Presentation will focus on how STEM and liberal arts fields nourish one another
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

David Skorton, current secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and former president of the University of Iowa, will visit campus on March 30 and deliver a talk at Hancher Auditorium titled “Education and What We Value: How STEM and the Liberal Arts Nourish Each Other.” The event is being presented by Hancher Auditorium in conjunction with the UI Graduate College.

The 19th president of the UI, Skorton served the university for 26 years in various capacities and was beloved by many. He joined the UI in 1980 and was a faculty member in the Department of Internal Medicine and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Before being named president in 2003, Skorton held terms as vice president for research (now the vice president for research and economic development) and vice president for external relations.

Considered a Renaissance man, Skorton also practiced as a cardiologist and plays flute and saxophone, counting the late Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, among his musical mentors and closest friends. Skorton was co-host, with Conroy, John Rapson, and Dan Moore, of a jazz radio show on KSUI-FM.

In 2006, Skorton left the UI and became president of Cornell University, serving there until 2015 when he became the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

Skorton spoke with Iowa Now about his time at the UI and his thoughts on the future of higher education.

How do you think it will feel to be back on campus?

Well, it’s going to be a positive and very emotional experience for me. I’ve had the good fortune to live in various parts of the country—Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ithaca, and New York—but I lived in Iowa City longer than I lived anywhere. My academic career started there. The University of Iowa took a chance on me and hired me on my first tenure-track academic position, and I really learned much of what I know about academia at the feet of a lot of mentors there.

Secondly, like Hawkeyes everywhere, I was pretty distraught by the damage that was wrought by the flood in 2008, and to be able to come back and see the arts campus and Hancher in its glory again will be a great joy.

You said you had learned at the feet of some mentors. Was there anyone in particular who was a mentor to you during your time at the UI?

There were many of them. Dr. Francois Abboud, then-chief of internal medicine, the man who hired me originally. Also, Dr. Allyn Mark, the director of the cardiology division, and Reynold Spector, the division director in general medicine. And Steve Fleagle—he became the associate vice president and chief information officer.

Dr. Melvin Marcus was a world-renowned coronary physiologist and cardiologist who passed away tragically very young. He was one of my research mentors and close friends. Another fabulous individual who just recently passed away is Dr. Richard Kerber. He took me under his wing. And I learned so much from Linda Kerber in many domains.

Former UI president David Skorton will speak at 7:30 p.m. March 30 at Hancher Auditorium. His talk is titled “Education and What We Value: How STEM and the Liberal Arts Nourish Each Other.” Admission is free. More information here...

Frank Conroy, the former head of the Writers’ Workshop was a very close friend of mine. He was not only a devoted, dedicated teacher and leader of the Writers’ Workshop, he was also of course a very admired writer. And he was also a jazz pianist and jazz journalist of some renown. He and I used to jam a little bit. We eventually formed a little group of musicians. He put the group together, and we were not exactly up to his standards, although it had such luminaries as John Rapson, then the head of the jazz program, and Dan Moore, the head of the percussion program. Frank called the group “Close Enough.”

I hate to mention so few because there are many others, but these are some of the folks who had a huge influence on me.

Can you tell us what you hope your speech will leave people thinking or feeling or talking about?

Well, I don’t imagine that I’m going to teach anybody there anything new because the University of Iowa has been combining the strengths of the STEM disciplines and the arts and humanities for generations. Instead, I hope to reassure them that there are public voices speaking out about the importance of the arts and humanities.

“We underestimate the arts and humanities at our great national peril.”

I believe that we undervalue the arts and humanities. We underinvest in them. We treat them as frills, things that are nice to have if you have time and money left over, but not critical, and I think that’s a mistake. And I think we underestimate the arts and humanities at our great national peril. And so I hope to reassure the audience that there are folks out there trying to get that message out.

At the same time, I don’t believe that it’s the arts and humanities versus the STEM disciplines. I think that an examined and fulfilled life requires a broad sweep of appreciation of knowledge, and so what I hope to get across in the talk is how the STEM disciplines and what I’m calling the liberal arts really nourish each other.

And the other thing I’d like to tell the audience more about is the Smithsonian. We’re lovingly referred to sometimes as the “nation’s attic,” but we’re so much more than that.

As you know, higher education is in many regards at a tipping point. How do you see graduate education moving forward to include a union between the STEM and liberal arts?

It’s tough because I tend to think about undergraduate education as a broad experience during which a student covers certain disciplinary knowledge but also has a chance to explore and understand things quite beyond what their initial interest may have been. And I think of graduate or professional school as a time to focus more deeply, still with breadth, of course, but much more depth.

So the challenge in graduate education is that while one is becoming a deeper expert in a narrower, more focused area of knowledge, it seems to go against logic to think that graduate education might include some work from another discipline. Nonetheless, I really think it’s important to think about this carefully.

“Problems in our world do not present along narrow disciplinary lines.”

The only people who can decide if this is a really good idea are the students and the faculty.

It’s not for me to say that this ought to be done in every case or in any specific way, but I do think it’s important to remember that problems in our world do not present along narrow disciplinary lines.

Whatever we’re doing, in order to think about our issues and our times, we have to think broadly. I say this frequently, but I believe it very strongly: A life in medicine and science has convinced me that science, although necessary, is not sufficient to solve our thorniest problems, and that a combination of science, social sciences, and the arts and humanities is what is necessary.

And so if that’s true, then that’s also true of graduate education, where one is learning to solve problems of a very focused nature. The devil’s in the details: How do you do that in a circumstance in which the pressure on the student is tremendous in a relatively short period of time, in a handful of years, to learn something to sufficient depth to add to the body of knowledge and to teach it?

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers? 

I think the greatest asset that every creative or cultural institution has is its creative people. The students and faculty and staff of a university are critical. Every single student, every single staff member, every single faculty member.

But I would like to say that the heart and soul of the university is its faculty. And the greatest asset I believe that the state of Iowa has is its faculty throughout its higher education institutions, which are broad and terrific. And one of those that’s really fabulous is the faculty at the University of Iowa, and I’m very proud to have been on that faculty. I’ll always claim that as one of the things I am most proud of, and it’s going be a great honor for me to be shoulder-to-shoulder again with the faculty of the University of Iowa.