September 16, 2003

Lehman Meets With Students at Forum

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President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 spent an hour and a half last night in Uris Auditorium informally conversing with Cornell students, staff and faculty. The forum, “A Conversation with President Lehman,” allowed undergraduate and graduate students to meet the new president and to understand his role in the upcoming semester.

Student elected trustees Jackie Koppel ’05 and Funa Maduka ’04 organized and publicized the forum.

“Every student got an e-mail about tonight. Quarter cards were also passed out today, so there was ample opportunity to hear about it,” Koppel said.

She continued, “I think that it’s a fantastic opportunity to provide a smaller environment for students to ask the president anything — his background, his goals for the future. … He is really approachable and nice.”

After a lengthy introduction by Maduka listing Lehman’s experience and credentials, the president took the stage. The intimate environment allowed Lehman to speak without the aid of a microphone and address all questions he was asked.

Questions focused on a variety of issues at Cornell. Lehman spoke about his undergraduate experience at Cornell, diversity, campus politics, environmental issues, parties and the University’s relationship with Ithaca.

Koppel asked the first question: “Why did you choose Cornell?”

An alumni, Lehman’s reaction was simply, “Wow.”

He continued: “This is home for me. This university helped define who I am. … I see Cornell through different eyes as both the president and the parent of a student.”

Lehman attended Cornell; he said he has noticed many improvements since he was a student, specifically freshman housing conditions. Still, Lehman thinks many aspects of Cornell can be bettered. For example, as a math major, Lehman was frowned upon for studying in France for a year.

“People looked at me like I was crazy. Why would a math major want to study overseas? I think that it’s important in today’s world to have the opportunity to study abroad, and for Cornell to engage the world outside the U.S.,” Lehman said.

One student complained about the overabundance of large, impersonal lectures. Lehman remembered some of his best classes at Cornell being huge.

“Some professors were spectacular. There were also some that weren’t so good, and it was hard to feel connected. At a school the size of Cornell, how do you have a mix of large and small classes?” Lehman asked.

He expressed his belief that a school experience with only small classes is not a good idea.

“Large and small classes are different experiences, but it is not acceptable to go through four years and not have a professor who knows you,” he continued. He promised to confront the issue.

Another student complained about the recent crackdown on “fun” at Cornell through new restrictions on Greek life, Slope Day, and orientation week.

“I don’t think anyone gets ‘jollies’ out of students inhibiting themselves,” Lehman said. Lehman proposed that students reason together, talk to neighbors, and balance freedom with responsibility.

“I think that the increase of [the] drinking age has put the University in a tough spot,” Lehman said. “We’re stuck on the sidelines. We can’t teach the responsible use of alcohol to underage students.”

Many students asked Lehman questions about diversity and commented on the lack of racial integration at Cornell. Lehman spoke about affirmative action and explained how it is impossible to transcend racial consciousness while simultaneously working to establish an integrated campus.

“You have to have an administrative policy in which race is only one factor we consider,” Lehman said.

As a supporter of affirmative action, Lehman plans to focus on promoting interracial interaction.

“The larger question is: Are students reaching out and taking advantage of opportunities to learn about different people?” Lehman asked.

After being a dean of University of Michigan Law School for several years, Lehman expressed his excitement to learn the ropes at Cornell.

“I was an expert in what was going on. I knew my colleagues well. As president, everything is scaled up a level. I now work with all deans. … It’s really fun … [and] a bit exhausting,” Lehman said.

“I’m learning a lot,” he concluded.

The president stayed late to answer additional questions and chat with students and faculty members.

Archived article by Jessica Liebman