June 14, 2005

A Conversation with Lehman

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The announced resignation of President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 shocked the hundreds of alumni who came to hear his State of the University address. Most observers expected him just to highlight the many accomplishments of his short tenure: a jump in donations, a spike in admissions and the continued expansion of Cornell at home and across the globe.

Instead, the speech left thousands of students and alumni across the globe with one unanswered question: What could cause a rift so quickly between the Board of Trustees and the president?

June 13th marked Lehman’s first public appearance after his announcement, a Tompkins County Area Development dinner where he spoke on the potential of Cornell’s research coupled with the local economy. Lehman spoke with The Sun afterwards to try to explain the secrecy behind the board’s reasoning and his own feelings about Cornell.

The Sun: We’ve received dozens of e-mails from students and alumni praising you for not only being a great president, but also for being one of them, given your status as the first alumnus to serve as president. Is there anything you would like to say to them?

Lehman: This has been the best two years of my professional life. It has been such a privilege to be back at Cornell, to get to know the current generation of students, and to be a part of the life of my alma mater. I am so proud of what Cornell is and what Cornell stands for. I truly believe there is no other university like it. There is no other university that produces the kind of feeling of community that Cornell does, and I will miss that very much.

The Sun: A lot of people were touched by your Call to Engagement. Alumni say that the University always asks for money. But with the Call, one alumni wrote in and said that the University has asked for his opinion, and so now he’s going to give both his opinion and his money. What have you learned and what do you hope will stay on after as your legacy?

Lehman: I think what I learned through the Call to Engagement process is that Cornell is a community of people who care, people who dream, people who believe in dreams, in the importance of all that we do. I’ve learned that there are themes that unite this community. I thought that my role was to try to describe what I saw and what I heard that was already there. My hope is that some of my descriptions rang true, and that Cornellians will find them useful as they continue to do so many great things.

The Sun: When did you make the decision?

Lehman: It was an evolving decision. It happened over a period of months. I didn’t [pause] make a final decision until after graduation. At that point it became clear to me that my differences with the board could not be resolved.

The Sun: Even within the board, several trustees have said there was a lot of debate about which direction the University should go in, what kind of vision for the school should be followed. Nobody outside the board really knows how those visions differ. Could you elaborate on those differences?

Lehman: I understand why people are hungry for more detail, but the way I’ve come to think of it is this: There’s no small, no single incident or decision or disagreement that was pivotal or decisive. There is a larger strategic question that is still open, and I don’t want to put that out in public, because I think that could distort the way that is discussed by the board. I think that it’s become clear to me that I’m not the right person to lead that internal conversation in a way that is effective. But I think, I’m confident that somebody else might be able to do a better job of leading that conversation, that might be more effective than I have been able to be. That is one way of putting it.

I’ve also told some people, that have said, “Can’t you give us one example?” The truth is over the last few months, the road got very bumpy. And if I choose one bump or two bumps, people will look at it and say well that’s not a reason for there to be a parting. It’s not an individual … I know examples can sometimes help to clarify, but sometimes examples can be misleading, because they don’t capture the big picture. The big picture really is being strategically in tune. Universities are very complex organizations and I said Cornell should fly, and I really believe that. I’m mixing metaphors here. I think that to make the kind of music that this university should make in the world, the president and the board have to be in tune, and we’re just not. And I don’t think it’s for want of effort. I think everyone involved loves Cornell and wants what’s best for it.

The Sun: What do you plan on doing at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars?

Lehman: I’ve been talking a lot at Cornell about the idea of a transnational University, so they’ve asked me to come there. So I’m going to be writing about the role of the transnational university in the kind of new environment that Tom Friedman describes in his new book The World is Flat.

At this point, Lehman had to leave for a previously scheduled engagement.

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun News Editor