Skorton grew up in Milwaukee, Wisc., and Van Nuys, Calif., and majored in psychology at Northwestern University, where he earned his M.D. as well. He returned to California for his residency training at UCLA, where he specialized in cardiology, and in 1980 came to Iowa as an instructor in the Department of Internal Medicine. Since that time he has risen through the ranks to full professor and taken on joint appointments in electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering. His research has focused on congenital heart disease in adolescents and adults, and on cardiac imaging and computer image processing. He has continued to see patients throughout his years in central administration, and he will continue to do so, albeit on a more limited basis, during his presidency.
Editors note: The following interview was conducted in early February, before Skorton had taken over the reins of The University of Iowa.
Why were you interested in becoming the president of The University of Iowa?
Becoming a president somewhere or other was never a goal of mine. When I first started thinking about a career, I wanted very badly to be a musician. I lived in a multicultural neighborhood in Van Nuys and was exposed to Latin music. I wanted to be an LA studio musician, teach lessons, perhaps back-up headlining musicians, and so on. [Editors note: Skorton continues to play flute and saxophone with a local jazz combo, and cohosts a weekly two-hour radio program As Night FallsLatin Jazz, on KSUI, the Universitys public FM radio station.] But I didnt have the talent or the courage to pursue itits a very gutsy life. And my father, a Russian immigrant, was not able to complete his education beyond high school. So he was very interested in my pursuing higher education.
When I went to college, initially I was quite interested in philosophy and comparative religion and actually considered studying to become a rabbi. Eventually I got my degree in psychology, but I have always been interested in the philosophical underpinnings of religions. So the first things I wanted to do beyond music were things to do with the human condition and interactions with people. I developed an interest in medicine more for the human interactions than the scientific side.
And as I moved into administrative work, it was the people-to-people side of it that appealed to me. At its worst, administration is people-to-paper work, but at its best its people-to-people work. And I think the best administrators are those who see themselves as servants of their constituents, and who view their main function as connecting people in creative, innovative, supportive ways. The University is filled with creative people, and I think when creative people have some sort of common goal, and the resources to pursue it, the results are breathtaking, unpredictable, and unlimited.
Thats a wonderful view of the University. But access to this kind of institution is becoming more limited, as the tuition rises. What do you hope to do to help students and parents struggling with tuition increases?
I want those who have an investment in this universityincluding those who have an emotional and financial investment by entrusting us with their children, or an emotional and financial investment by entrusting us with their education and career preparation, or simply a financial investment as residents of the state of Iowato know that I am trying to be cognizant of the balance between quality and accessibility. I say trying to be cognizant because there may be things I might not recognize as factors that would affect the balance. So Im actively seeking peoples input. Im open to recommendations, suggestions, and complaints, and Im willing to look at sacred cows.
To parents and students in particular I want to say, please understand that we are aware that you are under more stress because of the level of tuition, and because of the lack of predictability of the increases. The Board of Regents, State of Iowa sets tuition, and I expressed my concern to them during the interview process and they were very receptive to hearing these things. The Board of Regents is an excellent group of leaders who work to maintain quality and accessibility. I dont have a specific short-range plan to suggest right now, except to say that Im very aware of it. Im the parent of a boy who will be applying to college in a few months. [Editors note: Skorton is the father of one son, Josh, who is currently a junior at West High School in Iowa City.] While I make a very good salary, Im still aware of what sorts of thoughts students and parents are going through.
In terms of long-range activities, Im going to assemble a team who, in addition to supporting our overarching missions of education, research, and service, will work to the best of its ability to use the Universitys assets for the long-term benefit of the states economic situation. Whatever we can do to help the economy improve, Im going to try to do. While this is not going to happen on a scale of months, but rather a scale of years, its a change that has to occur, so that we wont be experiencing this year-to-year uncertainty. Eventually all the ships will rise, and a more stable, predictable state budget will yield more stable, predictable appropriations that will yield more stable, predictable tuition.
Do you still feel that The University of Iowa is a good value for students?
The University of Iowa is still a fabulous place for undergraduates to attend college. Its not better or worse, but different than starting college at a community college or a liberal arts college. Its still a high-quality, accessible place, and still has the lowest tuition in the Big Ten. And the University remains very committed to the quality of student life at Iowa.
In what ways do you intend to stay in touch with parents and hear their concerns?
I plan to listen carefully to parents and students, hearing what they have to say and sharing their concerns with the Board of Regents. I will keep a close eye on the student aid situation so that appropriate and well-administered aid continues to flow toward those with need and toward those with special skills, as well as to create special opportunities.
Id like to hear from parents about their experiences with the Universityhow was it for your child to apply to school? How was it to deal with the financial aid options? How was it to see their kids go off and live in a dorm room for the first time, and so on? Id like their feedback on these things. I wont be able to answer all these questions and concerns myself, but Id like to gather their input, to continue to improve our undergraduate experience.
Is there anything parents can do to help the Universitys financial situation?
If in-state parents feel strongly about higher education in general and The University of Iowa in particular, they can share that passion with their state legislators. At its best, thats the way the system works, and wed really appreciate that. And out-of-state parents can share that passion with their federal representatives, because student aid, in part, comes from the federal government.
Finally, is there anything parents or students might learn from your path to the UI presidency?
Students and parents should understand that I didnt get here by some linear process. I didnt say, at age 6, Im going to be a doctor. I was the proud wearer of the label undecided student for a long time. If they can learn anything by my example of bouncing around, it is to be open to new ideas and different things, to be open to opportunity, and to be available for opportunity to open their minds.