February 3, 2004

Lehman Speaks At Watermargin

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In a change of pace from trustee meetings, candidate interviews and alumni visits, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 took time out of his schedule to eat dinner at Watermargin Cooperative Housing Unit, where he also spoke about his involvement in the University of Michigan Law School affirmative action case, Grutter v. Bollinger.

After Lehman and his wife, Kathy Okun, spoke casually with residents and alums, former resident John Marcham ’50 led the presentation of a plaque marking Watermargin’s mission statement and its 55th anniversary. The group then headed for dinner, where Lehman was asked to speak about his experience and involvement in the Grutter case.

Lehman was a named defendant in the case because of his former position as dean of Michigan’s law school. Last summer, the court ruled in favor of the law school and upholded that race could be used as a “plus factor” in academic selection processes.

Prior to the suit and his deanship, Lehman was selected to a committee that directed admissions policy. While the committee looked to put the selection process in line with previous law and legislation, most relevant being the 1978 affirmative action precedent case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, he was not completely surprised about the future lawsuit.

“Our charge was to draft a policy that reflected our values and commitment in sustaining integration of our law school … and do it in a way that’s legal,” Lehman said. “We suspected all along that we could get sued.”

When he looked back at the start of the case, Lehman said he learned the most about the litigation through public debate. At first, he claimed that the press was not describing the Michigan law school’s admissions policy accurately, resulting in a misconstrued view about his institution. However, the attention gave Lehman the chance to listen to critics’ concerns.

Taking a chance in the public forum, Lehman and his colleagues decided to give their own view to the press. During this period, Michigan had time to create its own stance and spoke about the conflict between two main issues — racial colorblindness and integration.

“We chose integration and departed from colorblindness in the narrowest manner,” Lehman said.

By the time the case came to the Supreme Court, the Michigan law school’s case had gathered momentum and Lehman was “quite confident we were going to win.” The decision favored Michigan, 5-4.

While Lehman acknowledged the victory regarding constitutional law, he added that the issue has not died. Lehman said that many opponents of the policy are concerned with the possibility that universities will become “sloppy and insensitive” in admissions processes.

On the other hand, Lehman added that the ongoing conversation will also give the decision’s proponents the chance to defend their position and instill their influence nationwide — including on East Hill.

“I’m hoping as Cornell president, Cornell will continue to be true to its founding values,” Lehman said.

Founded after World War II, Watermargin was one of the first University residences which promoted the values of racial and religious integration and tolerance in its mission at a time when many houses practiced segregation, according to Michael Black ’97. Lehman paralleled the University’s history with the co-op’s, noting Ezra Cornell’s vision of a nonsectarian institution — a controversial idea at the time.

Coinciding with Watermargin’s anniversary, Lehman’s visit was much-anticipated — residents of the co-op first contacted him in early September last year about a possible visit, according to organizer Zach Friedman ’05. Although they had to wait for months since Lehman was busy adjusting to the position during his first semester, many were impressed by his talk.

“I was very impressed by his words,” Friedman said. “I’m very proud to have such a vigorous defender of these values in Day Hall as our president.”

According to Lehman, this was his first opportunity as president “to sit and eat at the same place that [students] lived.” This smaller, roundtable-type discussion positively “foster[ed] a different attention span,” according to Elizabeth Millhollen ’04, president of Watermargin.

“It was amazing to hear him speak about affirmative action,” said Black, who flew from his home in Atlanta, Ga., to come to see Lehman speak. “I’m not only excited he talked about the issues but [am] also excited that he is the new president.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao