September 30, 2003

Lewis: 'Why Rawlings, Martin Forced Me to Resign'

Print More

In a letter to the editor printed on Aug. 30, 2002 in The Sun, John A. Gowan ’69 said, “You will not be able to replace Phil Lewis with a better man — especially when people discover how you have treated such a good man. Lewis will be viewed as a Socrates. How will you be viewed?”

In the summer of 2002, Philip Lewis, former Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was asked to resign via e-mail by Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin while away on vacation in Europe.

Lewis chose to accept the University’s ultimatum in the end of July of that year. In a Sun article earlier this semester, Henrik N. Dullea ’61, former vice president for University relations, said that the decision to ask Lewis to resign was made in the interests of “the best working relationship between the University and the college.”

Since that time, many arts college department chairs and other faculty have expressed concern about Lewis’s forced resignation.

Lewis is currently away on sabbatical in Europe and will be returning to the Department of Romance Studies at the beginning of the 2004 academic year. G. Peter Lepage, former chair of the Department of Physics, is currently the interim dean of the college.

Reasons Behind Resigning

During the course of these events, Lewis largely withheld comment, as did former Cornell president Hunter R. Rawlings III and Martin. However, in an e-mail to The Sun sent from Paris this summer, Lewis attempted to explain “why the provost and the president forced me to resign.”

“I wish I had an answer … that I could qualify as compelling (concrete failings or misdeeds that were seriously discussed with me) or respectable (the substantive differences of viewpoint on policy that I outlined in my letter to the faculty last fall),” Lewis wrote. “But the public explanation I expected was deliberately withheld.”

“The reason that was communicated to me in late August in a private meeting with the president and provost — my ‘corrosive style’ — was and still is exceedingly vague and elusive. Similarly, the formal explanation sent to the trustees in early August — my lack of collegiality and unresponsiveness to the provost’s efforts to deal with it — was and is demonstrably false,” he continued.

Jonathan D. Culler, a former senior associate dean in the arts college, told The Sun two weeks ago from Rome, “They have never given him an explanation that he regards as satisfactory.”

“It was clear that there were differences of opinion about major issues. But on many of those, [Lewis] turned out to be right in the end. It may have been the very fact that he was right that made those differences of opinion rankled,” Culler said.

Similarly, Lewis explained, “My hunch — a hypothesis that I express cautiously since I have no means of investigating the matter and since, as I’ve noted many times, the University administration could only deny it — is that my insistence on speaking my mind clearly on issues of concern to the college faculty and the administration was the central factor in the decision.”

On the nature of the reasoning for Lewis’s resignation, Culler said, “It wasn’t as though Lewis had been preventing them from doing something they had wanted to do and they had spent last year accomplishing. On the contrary, we had carried on quite smoothly this past year that just finished … without significant problems despite the fact that we were in a more difficult budgetary climate.”

“So far as we can tell, it certainly was differences of style,” Culler said.

Many arts college faculty members have expressed uneasiness with what exactly constitutes a “difference of style” and likewise the general series of events that led up to Lewis’s forced resignation.

Charles Van Loan, the Joseph C. Ford Professor of Engineering and chair of the Department of Computer Science, described Lewis as “a deep thinker. What I do admire about him is how he frames academic issues and makes people think.”

Culler described Lewis’s style similarly, saying that he “is not a cheerleader, he is a very serious and reflective person and not given to making dramatic proclamations about this or that. Before making any decision he wants to consult widely and reflect deeply, and that somehow made the president think of him as someone who is too critical, too reserve, too unenthusiastic about launching new initiatives because Lewis thought they needed to reflect seriously on them before going down one path or another.”

Culler said the main difference between Lewis’s and Rawlings’ styles is that “Rawlings’ style of leadership involves making bold stands whether or not people agree with you.”

“If instead of consulting wisely and doing something that people generally agreed with he could devise some new policy that he thought was right and others thought was wrong, that would make him feel that he was an even more inspired leader,” Culler said.

However, Culler did not believe the entire upper administration shared Rawlings’ opinion: “My sense was that it was mainly the president and not the provost who was the force behind asking [Lewis] to step down. It may well have been that since [Rawlings] was on his way out he could do something that might be unpopular and take the heat for it and it would be done,” he said.

Instances of Conflict

Even with Culler’s sense of the events, he notes that “I don’t imagine this was planned on their part. I believe that it did arise in the course of discussions out of which there was disagreement, and the president perhaps had wanted him to resign for some time.”

In a 12-page letter to the entire faculty of the arts college in September 2002, Lewis attempted to answer to many the reasons why it was deemed necessary for him to step down by providing “an account of the issues that have arisen in the past year.”

Lewis’s letter described instances where the administration had remarked on the “negativity” of Lewis and the two senior associate deans.

