really have no idea. What keeps me getting up every morning with enthusiasm and optimism is that I don't actually know exactly what the day is going to bring. Little did you guys know when today started you'd be sitting here, sweating to death in a room, listening to some person old enough to be at least your dad-- if not your granddad, some of you-- and be quiet and stay through the whole thing.
It's, like, amazing. And less than 10% of you are currently using iPods. It's wild. It's really wild. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: A lot of people who graduate from Cornell go on to be very successful financially, politically, and otherwise. But I wonder how happy some people are. Could you describe what are the things that you do that truly make you happy? And how did you find the things that make you happy?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Well, that's a tough question. It's easy to say the things that make me happy. It's hard to tell you how they evolved.
Making music and listening to music makes me enormously, enormously happy. And I have all kinds of-- my son, who is a senior at Stanford, has been teaching me slowly-- slowly because of me, not because of him-- how to use new technologies in music. Whatever technology I have, he giggles, and says they're not going to be using that in x years. So don't buy another one.
And so I listen to a lot of music. I play music. I still take flute lessons from a graduate student. I have a lesson tomorrow. And so that's really, really enjoyable.
Although, if I could get something off my chest about the grad student, if I could tell you about this. She's a really excellent flute teacher and performer. And she's a super diplomat. Even though she's had no training, I'm sure, in management or leadership, she's a big time diplomat. She could go into Foreign Service.
I'm playing my flute. And I'm sharp on the high notes and flat in the low notes. Instead of saying, oh, it hurts, or something like that, she'll reach into her purse and pull out an electronic chromatic tuner. That's a device that picks up the note that you're trying to play by sort of measuring frequency and then has a little arrow, a little eagle that shows you whether you're off or not.
So she puts it down in front of the music and listens to me play a little more. And then she says excuse me. And then she turns it on. And that's a subtle way of saying, watch the needle, sucker. So music is one.
Having time to be with my family is really important to me. And I try to find some little bit of time in my schedule to make sure that I can do that. 'Cause they're sort of spread out. My son, for example, is 3,000 miles away. That may have to be by some other technological mechanism, like Skype or one of these deals.
Did you see how I said that? Like I know what I'm talking about? Skype-- it's amazing what you can teach someone my age.
I have a lot of fun meeting people, listening to their stories. I really do. And I suppose that's from being a doc. But I really have a very, very genuine interest in just sort of hearing what makes people's lives tick.
And that's a lucky thing. Because I spend a lot of time listening to people in my job, all over the world. And I really genuinely enjoy hearing about people's-- I enjoy learning a lot about your lives, those of you who I had a chance to interact with for a couple of years.
I really loved-- those of you who I ask what are you doing next year, whatever, I hope you'll write me and let me know. Because I really care. I really want to know. So that gives me a lot of joy.
I like reading. I don't have very much time for recreational reading anymore. I read a lot of stuff related to my job, which is interesting, but not as much recreational reading. I used to enjoy reading Robert B. Parker novels. You're young to know about Robert B. Parker. But he wrote a series of novels that were turned into a TV series called Spencer For Hire about a private investigator.
And when I did a sabbatical some years ago, in Boston I did some work on the sabbatical, for real. But I also went to all the places I could find in Boston that were mentioned in these novels to see if something exciting and private investigator-like would happen to me. Nothing happened to me at all, nothing. I just read many novels and sat in many barstools, reading novels, and nothing ever happened. But maybe tomorrow, something very exciting and investigator-like would happen.
I used to enjoy some participatory sports. I don't have a lot of time for that stuff now. And I really, really enjoy learning from other people who are good teachers. And I say this in all sincerity and not to pander to the students.
I have learned a lot from students at Cornell, from student leaders, and from rank and file, so to speak of students. From that guy who, you know, told me about my column writing, from my editors at The Daily Sun, and so on. So I enjoy doing all those things.
