Skorton visits UI: Education and what we value

David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and former president at the University of Iowa, visited campus on March 30 to present a lecture at Hancher Auditorium titled, “Education and What We Value: How STEM and the Liberal Arts Nourish Each Other.” The event, presented by the Graduate College and Hancher, drew a crowd of over 800 people.

Skorton served as the 19th president of the University of Iowa from 2003 to 2006 and was a member of the UI faculty for 26 years in the Department of Internal Medicine and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering before becoming the 12th president of Cornell University. He also practiced as a cardiologist and plays flute and saxophone.

A renaissance thinker, Skorton underscored the intersection of the arts, humanities, and sciences and the peril of underestimating the arts and humanities side of the equation. Skorton does not view a competition between STEM disciplines and the arts and humanities. Instead, he argued, STEM disciplines and the liberal arts nurture each other.

“A life of science has taught me that science will not be enough to solve the world’s thorniest challenges,” Skorton said during his talk. “For that we need the broad and deep value of the liberal arts for two overriding reasons: They hold inherent value as the best way to understand ourselves, our world, and what it means to be fully human; and they provide practical contributions for solving our most difficult and persistent problems.”

Before Skorton took the stage, Graduate College Dean John Keller took a moment to highlight the role graduate education plays in the many intersections of the arts, research, medicine, technology, and education.

“Graduate students at the University of Iowa, and at universities across the country, are currently pushing the boundaries of disciplinary knowledge and helping society move forward,” Keller said.

Illustrating this point, Keller introduced a brief showcase of UI scholarship; a jazz trio, featuring lecturer Steve Grismore, associate professor Damani Phillips; and graduate student Blake Shaw; and the winners of the UI’s Three-Minute Thesis competition, Kirsten Stoner (Biomedical Engineering) and Sara Knox (Social Work), who presented their three-minute research pitches.

The presentations represented a small sampling of the innovative work taking place on the UI campus. Reminiscing on his time in Iowa City, Skorton praised the UI for the diverse array of scholarship valued by the institution.

“The UI values the entire range of scholarly disciplines, from astrophysics to poetry,” Skorton said. “The value of combining STEM, and the liberal arts, including arts, humanities and social sciences, has had a major influence on my life as an educator, as an administrator, and as a student, which for me is a joyful, lifetime profession.”

Skorton also emphasized that faculty and graduate students, through interdisciplinary and collaborative work, can keep the University of Iowa a magical place.

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

After the talk, Dean Keller conducted a question-and-answer session with Skorton, which was full of laughs, but also important points.

“‘Look to the past to help create the future,’” Skorton quoted from Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University. “‘Look to science and to poetry. Combine innovation and interpretation. We need the best of both, and it is universities that best provide them.’”