“The first occurred on June 27, 2001, when the President summoned me to his office and stated forcefully his objections to the rhetoric of e-mails I had sent to Vice-President Dullea (raising questions about the Cornell logo) and to the Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Information Sciences, Robert Constable (urging him to work toward a compromise between the Department of Computer Science and the College of Engineering),” Lewis wrote.

“The second occurred in my office on February 5, 2002. During this meeting the Provost lectured me, Jon Clardy and Jonathan Culler about our ‘negativism,’ notably with respect to planning in the life sciences and warned us that it was time to shape up,” he stated.

Lewis’s letter also described a letter sent to members of the Arts and Sciences Advisory Council, a body of forty alumni who are appointed by the dean to meet with other deans and report to the trustees, which “described the issues under three headings: 1. Program Review; 2. Phase-II Genomics and future Investment in Scientific Research; 3. Financial and Capital Issues. … The letter itself came to loom large in early April. Provost Martin remarked pointedly, at the end of a conversation with me on April 5 [2002], that the President and the Chair of the Trustees were expressing their unhappiness with ‘negativity’ and emphasizing their expectation of positive discourse.”

Lewis’s letter said that after that meeting, he and Martin had a brief feud “and the truce we then reached was genuinely amicable. I now surmise that the letter and Biddy’s objections to it constitute the most telling background to her decision to have me step down.”

According to Lewis’s letter, initiatives in the social sciences seemed to be a major point of friction between the college and the University as it was brought about in program reviews, especially in considering which departments should be focused on in the coming years.

“I have generally taken a position that stresses the need to sustain or build strength in the basic disciplines and departments around which a college of arts and sciences is traditionally constructed. Program reviews have consistently reinforced this college-level posture,” he wrote.

However, Lewis was largely resistant to the reviews because of his belief in the way departments should be developed.

“I have advocated for it forcefully in the belief … that a move toward a different model should not occur by drift or default,” the letter said. “Rather it should happen deliberately, in a way that allows the faculty to debate the options and come to a position of studied collective support for the University’s approach.”

Other instances of conflict Lewis saw were in the humanities and the arts. In an annual report to the provost submitted in June 2002, Lewis concluded that “under the infelicitous title The Cultivation of Knowledge, the university’s remarkable new brochure on the ‘changing face of the humanities’ at Cornell paints a picture that accords essentially no attention to the College’s role or long-term efforts in this sphere.”

Lewis explained, “The brochure leaves me, as the spokesperson seeking support for the humanities and the arts, having to explain that the College really does have a significant role in this sphere and that my ideas on how to support them do deserve the attention of the college’s constituency.”

The last area of conflict Lewis mentioned in his letter was the area of undergraduate admissions, financial aid and athletics.

“The evolution I have observed during the past 13 years can be summarized by two observations: (a) Arts and Sciences has turned over much of the responsibility for recruiting its applicants to the University Admissions Office; (b) the pressure to which we are subject to admit recruits for varsity athletic teams have multiplied and intensified, as have complaints alleging that we fail to cooperate,” he wrote.

Lewis’s letter said that “both Dean [Lynne S.] Abel and I have objected strenuously to claims we have often encountered according to which we do not lower our academic standards in order to admit athletes. It is certain that we do, and that our Ivy peers do so as well. Thus we should not make claims to the contrary.”

“If I have made a strategic mistake with respect to policy on admissions of athletic recruits, it was at the beginning of my deanship, when I withdrew Arts and Sciences support for a university-level scheme that would have turned over a set number of admissions each year to the Dean of Admissions and the Athletics Director,” Lewis’s letter continued.

After summarizing what he saw as the relevant events of the past year, Lewis’s letter said: “In my own, detailed examination of the record, the brief flare-ups of tension over the ‘negativity’ perception and admissions issues appear to be far outweighed by the multi-faceted record of collaborative work, by the successful resolution of the tensions that did arise, and by the Provost’s oral assurances that she did want me to serve out my term.

“Thus, while the issues I’ve discussed have made for some real friction this year, the concrete motivation of the Provost’s judgment conveyed in her confidential message of July 8 remains hard for me to grasp.”

Faculty Letter to the Trustees

After returning from summer break, many faculty in the arts college remained unsure as to why Lewis was asked to resign and what the implications of the action were for the University. Steven Kaplan, the Goldwin Smith Professor of European History, helped organize faculty members to send a letter of concern to the Board of Trustees last year which stated, “We are thus perplexed by the timing of the decision to remove Dean Lewis as well as by the air of mystery that shrouds it.”

“Aside from the matter of common decency toward a devoted servant of the community, such a procedure raises serious issues about the understanding of the relation between the central administration and the Dean of the College, whoever he or she may be at a given moment. It is difficult to see how it fosters a spirit of legitimate dissent or critical questioning and it has worrisome implications for the constitution and functioning of a great University,” the faculty letter read.

