August 31, 2005

Presidential Search Committee Seeks Input

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While students met with members of the Presidential Search Committee yesterday afternoon in the Biotechnology Building, faculty members met with the Committee’s leadership in a packed Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall.

What was supposed to be a meeting in which the committee could gather suggestions from one of Cornell’s most important constituencies quickly became largely a referendum on the resignation of former President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 this summer.

Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III began the meeting by explaining to the faculty what the president’s job entails and the characteristics that the Search Committee would be looking for in the next president, including leadership, the ability to represent Cornell in public, perform academic decision-making, work with the management and business areas of the University’s administration as well as work on fundraising.

“Fundraising is an important part of representing Cornell. The president usually spends between a quarter to a third of his time fundraising,” Rawlings said.

Diana Daniels ’71, chair of the Search Committee and vice-chair of the Board of Trustees, then spoke about the search process.

“As soon as we knew Jeff was resigning, Pete went to work naming the Committee,” she said, referring to Peter Meinig ’61, chair of the Board of Trustees, who was part of the group of Committee members in attendance.

Also on the panel were Samuel Fleming ’62; Michael Esposito MILR ’03, staff-elected trustee; Stephen H. Weiss ’57, chair emeritus of the Board of Trustees and advisor to the Committee; Prof. Elizabeth (Lisa) D. Earle, plant breeding and genetics, faculty-elected trustee; Prof. Laura Brown, English; Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services; Edwin H. Morgens ’63; Prof. Juris Hartmanis, senior associate dean for computing and information science; and Bill Funk, representing Korn/Ferry International, the search firm hired by Cornell to help with the search process. The discussion was moderated by Prof. Charles Walcott, dean of University faculty. Daniels said that there is no timetable for an end to the search and that Rawlings has agreed to stay on as interim president for as long as it takes.

After the meeting, Meinig said that the search would last as long as was necessary to find a “president worthy of Cornell.”

Most of the faculty in attendance expressed concerns over Lehman’s surprise departure, the effect it has had on Cornell and the impact they believe it will have on the presidential search.

“The candidates will ask why Jeff left. How do you plan on addressing this?” one professor asked.

“We are in the fortunate situation where we have three presidents emeriti here,” said Daniels, referring to Rawlings, Frank H. T. Rhodes and Dale Corson. “As we get closer, they will talk to the candidates.”

Later in the meeting, Daniels said that while there is a confidentiality agreement with respect to the reasons for Lehman’s departure, the Committee will be able to legally reveal those details to the final two or three candidates.

In fact, Meinig said that they “will encourage the candidates to have a conversation with Jeff.”

During the meeting, professors interjected with their displeasure over Cornell’s current situation. “We are not satisfied with the plane analogy. You know [why Lehman left] but you wont tell us. It’s like the Garden of Eden. It’s forbidden fruit,” one professor said.

Meinig responded with regret that he could not discuss the details further and admitted that “a legal agreement in place limits discussion on the matter.”

In addition, Meinig said that the University has a long-standing policy against revealing personal information about University personnel.

“I am personally saddened that Lehman is no longer president. Jeff made many positive contributions to Cornell,” he added.

Prof. Cynthia Farina, law, said that “the right of privacy of personal information lies with the employee, not the institution,” adding that it seems as though Lehman is the entity most interested in keeping the information private.

In response to Farina’s comments, another professor said that he had spoken to Lehman, who told him that there was “nothing about the situation that he would be embarrassed about” if the information should come out.

“Consider what would happen if there were a no-confidence vote in the Board of Trustees by the faculty,” he added.

Prof. Roald Hoffmann, chemistry, said that the he lost a large degree of trust in the Board, saying that they should look into renegotiating their agreement with Lehman to get the information into the public.

“An evil spirit has been set upon the land,” Hoffman said.

“I have been here since 1979 and I have never seen the community as destabilized as it is now,” said one professor who called the departure the “Complex Resignation of Jeff Lehman.”

Other professors noted that they believed the resignation to be a farce.

“It looks very much like a firing,” Hoffmann said.

“We all know that [the resignation] is fiction,” another professor said.

Other faculty members expressed their displeasure with the inner workings of the Board of Trustees.

“I am stupefied that you seem unable to examine yourselves. You should ask to what extent you have a flawed method of operation,” one professor said.

Other faculty members spoke about ideas they had about how faculty could get more involved with the search process. Ideas included doubling the amount of faculty on the search committee, creating a “shadow” faculty committee, adding additional faculty members to the search committee toward the end of the search, having groups of faculty members conduct interviews with the candidates and making the final stage of the search open, specifically bringing the candidates to campus, to meet faculty, staff and students.

After the meeting, Daniels told The Sun that the search process is not set in stone and that “if we didn’t want to take suggestions, we wouldn’t have had a forum.”

However, she said that the final suggestion, opening the search at the end, probably could not happen due to the necessity of a closed search.

She added that the search would be closed because “the candidates we’d likely consider will not be willing to come forward on their own.”

At one point during the meeting, a poll was taken using a show of hands. After being asked by a faculty member to take the poll, Walcott asked whether the faculty members in the room would favor increased participation by the faculty in the search process.

All faculty members raised their hands.

Prof. Don Greenberg, architecture, asked if faculty could have two hours to meet with with the Board of Trustees without administrators when the Board convenes in Ithaca in October. “We need to make Cornell more transparent,” Greenberg said.

Another professor said, “Cornell is very much in trouble. The next president is going to be presiding over a much-diminished Cornell.”

Said another, “There is a serious loss of morale in the University because a popular president was apparently fired for reasons unknown. We are paying a price for secrecy.”

“Coming into this job there will be a cloud,” said Prof. John Whitman, linguistics.

Asked after the meeting whether the faculty response was expected, Meinig told The Sun, “We knew this was going to be a very open conversation. We were happy to have the dialogue and we think we listened. I know I listened,” Meinig said. “The meeting was filled with people who had strong feelings on the subject and we listened to what they said.”

Meinig said that he is “very concerned” about the feelings of the faculty members in attendance at the meeting and that there are actions the Committee can take to try to remedy the feelings.

He also said that the silent phase of the University’s capital campaign is going forward as planned, and when asked about rumors of the return of Inge Reichenbach, former vice president of alumni affairs and development, from Yale he responded, “that is an unconfir
med rumor. I know nothing about that.”

Soon, the Search Committee will be creating an opportunity statement, “the document that tells potential candidates about the opportunities Cornell presents,” according to Daniels. The statement will be shown to the Cornell community for suggestions some time in the near future. After the opportunity statement is distributed, “you won’t hear much about [the process],” she said.

One of the final faculty members to speak at the forum added a unique suggestion: “We need someone with imagination.”

Archived article by Eric Finkelstein
Sun Managing Editor