Alumni Profile:
Renaissance Man

by ED FINKEL

He played in a rhythm-and-blues band as a Northwestern undergraduate and dreamed of a career in music. But David Skorton, ’74 MD, ended up staying at the university for medical school and becoming a cardiologist and university administrator, culminating with stints as president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell University. Then, three years ago, he was named secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

 

 

David Skorton, ’74 MD

He played in a rhythm-and-blues band as a Northwestern undergraduate and dreamed of a career in music. But David Skorton, ’74 MD, ended up staying at the university for medical school and becoming a cardiologist and university administrator, culminating with stints as president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell University. Then, three years ago, he was named secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“If I had my druthers in those days, I probably would have been a musician,” Skorton says of his undergraduate years. “But my dad convinced me of the importance of getting a higher education. He never had that opportunity.”

As a psychology major, Skorton developed an interest in the effects of illness on people and considered a PhD program in psychology before opting to attend medical school. “I decided I could focus on the psyche after becoming a physician,” he says. “Once I got to Feinberg, I found it was quite a holistic education.”

Skorton did an internship, residency and cardiology fellowship, which he finished in 1979, at the University of California-Los Angeles. But he’d always felt a pull toward both general medicine and the treatment of children and adolescents, so he focused on congenital heart disease as a staff physician at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where he practiced from 1980 to 2006. While running an echocardiography lab at the Iowa City VA Health Care System, Skorton also developed an interest in clinical computer image processing.

Skorton moved on to the administrative track as director of general internal medicine starting in 1985, eventually becoming president at Iowa from 2003 to 2006.

I found medical training to be really good preparation for an administrative career. Doctors are used to making decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Physicians are taught to observe and listen first before coming to conclusions. When you’re a physician, you gain big helpings of humility.

“I found medical training to be really good preparation for an administrative career,” he says. “Doctors are used to making decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Physicians are taught to observe and listen first before coming to conclusions. When you’re a physician, you gain big helpings of humility — patients do poorly at times, patients pass away at times.”

Left: Skorton delivering the convocation address to Feinberg’s Class of 2018. Middle: Holding Sandy Koufax’s baseball glove. Right: Posing with friends from Star Wars outside of the National Museum of American History.

At both Iowa and Cornell, where he was president from 2006 to 2015, Skorton says he always focused on the student experience. “It’s easy, when you become an upper-level administrator at a complex university, to spend time with everybody but the students — faculty, deans, department heads, other administrators,” he says. “No matter how important the research is, these institutions were developed to serve students.”

Skorton’s wife, Robin Davisson, PhD, a professor and scientist he met at Iowa, came up with creative ideas like holding a “block party” at the president’s house and living with freshmen in the dorms during their orientation period. “Those were gratifying experiences,” he says.

In the same way Skorton tried to bring down economic barriers to attending Cornell, he’s inspired by the fact that the vast majority of the Smithsonian’s offerings are free. The organization attempts to break down geographic barriers as well, with 216 affiliated museums across the country, traveling exhibitions and digital displays. “Making sure people have access to the treasures of the Smithsonian is similar to wanting young people to have access to the university,” he says.

Skorton’s current role reminds him of leading a university for another reason: “I get to learn all the time,” he says. “Yesterday at the National Museum of Natural History, I saw a recently discovered fossil of an early horse. That was amazing.”

Left: Performing with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Middle: Greeting President Obama at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Right: Unveiling the president and first lady’s official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

In retrospect, Skorton appreciates the academic challenges and student-centricity at Northwestern, which bestowed on him both an Alumni Merit Award in 2006 and a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2009. He recalls that early in his first year at medical school, a family illness had become quite distracting, and he failed an important histology test at least partly as a result.

“The professor was incredibly understanding — an exemplar of a superb professor,” Skorton says. “He took me under his wing, he personally tutored me and showed me his microscope slides. I’ve never forgotten the personal interest he had in me.”