“As a sign of our commitment to the University and to its defining values, we decided not to make a public spectacle but to appeal by reasoned argument and sober remonstrance to the relevant authorities,” Kaplan said. “The point was not to agitate in the public sphere but to engage the administrators and the elders discreetly, deliberately and vigorously.”

According to Kaplan, nearly one quarter of the tenured faculty and one half of the chaired faculty in the arts college signed the letter.

“Never in my professional life have I witnessed such utter contempt for the views of a significant portion of the faculty. I did not even receive the courtesy of a one-sentence reply from the chair of the Board of Trustees. This constitutes the most egregious example of corporate blindness and arrogance that I’ve ever seen in a university community,” Kaplan added.

Peter C. Meinig, chair of the Board of Trustees, chose not to comment directly on the letter, the lack of a formal response or Lewis’s resignation.

In an e-mail to The Sun, Meinig wrote, “I have the highest respect for former Dean Phil Lewis, as I do for President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings and for Provost Biddy Martin. It is the responsibility of the President and the Provost to select the deans and administrators who work with them to lead the University.”

Issues of Procedure and Responsibility

According to Lewis, there is little point in dwelling on the absence of a clear reason for his forced resignation “since a creditable explanation — which I badly needed a year ago — would be of little value now. The important point to be weighed by the University’s leaders is that the lack of an appropriate, timely, properly discussed explanation was professionally devastating for me.”

The timing of the resignation request has remained an issue to those troubled by the action.

“It does [seem suspect], the middle of the summer, especially when it’s delivered by e-mail while he is on vacation. No urgency about that; they could have said, ‘Well let’s wait until you are back and then we’ll talk about this.’ Why didn’t they do that?” Culler said.

Lewis said, “It was pretty obvious to everyone, I think, that an action carried out in mid-summer while the faculty was away could not yield much protest unless I opted to fight confrontationally on the basis of procedure or governance. … I thought such a course would be risky for the college, that it could cause bad publicity for the University and that it might aggravate what was already an almost unbearable situation for me.”

During the course of the events, the arts dean’s office suggested that the college’s department chairs meet independently to make sure the interests of the college could be advocated while Lewis was a lame-duck dean.

Culler said the chairs met at first to discuss the situation and what to do.

“They met with the provost and the president and talked to them about the situation and expressed their serious concern about asking a manifestly successful and responsible
dean to resign.”

Van Loan, a member of the chairs’ executive committee, noted that “the timing was unfortunate for a number of reasons. To get a new dean under that quick of notice was a tall order. Other people in the college were stepping down, like Culler whose term was up and [Abel] who ran the undergraduate programs. And you worry about the institutional memory.”

Culler also raised concerns about institutional memory.

“The department chairs were quite concerned about this and especially its consequences for the college, to have a lame-duck president and a lame-duck dean is not a very good idea. Of course, it turned out it wasn’t. And the search for a new dean failed. So now we have had two years of temporary administration, which is not very good for the college at all.”

Another concern to many was the way in which Lewis was asked to resign.

“Once [Lewis] returned to Ithaca, which was the very end of July, he was to meet with the president and the provost. They wanted him to announce his resignation before he had a chance to meet with the department chairs. … The president felt very strongly that he wanted the resignation right now and there were threats that if he didn’t resign he would be fired directly,” Culler said.

Van Loan explained the importance of chair meetings.

“Deans are usually very careful about consulting with the chairs; that is their way of keeping in touch with the faculty. Whenever there is something momentous, there is anxiousness about consulting the faculty through consulting the chairs.”

On the way in which he was asked to resign, Lewis said, “No employee of the University — not even those who serve at the pleasure of the president — should have to resign without an opportunity for an exchange that could produce a mutually acceptable account of the decision.”

The faculty letter to the trustees similarly addressed this issue: “We are concerned on professional and institutional grounds about the preemptory manner in which the Dean of the College was forced to resign. It has the appearance of top-down administration out of keeping with the thoughtful traditions of consultation and open discussion that have contributed greatly to the distinctive qualities of innovation and initiative at Cornell and in the College of Arts and Sciences.”

“To our knowledge, there was no prior consultation with Chairs or other members of the College in coming to a very grave — indeed, in our experience, unprecedented — decision,” the faculty letter said.

Another concern to many members of the arts faculty, which ties into the way in which Lewis was asked to resign, was the lack of exchange not just with Lewis himself but with the wishes of the faculty of the college.

“I’m not sure [what the implications are]. I think it’s unfortunate for the college and certainly for the faculty. The dean is sort of our representative to the central administration. The wishes of the faculty were not being consulted at all here. It seems to be a very bad precedent,” Culler said.

“There may not be major consequences, only the fact that the central administration has affirmed it’s right to get rid of a dean that it doesn’t like even if the faculty supports him. I do think there is an issue there,” Culler added.

Van Loan said, “Some chairs thought there was a great injustice. People deep down are very complicated; you can be skilled in certain parts of the job and not in others. And it is very hard to see the full picture. And someone from my vantage point doesn’t see the whole thing. You know, Phil makes you think. As a chair I like that kind of thing, but the dean of the faculty has to be a businessperson.”

“Deans are caught between a rock and a hard place. They have the administration on one hand, they have the faculty on the other; it’s a very tough business. And they have to navigate that,” Van Loan added.

Some faculty have expressed concern over the reasons for Lewis’s resignation.

“We have had other deans, of course, who have gotten colleges in financial trouble or something like that and there was nothing of that sort here. Simply differences in style between him and the president in particular. And it had finally come to a head,” Culler said.

“The department chairs were quite concerned about this and especially about its consequences for the college,” Culler added.

However, Lewis eventually asked the chairs’ committee to focus on moving forward with the college, which included the new dean search, instead of looking back at what happened.

“After my return to Ithaca and my resignation, I explained to the chairs and subsequently to the faculty why I thought that, in the interest of the arts college, it would be best for me and for them to focus in ’02-’03 on carrying out our work and defending the college’s interests, rather than to get caught up in political protest about an individual.”

Silence

Many of the administrators and faculty involved in the events surrounding Lewis’s resignation have withheld comment, both as a matter of policy and in interview requests by The Sun.

“I think people don’t want to talk about this. And part of the reason is we are talking about personalities, we are talking about things that went on between small groups of people. When people say we want to get on with it, it’s not because we want to sweep things under the rug. The key thing is getting a new dean and getting a good one,” Van Loan said.

Lewis explained, “I chose to refrain from getting into exchanges about my status with representatives of the news media until my final year as dean was finished. I thought it was necessary since my effectiveness as dean of the college, already compromised to some degree, would have declined further.”

Lepage, the interim Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, had no comment about Lewis’s resignation.

Dullea, now a senior consultant to President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, also declined to comment.

In a Sun article last year, Martin said, “I do not believe the interests of either the college or the University are well served by my assessment of the accuracy of his perspectives. All our deans express their views with passion and conviction. Our decision came after lengthy deliberations and a conclusion, made with great reluctance, that the working relationship between [Lewis] and the University administrators had broken down and that the breakdown was irreparable.”

Martin declined to comment further when contacted by The Sun. Rawlings, as a policy, did not discuss the matter last year with the press.

An assistant in Day Hall told The Sun by e-mail that “as of about a month ago he departed for studies out of the country and did not leave word of his whereabouts. If people are looking to speak with or leave something for Professor Rawlings we are maintaining a list of the requests and will pass them along to him when he returns to the country or calls the office. At this point, we have no idea when that will occur.”

Lehman said it would be inappropriate to comment on the events since he was not present when they happened.

“I don’t know [why Lewis was asked to resign],” said Linda Grace-Kobas, interim vice president for communications and media relations. “I was not vice president at the time. These things happen behind closed doors. Rumors get out, stories get out, and very often each side will tell its side of the story. In this situation [Rawlings] did not make any statements.”

Grace-Kobas added, “In my long experience at the University, there is always a history and ther
e is never a simple answer.”

Moving On

Some have questioned whether any real resolution was found in Lewis’s resignation and what the role of the new administration has been in moving on with the college and the University.

The arts chair committee tried, in part, to facilitate this role after it had become clear that Lewis was going to accept the University’s request for him to resign.

“Chairs met and thought it would be a good idea to have a small subset to organize certain things, having a small group of people to facilitate that,” Van Loan said. “Everyone was concerned with the well-being of the college and we took just a few small steps to help out there.”

However, some faculty have questioned if moving on with the college ended with the dean search, the close of the last academic year and a new administration.

“We are at a crucial turning point as we inaugurate a new president. Arguably, this is not the time for polemics. Yet it seems to me unconscionable and irresponsible to turn the page without reflection on the lessons to be drawn from the crisis in governance and comity that buffeted the college last year,” Kaplan said.

He added, “The University owes Philip Lewis a huge debt of gratitude for selfless, thoughtful and loyal service during nearly a decade and a half in key administrative positions. In my view, that debt needs to be expressed in concrete form beyond vague encomia.”

Kaplan also said that these events continue to “haunt morale” in the arts college.

“I have no doubt that [Lehman] will bring us leadership of the sort that this kind of horrendous event will never happen again,” Kaplan said.

Besides the effects these events may have had on the University, they certainly affected at least one person.

“I simply don’t know what I’ll do if no reckoning occurs,” Lewis said. “I’m not in a position to think it through at this point.”


Archived article by Brian Kaviar