I do enjoy dreaming about things, dreaming about aspirations that are still to come. And much, much-- if you can imagine, there's someone much, much older than me-- once told me, as long as you're alive, you have a future. And Cornell lost a real, real friend last evening. It's up on the website now. Stephen H. Weiss passed away last evening.
And if you look on the website, you can read a little bit about his life story. And I was thinking that about Mr. Weiss up till yesterday. What my other friend told me that as long as you're alive you have a future and can dream about it.
And so I do. I do enjoy doing that dreaming. I highly recommend it, highly recommend it.
And I suppose if I had a say, what would probably the most fun thing to do in the world that I haven't had a chance to do yet, but that I think would be the most fun, it would be listening to someone's last lecture. That would really be cool.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] you were a psychology major as an undergrad and then pursued a career in medicine. And certainly you emphasized the role that the humanities and the arts played, how they intertwined throughout your life. So I wonder what you think, then, of the fact that not every college at Cornell places the same emphasis on the well-rounded or broad [INAUDIBLE] education.
DAVID J. SKORTON: It's enormous. The question was what do I think of the fact that not every aspect of this campus appears to place great value on a liberal kind of education, humanistic education. Of course, you expect me to say something like this. But you know, I've just been here a couple of years. And I mostly still have my experience behind me elsewhere.
This place is much, much more that way than a lot of other places, much, much more that way. But there is a general trend caused by all the increase in knowledge and the impetus for specialization. There's an enormous trend to have education focused more and more on vocational career kind of skills.
And there's no question you have to have skills to go out-- whatever it is you want to do in the world. If you want to do something corporate, if you want to work with an NGO, if you want to do something very idealistic, whatever it is, you need to bring skills to the table. And so it's very hard to argue against that.
Nonetheless, it's hard to find an area of endeavor that is not in some way based on the humanities. It's a strong statement. But the scientific method, for example, is a philosophical construct based on the philosophy of science.
You and I could sit and go through-- you and I plural-- could sit and go through virtually any area of endeavor and there would be some tie to the humanities. So I do think that the humanities, and to some extent, the arts, but especially the humanities are right at the core of an examined life and an educated life. And so I do think it's really important.
But here's the big news. And I'm sure you figured this out a long time ago. So I don't mean to sound silly by telling you this.
But your formal education is a tiny part of your life experience. I mean, you go through K-12 and all this kind of stuff. And even if you go into a field like I did, where I did college and then four years of med school and almost six years of post-medical school training, still, hopefully, with a normal life span, most of your adult life is going to be after your education.
And so it's really, really, really important to think about the contributions that humanistic disciplines can make to your life. And it's never too late to go back and refresh or think about some of those things. And I had this wonderful experience. We have the first graduating class from the medical school in Doha, Qatar. And I'm planning to go over and give their degrees in 2 and 1/2 weeks.
And I had a chance to visit them early in the year. And I brought my Sherlock Holmes books. I shipped a bunch of them to give to the med students. We talked about all this stuff.
And first of all, it's aggravating, like a lot of Cornell student things. Most of them already knew this whole story. Yeah, we know, Joseph Bell. Yeah, we heard the story, Arthur Conan Doyle.
And so that one thing is cool is that they sort of knew about it. But they were aware of the fact that they could learn something from literature that would be very, very focused and pointed. So I think, in general, there is a great appreciation here.
But there is this countervailing force that I want you to pursue and you want to pursue to bring skills to the table, whatever it is you want to do. But forever, that humanism should play a part of your life.
I'll tell you the part of my library at home that sort of does it for me. I've had a longtime interest in comparative religion, including comparative philosophy for people who don't believe in a deity. And so if you guys are over to the house for some reason, we have students over to the house, you know, the whole place is yours as much as mine. If you go to my library, you'll see one area where there's all the sort of scriptures of different religions and also some philosophy books, things that touch on secular humanism and so on. And it's, to me, a never ending area of interest to look up some issue, some philosophical issue, and see how it's treated by different belief systems or by secular humanism.
