President Jeffrey S. Lehman’s ’77 resignation earlier this month shocked the auditorium of alumni who had gathered to hear his State of the University address. What began as an abstract continuation of Lehman’s Call to Engagement, focusing on the need for integration of the liberal arts with hard science and highlighting the past two years’ achievements, slowly became a mark on Cornell’s history as the president explained why he needed to resign.
“Imagine for a moment an airplane that is supposed to fly from New York to the beautiful island of Bali. It can get there by flying east. Or it can get there by flying west,” he said. “But even if the pilot and the co-pilot are each highly skilled, even if they have the highest regard for one another, the plane will not reach its destination if they are unable to agree about which direction to take.”
Lehman said that he recognized his need to resign after realizing that he and the Board of Trustees had “different approaches to how the University can best realize its long-term vision.”
But why, after two years, was Cornell’s first alumnus to serve as president so at odds with the Board that he felt he must step down?
Those hoping for new information after Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting were disappointed, as little more than the approval of President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III as the interim president emerged from the closed door meeting. Rawlings’ term will begin after Lehman’s resignation takes effect June 30. E-mails sent to faculty and trustees told them to refer all questions to Tommy Bruce, vice president for communications and media relations, or Peter C. Meinig ’62, chairman of the Board of Trustees.
University representatives have said it was a testament to Lehman’s character and “fanatical” love for the University that, realizing it was best that he leave, he did so suddenly and with as little fanfare as possible. Reunion weekend was the most appropriate time to make such an announcement to avoid the appearance that the University was trying to hide something, Bruce said.
One alumnus, however, said that the very public, shocking nature of the speech was an obvious “slap in the face” to a board that had, by almost all accounts, forced his resignation.
Although Lehman and University representatives have consistently characterized the issues as ones between the president and the Board, many members of the Board told The Sun they were unaware of the rift until the day of Lehman’s announcement.
University observers theorized that the conflict was a more personal one. Because neither Lehman or the Board has come out with any more information, speculation has run rampant.
A top administrator put it bluntly: “It’s terrible what Meinig did to him.”
Many in Day Hall and on the Board itself say that Meinig forced Lehman to resign or face removal. Why Meinig would want to remove a president who had reigned over two of Cornell’s most lucrative fund raising years ever is a closely guarded secret.
Day Hall observers have spent endless hours debating various theories about what caused the final break, which occurred sometime shortly after commencement.
Most attribute at least some degree of the relationship’s breakdown to the sudden departure of Inge Reichenbach, Cornell’s former vice president for alumni affairs and development. Although University representatives were quick to characterize her departure to Yale as her decision to take a more lucrative offer, Reichenbach had made every sign of making Ithaca her permanent home.
Others say that the bungled appointment of a new dean for the School of Industrial and Labor Relations was one of the oft-cited “bumps” that slowly drove Lehman and Meinig apart.
According to professors at the school, Lehman went against the wishes of the majority of the school’s students, faculty and alumni to offer the post to a former University of Michigan colleague, Jan Svejnar ’74. Prof. Harry Katz, the Jack Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining and director of the Institute of Collective Bargaining, eventually accepted the position after a public backlash against Svejnar.
The administration and observers are both quick to point out that none of these issues alone would be enough to cause a final rift.
“Some people … have said, ‘Can’t you give us one example?’ The truth is over the last few months, the road got very bumpy,” Lehman told The Sun. “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.”
“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,” Lehman added. “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.”
Although University spokespeople cautioned against reading too much into one specific “strategic question” being debated by the Board, several trustees have told The Sun that there is one central question that caused the schism. There’s just as much debate, however, about what that one question may be.
The most prevalent theory is that it all came down to the capital campaign.
Lehman’s appointment created a rare excitement about Cornell for many alumni, boosting donations for the past two years.
But observers have said that this money was “peanuts” compared to the billions planned for the capital campaign, and without Reichenbach’s experienced hand guiding the campaign, the monetary goal meant to boost Cornell’s endowment seemed less attainable.
Some observers say that the division may have begun even before Reichenbach left, as she and Lehman struggled to set out an agenda for the campaign. Lehman preferred themes such as “Wisdom in the Age of the Genome,” which some critics charged would drive off the big-money donors needed to raise at the scale the University needed. Far preferable, they said, would be more concrete themes such as the Life Sciences Initiative.
Other faculty and trustees told The Sun that an even more fundamental split was forming: Meinig had pushed to earmark the extra income from the capital campaign for the Life Sciences Initiative, they said, leaving Cornell’s liberal arts department in, what one top administrator conceded, was a lower priority position.
Lehman, Meinig, and University spokespeople all have flatly denied most of these theories.
Many alumni, however, are not satisfied that the reason for Lehman’s departure is still shrouded in secrecy.
Meinig could not be reached for comment, and Reichenbach declined comment.
Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun News Editor