January 23, 2003

Talking With Jeffrey Lehman '77

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Cornell’s President-elect Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 has been busy on the talk show circuit over the past few months. Last month, he appeared on PBS’ The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, CBS’ 60 Minutes, MSNBC and CNN among others.

Lehman has spent most of his on-air time defending the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action in its admissions, which has come under scrutiny because of two cases.

Grutter v. Bollinger, in which Lehman is named as a co-defendant, was filed by Barbara Grutter, who applied to Michigan’s law school in 1997 and was denied admission. Gratz v. Bollinger was filed by Jennifer Gratz, who applied to the University’s Ann Arbor campus in 1995 and was wait-listed. Both claim that lesser qualified minority applicants were accepted, effectively taking their spots.

The undergraduate admissions process includes a now infamous points system in which points are assigned to applicants based on their positive attributes.

An applicant can receive up to 20 points if he or she is a minority, out of a possible 150.

Though the law school does not employ the points system, Lehman has stated often and openly that a “critical mass” of members of different racial groups is essential to the learning process at the university level.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in both Grutter vs. Bollinger and Gratz vs. Bollinger on April 1.

Lehman will serve as dean of the University of Michigan Law School until June. He will take over as Cornell’s 11th president on July 1. The Sun spoke with him about his plans for the next semester, his feelings on the University of Michigan’s upcoming Supreme Court battles and his long term vision for Cornell.

Sun: How will the cases affect your ability to prepare to be Cornell’s next president?

Lehman: Well, I’m still the dean of the law school of the University of Michigan. The litigation has been a huge part of my work here [at the University of Michigan] for several years now.

S: Have you been actively involved in setting up arguments for the case?

L: Most lawyers would rather that their clients were not the dean of the law school. [The University of Michigan’s lawyers] really get a partner in this situation. I and my assistant dean have been very involved. It’s been quite an education for me, with the media attention.

S: Once you take over at Cornell, will this case affect your presidency?

L: The Supreme Court is an extremely efficient court. It clears its docket by July 1. I’m assuming that we will win the litigation, that the Court will hold up Bakke. [The 1978 Supreme Court case, Bakke v. University of California Regents was the last Supreme Court case to address affirmative action. Five of the nine justices declared that using race as a factor in university admissions was constitutionally permissible]. If we don’t, all of higher education will be affected. All of higher education cares deeply about the importance of teaching in diverse environments.

S: So what are your plans this semester?

L: I will be starting to study the University systematically. I’m going to be meeting with as many people as I can. A large part of my work this semester is going to be thinking through how my first year is going to be. The only decisions I expect to be involved in this semester are the dean searches [for the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the dean of the Law School].

S: What are some of your long-term goals as Cornell’s next president?

L: I don’t know yet. It would be a mistake to change major things at Cornell just for the sake of change. There’s not a reason to shake things up. … I need to talk to people, to be around people. I want to know what their dreams are for Cornell. I’m going to try to make sure to be as connected to people as I can be. … And there’s a lot of events on campus and in the community that I want to be able to participate in. … I’m expecting my first year to be really a very intense immersion in the University.

S: Once you are president, how much of an opportunity will you give students, faculty and staff to voice their concerns to you?

L: Being a dean is different from being a president. It’s much easier to stay engaged and out there [as a dean]. … It’s easier to recognize 1,100 students than 20,000. … I don’t relish the idea of having barriers between me and the outside world, but I do know that you need them in order to think.

S: As president, will you continue to emphasize support for the sciences at Cornell as much as President Hunter R. Rawlings III?

L: The reason that the physical and life sciences are so visible is that in order to be cutting edge in those fields you have to spend a lot of money. The humanities depend … on the maintenance of a world class library, which also costs money. But they are more low-profile. The humanities are very important to me. … I remember that as being a really important part of my Cornell experience.

S: What about the Life Sciences Initiative? Will you continue to support that?

L: I do expect that our level of activities will continue full speed ahead. The position that we all have is that Cornell is capable of being great in all areas.

Archived article by Maggie Frank