January 30, 2004

Grading the Prez

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A parking lot conflict, two new deans, a controversial visiting professor, two ongoing searches and an inauguration later, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 has completed his first semester on campus to mostly positive reviews. Since his arrival in office on July 1, Lehman has rung up several initiatives and has had to deal with a compendium of issues in his first months.

Lehman’s first semester will most likely be remembered by his Call to Engagement, his campus-wide e-mail which asked members of the community for their input concerning fundamental questions about the University’s future — using 2015, the University’s sesquicentennial, as his target date.

This initiative did not come without warning. Over a year ago during the announcement of his selection, Lehman emphasized the need for a “conversation … that must be sustained by everyone at Cornell.” Lehman reiterated this long term discussion in his inauguration speech, where laid out his vision of a “transnational university.”

“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 at the time. “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.”

Although Lehman has not been specific in his plans, it is clear that the alumnus desires to boost the University’s image. A move within the first few days of his tenure set the tone for his ultimate goal of bringing the University into the national and international spotlight.

Lehman asked for the resignation of Henrik N. Dullea ’61, former vice president for university relations, and separated his office into two: the department of government and community relations and a department of community and media relations. In coinciding with the move, efforts have been made to update the University website and logo to enhance its image.

Lehman is fortunate, and has undoubtedly gained momentum in his goal for boosting the University’s image with the landings of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers onto Mars. With Prof. Steven Squyres Ph.D. ’81, astronomy, as the icon for the NASA mission, and Prof. Jim Bell, astronomy, also playing an instrumental role, Cornell’s name has been attached to media stories around the nation.

Although the semester has been primarily positive for Lehman, financial woes continue to worry the University. Last weekend in the New York City, the Trustee Board announced further proposed increases in both endowed and statutory tuition. This is in response to the New York State budget cuts which forces the University to raise $11 million over the next four years.

Furthermore, delays in the searches for the new vice presidents of university relations has had a halting effect on Lehman’s plans. While Lehman said in a recent meeting that the new vice president for government and community relations will be named on March 1, he is still in the process of finding an individual to fill the other spot.

The searches, which were originally planned to be finished by the end of last year, have slowed down plans to update the University image even with the efforts of Peter S. Cohl ’04 and his ad-hoc committee formed for just this purpose. Lehman said he has interviewed five candidates thus far for the vice president for university and media relations.

And even with Lehman’s attention towards possible opportunities overseas with a trip to China in June, issues lurk closer towards home. In attempting to improve relations with the community, Lehman announced on Oct. 16 his intention to increase voluntary monetary contributions to the City of Ithaca. Presently, however, Lehman must still make a decision concerning the issue of the proposed parking lot in Redbud Woods — a move which could set the precedent for relations with the community.

The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (ILPC) Dec. 19 decision to deny the University a certificate of appropriateness for the project further delays plans for the lot and leaves Lehman in a tough position. Canceling the plans for the parking lot would most likely leave Lehman looking “like a prince” to local residents, according to Sun columnist Daniel Pearlstein ’05.

On the other side of the coin, canceling plans might reflect negatively on Lehman since the decision to create the lot was one made by former President Hunter R. Rawlings III. In a scenario similar to this in which he could have made a reverse decision, Lehman had the opportunity to react to the selection of controversial Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 University professor and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, but stayed quiet throughout her visit.

Even with the complicated issues Lehman has to face over the next several months, the future looks promising. Lehman noted that currently, further state higher education cuts are not expected. A capital campaign is being planned for the coming years in order to raise funds for future projects, including the New Life Sciences Initiative.

Lehman will also continue to focus on his Call to Engagement initiative. Having already read over 100 responses, Lehman will continue to sift through the hundreds more to help him formulate long term plans for the coming years. Although some individuals have criticized Lehman for planning too far in advance, Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin said his initiative does not “distract us from ongoing or specific issues” and echoed the positive reviews of many community members.

“He has done absolutely beautifully,” Martin said.

Archived article by Brian Tsao