The abrupt termination of the Lehman presidency has left Cornell with questions about what happened in June and why. Many of the central players, including President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 himself, have signed confidentiality agreements barring them from speaking about the issues surrounding the departure.
However, as the Presidential Search Committee prepares to hold open meetings tomorrow, and rumors fill the information void, many faculty, alumni and students have found it difficult to move forward.
Prof. Steven Kaplan, the Goldwin Smith Professor of History, and a long-time acquaintance of Lehman’s, said that the former president was forced to resign from his post.
“If the guy did not commit an act of malfeasance, then tell us why he was forced out of the presidency,” Kaplan said. Kaplan, who has taught at Cornell for 35 years, told The Sun that he was angered by “the contemptuous paternalism with which the Board of Trustees treats faculty.”
He said that the forced resignation was to “reproach Lehman for daring to have a vision.”
“Why can’t we the faculty in the first instance, you the students in the second instance, be treated like adults?” he asked. Kaplan said that Lehman’s surprising announcement was a “brutal, brusque fiction of a resignation,” made more disturbing because of the lack of transparency in the process.
On June 14, Dean of University Faculty Charles Walcott sent an e-mail to the faculty asking them to refer all media questions to Tommy Bruce, vice president of communications and media relations. Walcott stated in the e-mail that faculty speculation on the matter was “neither constructive nor productive.” University officials have repeatedly said that it is time for Cornell to look to the future.
Publicly, the administration has maintained that Lehman’s departure was a voluntary decision based on his disagreements with the Board.
“On June 11, Jeff announced his decision to resign,” Bruce said. “It may be frustrating, but it is true in life that great people come together to do great things, but decide in the end to go their separate ways. We may not like the outcome, but we have got to respect it.”
Lehman, who declined to speak on the matter, instead shared optimism for his future. He told The Sun that he is leaving today to begin a year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writing on the role of the transnational university. Afterwards, he may accept a presidency at another college or university, he told The Sun, although he added that nothing would be as satisfying as his position at Cornell.
Several Board members told The Sun that they were unaware of the rift between Lehman and the Board until the night before or the day of his announcement.
Sources generally agree that there are no simple answers and no smoking guns.
One major donor, along with a top administrator, said that certain Board members and Lehman clashed on several key issues.
“Jeff is a very dynamic individual, when he gets an idea about something, he runs with it, almost to the exclusion of everything else. When you’re the head of a department you can do that, that’s fine. But when you’re the president of the University, you can’t,” he said. “But when people around campus have to wonder why was such a move made, that’s a question that needs to be asked and answered.”
He said that Lehman’s transnational vision was only a component of the disagreement between the parties. The final straw, the donor said, “was the loss of Inge Reichenbach.”
Reichenbach, former vice president for alumni affairs and development, resigned April 13, accepting a position as vice president for development at Yale University. According to Day Hall staff speaking on condition of anonymity, Reichenbach resigned as a result of disagreements with Lehman over fundraising. One staff member said that they were told that if they spoke with the media again, they would be fired.
According to the donor and to administrators familiar with development, Reichenbach and the Board felt that Lehman’s “Call to Engagement” was a distraction from the capital campaign. They say that Lehman, at the time, had felt the Call necessary to decide where the money was needed and what it was needed for.
University officials have stated that Reichenbach’s departure had nothing to do with Lehman, but instead was a case of a highly talented individual being given a better job offer.
With additional reporting from Sun News Editor Erica Fink
Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun News Editor