And one of the things that I've noted, which I mean, a lot of other people have noted for thousands of years, but I've just noted in the last 20 years, is the enormous similarity of most of the value systems for most of these different wisdom literatures, including ones that don't require a belief in a deity. So I couldn't be more enthusiastic about the idea that humanism should be a part of everyone's life.
But there are skills that need to be learned. So it's tough. It's much tougher to be a college student, for real, than when I was a college student. Because the specialization is intense for you all, much more than it was for me.
And in fact, the fact that I was able to really make the decision really to seriously try to go to med school toward the end-- toward the last half, any way-- of my college career was interesting. I was not a real exemplary-- you know, you don't even want to be like me. I got turned down by 10 out of the 11 med schools I applied to right away, bang-o. These were, like, are you kidding kind of letters, you know?
But one did take me, Northwestern took me. And it worked out great. I had a fabulous experience. So yeah, I think humanism is important. I think skills are important. It's just one of those things you have to do both, I think. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Are leaders born or made?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Well, this is one of those great, great questions. There's this old saw that managers do things right and leaders do the right thing. So if that's true, if the essence of leadership is to have a sort of a moral compass, then I would say we're born with a moral compass, and we have a chance to reinforce that moral compass.
If we're talking more about management, and the gentleman who asked me the question about would you learn some leadership or management skills in ROTC? Both skills are taught in the military. I think management skills are more taught. Leadership skills, I think, depend a little bit more on some inborn proclivities. But that's just one person's opinion. Somebody who never became even a Staff Sergeant, nothing. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: I was curious about you talking about some of your transitions from in your earlier life when you say you took a sort of backseat role and in your later life, when you took on the leadership position, what sort of personal issues did you develop?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Yeah. The question was what personal issues have I encountered in changing from a sort of a backseat role to a front seat role, if I can use that metaphor. I never move totally to the front seat. If you interact with people who interact a lot with me, or if you and I have a chance to interact, I really believe that most organizations-- organizations, especially complex organizations-- are best led by an understanding of what the individual parts of the organization are good at doing and want to do. And then somehow bringing that together in a consensus way.
There is a fabulous, interesting new book called Followership, as opposed to leadership, which talks about the importance of so-called followers in any organization, moving it forward. So I try really hard never to move totally to the front seat. But what basically makes you move more to the front seat, made me move more to the front seat than I was comfortable with, and you just have to either do it or not do it, is the fact that some decisions need to be made, regardless of consensus.
And it's impossible to make decisions that everybody will be happy with. Just read The Daily Sun editorials about me, and you'll see that that's the case. But for me, anyway, for my piece of advice, if you do the best you can to be a listener, try to take everything into account, and then at some point, a decision just needs to be made separate from a raw assessment of consensus. You just have to understand, just do the best you can, and go forward with it.
So in that way, I try to always stay sort of toward the back seat. I'll tell you sort of a funny military story, because you guys are military guys. And that is Wesley Clark was somewhere else that I was, giving a speech when he first declared his candidacy one election ago.
And he was telling stories about when he was joint chief of-- what was it? It was joint chief of staff. I forgot what the title of the person at the top of that thing is. Chief? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that it? Chair of the Joint Chiefs?
Anyway. And he was used to driving around in a car. But they put him in the back seat and somebody drove him everywhere. And then he ended his term. And the day you end your term, apparently, they take all these perks away from you. And you don't have that car anymore.
And so his wife was going to drive that night. And opened the car, and she said, Wes, what are you doing in the back seat? That's the story he told. And so you can be in the backseat and still sort of think you're in the front seat. But I tried never to make that transition totally. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: You were talking earlier about how your schedule is detailed out for almost [INAUDIBLE]. How do you overcome the challenge of focusing too much on the smaller picture and seeing the bigger picture--
DAVID J. SKORTON: That's the number one challenge in my leadership life is how to focus on the big picture and active, forward-looking initiatives when a lot of individual things have to be dealt with. And actually, I've had a great advantage in this job. This will sound crazy, but just hear me out.
