October 17, 2003

Ginsburg: From Cornell to Court

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 was one of five prominent members of the extended Cornell community who surrounded President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 on the stage in Barton Hall yesterday afternoon during his official installation.

Board of Trustees Chair Peter C. Meinig ’62 introduced Ginsburg with a brief description of her family and educational background as well as some details of her legal career leading up to her appointment to the Supreme Court. When he stepped aside to give Ginsburg the podium, many members of the audience stood to applaud her.

Ginsburg told the audience that the Supreme Court, like Cornell, has just begun a new term. Though she would normally abstain from leaving the Court at such a busy time, she said, “The invitation to return to [my] alma mater for his inauguration was irresistible, all the more so because it was delivered personally by Jeffrey Lehman in his new, altogether disarming, presidential voice.”

Ginsburg referred to the founding statements of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White while lauding Lehman and Cornell’s former presidents.

“Jeff succeeds to a post previously held by only 10 others,” she said. “Each of his predecessors advanced Andrew White’s founding ideal of a ‘truly great University … where truth shall be taught for truth’s sake.'”

She first spoke about some of Lehman’s background. Ginsburg mentioned that Lehman was the youngest dean of a law school in history, a title he claimed when he took the helm of the University of Michigan Law School just before his 38th birthday.

She also recalled that only eight days before Lehman began his term at Cornell, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s law school admissions practices on affirmative action.

There were many briefs filed supporting Lehman’s position on the case, Ginsburg said, including one from Cornell. She believed such action was “right on target for a university whose founding vision wanted no sex or color excluded.”

Ginsburg cited praise from two of Lehman’s previous employers to show the high caliber of his previous work. Lehman served as law clerk to Chief Judge Frank M. Coffin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and to Associate Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court, a colleague of Ginsburg. She passed on words of encouragement from both of them to Lehman at Cornell.

Stevens said, “He was a superb law clerk, with an uncommon capacity to give important consideration to all aspects of a complex problem. I am proud of his exceptional record and am confident that, at Cornell, he will continue to excel in every task he undertakes.”

Ginsburg concluded her praise of Lehman with a story she heard about him while he was a law student at Michigan and editor-in-chief of Michigan’s Law Review. A classmate asked Lehman about his ideal job, to which Lehman replied, “To be the president of Cornell, because I love the place and the school. But, of course, it will never happen.”

Following her specific acclaim for Lehman, Ginsburg individually highlighted the strongest moments of each of the former presidents’ tenures. She mentioned each of the presidents who had ties to the University of Michigan as well as the changes each leader made to Cornell that contributed to the University’s growth.

Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, was a professor at Michigan before using his personal wealth to secure a charter for Cornell’s founding. White was succeeded as president by one of his former students at Michigan, Charles Kendall Adams, who was instrumental in focusing Cornell’s research efforts.

Ginsburg digressed a bit when she reached Deane Waldo Malott, Cornell’s sixth president. Malott was president while Ginsburg was a student, and she used the opportunity to recall her favorite professors, such as Milton Konvitz Ph.D. ’33, who taught in both the Law School and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Vladimir Nabokov, who taught literature while composing such works as Lolita and Pnin. She also recounted how she met her husband of 49 years while studying at Cornell.

Ginsburg lauded former presidents Dale R. Corson and Frank H. T. Rhodes for expanding the diversity on Cornell’s campus to include more women and minorities and to former president Hunter R. Rawlings III for paying close attention to the Weill Cornell Medical College opening in Qatar.

In conclusion, Ginsburg read from a letter written in 1867 by Ezra Cornell to his granddaughter, Eunice. Cornell had been traveling, and he wrote to Eunice that he hoped she and the other kids would “attend the new school on the Hill because I want to have girls educated in the University as well as boys so they may have the same opportunities to become useful to society that the boys have. I want you to keep this letter so you can show it to the president and faculty of the University to let them know your grandpa’s wish,” Ginsburg read.

Under Lehman’s watch, Ginsburg said she is “confident the school will continue to thrive and reach new heights in pursuit of knowledge and educational excellence, welcoming men and women of every color and creed, whatever their social standing or pecuniary position.”

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo