December 15, 2002

Lehman Named 11th President

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Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, currently the dean of the University of Michigan Law School, will assume the presidency of Cornell University. The Board of Trustees announced the selection Saturday during a press conference.

Lehman, who was unanimously chosen by the Presidential Search Committee, will take office on July 1, 2003. He is the first Cornell alumnus to assume the presidency.

“Cornell University has never been far from my heart, and I am just humbled and awed and thrilled,” Lehman said at the press conference.

President Hunter R. Rawlings III and members of the Board of Trustees and the search committee were equally enthusiastic.

“I feel great confidence that he’s going to be a superb president,” said Rawlings, who will join the classics department as a full-time faculty member after his term ends on June 30. “As [a faculty member] I will look to our president with great respect.”

As dean of the University of Michigan Law School, Lehman entered the radar of the national media when he was a named defendant in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, which challenge the affirmative action policies at Michigan. The Supreme Court’s March decision will have an effect on admissions policies nationwide.

According to Edwin H. Morgens ’63, chair of the search committee and member of the Board of Trustees, a commitment to diversity was an important quality sought in Cornell’s next president.

“We tried very hard not to be colorblind but rather to cue to the very priorities which [Lehman] articulated very well,” Morgens said.

He said that of the three finalists, there was a woman and a minority.

“It was clear, however, that the person for the job was a white male,” he said, emphasizing Lehman’s qualifications.

Yet Lehman is no stranger to diversity issues. He antici0pates spending “a quarter to a half of my time” on the Supreme Court case in the next three months, he said. He stressed that a priority will be to spend time with the press in order to explain the Michigan’s defense of affirmative action. “This is complex stuff,” he said.

As for its outcome, Lehman said, “I suspect that the Supreme Court will uphold” affirmative action and “reaffirm” its current position.

The qualities sought by the search committee, according to Morgens, were several. He indicated that the 19 members searched for someone with “an unblemished record of integrity,” curiosity, and “clear leadership skills coupled with an ability to make decisions, which is not always true of academics.” In addition, this person would have to be an “able fundraiser,” passionate and “just plain smart.”

“I believe that Cornell’s president must nourish a culture of greatness. Everyone who is part of Cornell must hunger to leave a legacy of enduring inquiry,” Lehman said at a luncheon Saturday, addressing administrators, trustees, student leaders, and Ithaca officials. Also present were presidents emeriti Frank H.T. Rhodes and Dale Corson, who was president while Lehman was an undergraduate.

Lehman listed information science and computing technology, postgenomic life sciences, nanotechnology, the boundaries between races and religions around the world, and the boundaries between local and global societies as points of a “conversation … that must be sustained by everyone at Cornell.”

Lehman, 46, who received his undergraduate degree in mathematics, is connected to the University in more ways than one: his father Leonard graduated in 1949 and his son, Jacob, is currently a freshman.

Lehman sent an e-mail Saturday morning to students and faculty of the University of Michigan Law School notifying them of his impending departure.

Rawlings announced his resignation from the presidency on March 15. In April, the Presidential Search Committee was formed; its 19 members and two advisors consisted of 13 trustees, two students, one University employee, three Ithaca campus faculty members, one faculty member from Weill Medical College and one administrator. Seven members were women and 12 were male.

Soon after the search committee sent 200,000 pieces of mail sent to alumni requesting suggestions for the next president. He said the committee received approximately 1,000 responses. The committee held open forums with students, faculty and employees throughout the year and interviewed approximately 30 senior members of the administration to get further suggestions.

At this time, the committee also drafted “The Cornell Opportunity,” a document which outlined the responsibilities and desired qualities of Cornell’s next president.

The initial nomination list had 500 names, narrowed down to 100, then 35 who were interviewed individually at their place of employment, then 12 who underwent further background checks, and finally three.

Morgens said that the committee divided this group into sitting presidents, rising provosts and “superstar deans.” The latter category, he said, was not paid any particular attention.

However, he said, “Jeffrey Lehman simply would not go away,” and the “superstar dean” was considered among the three finalists for president.

“Of course it would be easy, it would be right and proper for me to tell you that I was six feet, eight inches tall,” he said in reference to Rawlings’ six-foot, seven-inch stature and the increasing height of successive Cornell presidents.

But Lehman was content to say that after “137 years of [intellectual] giants … it is our shared duty to stand on their shoulders and see farther.”


Archived article by Andy Guess