November 4, 2003

Town Meets Head Gown

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Last night in the Ithaca High School Cafeteria President Jeffrey Lehman ’77 dove right into public education by participating in a conversation with the community hosted by the Ithaca Public Education Initiative. The IPEI and the school district put on quite a show with live student performances, student artwork, and exhibits illustrating the types of programs the IPEI supports. With over 300 students, community members, board of education members, and IPEI organizers present, the diversity and commitment of the school district was shown.

The evening consisted of presentations by the president of the IPEI Terry Byrnes, the superintendent of the Ithaca City School District, Judy Pastel, and a keynote presentation by President Lehman. Following these presentations was a brief question and answer period and a reception.

In introducing President Lehman, superintendent Judy Pastel said, “This isn’t ‘on the hill,’ this is in the high school cafeteria.”

She went on to praise Lehman’s efforts at making an effort to reach out to the community not only by starting out the inauguration proceedings at the Tompkins County Library, but by making a presence in the community in ways that not all previous presidents have done. She recalled being asked to attend the Colgate-Cornell football game seated in the president’s box.

“I believe he is a member of the community in a grass level way,” Pastel said.

President Lehman, in his opening remarks, told the audience that he was planning on wearing three different “hats” for his presentation, with his first hat as that of President of Cornell. “I believe that K-12 issues matter for Cornell,” he said.

He went on to indicate that he intends to use his first year to promote responsibility for extension and outreach. Referencing the Morill Land Grant Act of 1862, which funded the University’s creation, he pointed out that Cornell in the past has helped to facilitate the studies of agriculture and the “mechanical arts.” He said that today, the priorities have shifted. “The mainstays of our economy is knowledge based,” he said. This includes interaction with the school district.

Wearing his “president’s hat” Lehman went on to cite several collaborative programs between the school district and Cornell. These include an optical fiber connection between the district and the Univeristy to enable one gigabyte of data per second to be transferred. This will create a medium for access of digital materials from Cornell and a network which can be used for global video confronting programs. He also cited programs dealing with nanotechnology and a special program with the Johnson Museum of Art. The Johnson has created lessons designed for school children to teach about the various exhibits in the museum and the cultures behind them.

The second “hat” he put on was that of a parent. He pointed out that he and his wife were parents of children in graduate school, undergraduate school and secondary school. His wife, Kathy Okun, was an elementary school teacher, and thus has experience in the K-12 education environment. He urged the audience to look at ways as parents that they could contribute to the educational community. “We see the complete engagement of the community, but we might be able to do more,” he said.

The third “hat” he wore was one of a law professor looking at the issue of affirmative action. In reference to the latest Supreme Court case regarding affirmative action, he made the point that in the United States today, there is an inherent inequality in society that needed to be remedied. He expressed his support for affirmative action programs and the need for them to create a diverse educational environment.

After taking off his third hat of the night, Lehman was given an “Ithaca Little Red” t-shirt and a box of citrus fruit from the Ithaca High School band.

Then the evening went to questions from the audience, which were submitted by filling out an insert in the program and handing it up front. There was a wide range of questions from discussion of unfounded mandates to school vouchers. They were answered by either President Lehman, the superintendent or the IPEI.

The first question addressed to President Lehman asked, “If you could do one thing to encourage faculty involvement [in the community] then what would that be?”

“The thing that is the most important is that being members of the Cornell community is that we do not live in isolation,” he said. He emphasized the fact that Cornell is part of the surrounding community and a critical part of that knowledge is the awareness of K-12 education. He also mentioned that Cornell students are told that they need to be “good neighbors,” and they do not live in isolation either.

Another question made reference to the pledge made of $5 million to the City of Ithaca by Cornell, and the possibility of a similar type of donation for the school district. Cornell has annually contributed to the school district, but Lehman shied away from this question by saying, with a smile on his face, “We gave it all away.” This was followed by a few deep groans and laughter from the audience. Normally this issue of the school district donation is decided later in the year when the Cornell budget is established. The evening ended with a reception which profiled the many different groups in the community showing an interest in public education and some of the accomplishments made possible by the IPEI’s teacher grants.

Archived article by Ted Van Loan