Drawing from past presidents and well-known alumni as inspiration for his inaugural address, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 outlined his vision of staying committed to current projects while looking forward to the future in a packed Barton Hall yesterday afternoon.
While Lehman did not outline any specific plans, he emphasized that he would continue to build on the work of former president Hunter R. Rawlings III and re-evaluate the “fundamental questions of who we are and what we should be.”
“What should our University be when it celebrates its 150th anniversary a dozen years hence? In the year 2015, what do we think a beloved, revolutionary, truly superb, comprehensive research university should be offering to its students and to humanity?” Lehman asked the crowd.
To answer the several sets of questions which he brought up in his speech, Lehman said that he will continue his commitment to open discussion and also examine the University’s current position. Lehman also reiterated his goal in continuing to think and plan for the future during his first year in office.
“Careful, deliberate consideration might lead us to conclude that the Cornell of the sesquicentennial should be the Cornell of today,” Lehman said. “If that is our conclusion, we should have the courage to remain constant. But if we conclude that we must continue to change, then we must be prepared to allow our practices to evolve in step with our understanding.”
One aspect made clear by Lehman yesterday was his interest in fostering the idea of a “transnational university.” When he first came to office, he emphasized the need to establish “a broad array of vibrant relationships.”
Lehman’s inauguration proceedings are indicative of his international vision. Ceremonies were held on three different campuses, and even dinner served to guests and trustees after the East Hill inauguration featured “a variety of foods from around the world,” according to the event’s itinerary.
The fact that the event was held on three different campuses was “more than a metaphor,” according to Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services. Murphy said that expansion will be one of the questions Cornell will be asking and added that she thinks Lehman “does see Cornell not just bound here in Ithaca.”
“We must welcome perspectives that illuminate new corners of our world, even when a part of us would rather not see what those corners contain,” Lehman said. “We must be willing to entertain the possibility that our University might become more true to its creed not by enrolling a student body that looks like America, but rather by enrolling a student body that looks like Earth.”
Even with this possible direction, Lehman said that he is “not suggesting that we should be revisiting or second-guessing commitments that we have made. I am fully dedicated to fulfilling them all.”
“Hunter Rawlings did lay out an agenda and a direction for the University,” said Trustee Emeritus Howard Milstein ’73. “I think part of the hallmark of the new president is that he is very much in a listening mode. I don’t know if he will necessarily chart out his whole agenda at this time, but the University is in pretty good shape.”
In his opening remarks, Lehman displayed his affection for the University’s history. He drew a connection between Copernicus’s book The Revolutions and the commitment of Cornell’s founders to creating a school which “forever changed the world of higher education.”
“Today, when we look at [universities] with both eyes, we see the vision of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White,” Lehman said. “In all of our nation’s finest comprehensive research universities we see coeducation, nonsectarianism, racial diversity. Indeed, it is so natural to us that, if we are not careful, we might forget that Cornell University was truly a revolutionary achievement.”
Lehman also emphasized his affection for the University, using an excerpt from Beloved by Toni Morrison MFA ’55 and a reflection from a student in the University’s first graduating class. According to Lehman, the book helps us “to wonder in new ways about what it means to be a person, to be alive, to be a slave, to love someone else.”
“I think in addition to the content of the speech, the beauty of its crafting implicitly emphasizes again the importance of rhetoric of the humanistic disciplines [and] the importance of language and style and aesthetics,” said Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin. “All of those things matter to him in ways that he demonstrated not so much through the content, but also in the form [of how he said it].”
Through his speech in which he consistently used the terms “revolutionary” and “beloved,” Lehman believes that the University “is the embodiment of dreams, a source of hope for the future of our species.” His optimism and his capacity clearly rubbed off on many spectators.
“I think he delivered a really motivating speech,” said Inge T. Reichenbach, vice president for alumni affairs and development. “I think his speech was exceptional because he really showed his deep understanding of the University … but also an ability to look into the future and draw conclusions of what we need to do.”
And after Lehman’s address to the community, even a predecessor gave him a ringing endorsement.
“I’m tremendously impressed with the start he’s made, and I think we have a wonderful new leader in Jeff Lehman,” said President Emeritus Frank H. T. Rhodes. “He’s going to be a tremendous success.”
Archived article by Brian Tsao