The fact that the leadership of the University prior to me-- all people I knew, Jeff Lehman and Hunter Rawlings, I knew for a long time-- and the governing board decided to have this enormous fundraising campaign. And it was all planned out. Then all of a sudden there was a need for a change in leadership.
And so it was important for me to adopt the values of the institution, believe in them, which I agreed that I could do, of course, before I looked at the job seriously, I looked at all of these ideas that were out there to see if they felt comfortable to me. Universities are super positive places. And so they fit, almost every single one of them fit.
And then, to go out and talk to people about contributing to the University and make people feel good about what's happening at the University so they feel comfortable investing in it, was an opportunity to-- how can I put this-- it was an opportunity to go out and meet people, get to know them, and have to express the large direction the ship is going. And so I have this metaphor that I use when I try to explain my schedule, my tiny schedule, and the larger agenda that I need to be moving down.
I can say that we want to move Cornell overland from upstate New York to Hudson Bay. And I can tell you that we get there by going North by West. And that would be the large picture that I need to keep my eyes on, focused beyond my every 15, 30, 60 minute schedule.
But in order to get to Hudson Bay, you have to tell somebody, get on Highway 13, go here, get onto 79. Go to a convenience store, turn left, get gas. All these really minuscule details-- that's my schedule. So I look at my schedule as the small detail part of the metaphor and try to keep my eye on the ball for the longer term as a larger part of the metaphor.
But it's very, very, very hard. Because those individual meetings and problems have to be dealt with. I get a couple hundred emails a day. And some of them are the same kind of spam that you get, except that you consider my emails to you to be spam, which is, like, a whole different deal. But I get a lot of serious emails, dozens and dozens of them a day.
And I have a pledge to everybody. I put my personal email on my cards. I give it out to you guys all the time in my columns and so on. I feel it's my responsibility to try to do something to be responsive to individual, single person concerns. And yet, somehow, as a community, we have to move forward on whatever the issue is that we're talking about, whether we start out agreeing or not.
And so that's the key challenge of leadership of a complex organization that I've found is just what you mentioned-- how do you keep up with touching all the buttons that need to be touched every single day and still keep moving in that direction? And I'm always learning that. By no means do I think I have that down. But I realize that both have to be done. It's a really great question. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Talking about your life has been [INAUDIBLE] non-linearity, what would you do, what is your advice on something [INAUDIBLE] you have [INAUDIBLE]?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Yeah. So let me make sure I heard the question. In terms of non-linearity of life pathways, you wanted to know if I have any advice on what to do if a certain path didn't pan out for you, whether to try again or take a different path. This is a really, really individual kind of a question. I would never, never presume to tell you what to do about such a decision.
I'll tell you what I've done, since this is my last lecture, and I got the podium. In those circumstances, if there was someone in a position to give advice on that path that I tried to seek and it didn't work, I would try to ask that person, someone I respected, who knew a lot about a certain path, either had walked down that path already or had advised and guided a lot of people down that path. And ask that person, if he or she knew me, do you see me going down this path?
Did I have the wrong tactics, the wrong strategy, whatever it was, or do you think I'm picking the wrong path? You can't ask somebody else to answer your questions of heart. But you can get some advice on that. That's one thing I've done.
Secondly, I have tried to consider what that path was an exemplar of. So for example, in my case, taking some very difficult science course, and I didn't have a big science background. For example, I really had a terrible time with organic chemistry in college. I had a hard time with it.
And I thought to myself, does this mean I just can't deal with science, or can't deal with this one course, or whatever it was? Just sort of try to figure it out. In that particular case, there was a very generous faculty member who said, you know, let's just do this together. Calm down. And let me just sort of work this through with you.
And it turned out, in that case, I had to go down the same path again, and I was able to do it. And a third thing that's been helpful to me, to let myself off the hook a little bit, and I can't tell you if this is the right thing for you, but it helped me a couple of times, was to realize that there were other pathways that went the same general direction besides that particular pathway. The tough thing is that something you have to commit to, like a major or something like that, I think it's very, very helpful to get some advice.
And I'm sorry I can't give you something more intelligent on that. Because it depends so much on exactly what it is you're going through. Maybe two more questions, and then you guys can go do whatever students do these days this time of night, probably study, right?
AUDIENCE: You mentioned the idea you'd like to sit for one last lecture. What one individual, doesn't have to be faculty or administration, anyone in the world, you would like to sit through their last lecture?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Yeah. I thought about that a lot since they asked me to do this. This questions was whose last lecture would I like to sit through. I have two answers to that. I thought about that quite a bit.
I'd love to sit through last lecture of the man who taught me about congenital heart disease in adults. He was a very patient, kind, gentle man. I was very techno-oriented with all these image processing things. And he would say, just calm down.
Quiet down. Use your senses. Feel the person's chest. Listen to their story. Put your stethoscope in and listen to their heart.
Close your eyes. Block out all the distractions. Think about what you're hearing. Think about the sounds of the heart, the sounds of the blood going through the valves, the sounds of the valves opening and closing.
And try to imagine what's happening. Make a hypothesis. If you think you know what it is, see if other sounds that ought to be there are there or missing. And so I'd love to hear him tell a retrospective of his career.
And the other thing is I would love to hear in-person last lecture by Gandhi, because I've read so much of Gandhi over the years. And this has just been a celebration of an anniversary of satyagraha. And I would love to sit through, spellbound, and just hear it from his own mouth.
I heard a fabulous lecture in this room by Mike Abrams not too long ago. And it wasn't a last lecture, exactly. But it had that sort of gravitas to it. So thanks for that question. If you can arrange either of those things for me, that'd be super. One more question-- yeah? How are you doing?
AUDIENCE: What issue on campus do you think student leadership could tackle?
DAVID J. SKORTON: Say it again.
AUDIENCE: What issue on campus do you think undergraduate student leadership [INAUDIBLE] tackle?
DAVID J. SKORTON: What's an issue on campus that I think the student leadership should tackle? I think the student leadership is working on a couple issues right now that I think are really important that they are tackling and I would just like to see them finish them. One is the Student Code of Conduct, which I have strong feelings about. And I believe the student leaders and others are working on that in a very productive, serious way. And so I hope that runs aground to some final conclusion really soon.
And then the other thing is the whole issue that you all have brought up-- you meaning student leadership brought up-- to re-look at how student governance works. I think it's really, really important to reassess the way it's done to make it as effective as possible. I know that you have a new idea about that. And I applaud it. And I'm going to be supportive of whatever it is you want to do.
But the fact of thinking about it, thinking about us, 21,000 of you and one of me, linking arms and going through, or leading the University together through shared governance, is very exciting to me. And I was really thrilled to see the courage of current student leaders deciding take a step backwards and look at how the system works and see if they can make it even better. I think those two issues, that would be a lot.
I'll tell you what I think it's very important to students to do, not just students-- leaders, but all students-- is don't bring iPods to commencement. Listen to my talk. And when I get done in my talk, I always say thank you at the end. It's like a polite signal that thunderous applause are expected at the end.
So when I say thank you at commencement, I'm looking for 30,000 pair of hands going nuts. Thank you. That's it.
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"I don't know what I'm doing. I'm making it up as I go along," said Cornell President David Skorton to members of Cornell's Mortarboard Senior Honor Society during his hypothetical 'last lecture,' April 17. Mortarboard's Last Lecture series asks a professor each semester to speak as if it were his or her last time addressing the Cornell community.
Skorton encouraged audience members to consider that tiny differences often separate the powerful from the powerless, stressing what he called the "non-linearity" or unpredictability of life.