Assessing the Short, Surprising Term of Cornell's Eleventh President
By the CAM Staff
The speech--the second Commencement address of his young administration-- was vintage Jeff Lehman. As a crowd of some 40,000 faculty, graduates, and family members in Schoellkopf Field shaded their eyes beneath a spring sun, President Lehman '77 stood in his carnelian robe and delivered a serio-comic reverie on the slippery nature of good and evil.Weaving pop-culture references and philosophical inquiry, he embarked on a literary analysis of two works by Thomas Pynchon '59, played a sound clip from "The Simpsons," and talked at length--and with what was clearly an aficionado's grasp of the material--about Star Wars.
This, by now, was a familiar formula. Lehman's first public speech on campus, the Convocation address in August 2003, was built on an extended riff from The Big Lebowski, and Cornell's president wasted few opportunities to remind students and young alumni that he was one of them--a wide-eyed former freshman who grew up to run the place, a big kid brimming with enthusiasm about the world and Cornell's place in it. But even veteran campus observers were struck by the curious intensity of this year's Commencement address. Behind his Yoda impression, Lehman clearly had serious things on his mind.
He began with a question: "How can you be sure that you do not go over to the Dark Side?" After a thorough explanation of the term in the George Lucas cosmology, he added his own definition. "Think of it not as evil, but as good people run amok. Yielding to a certain kind of wholly understandable temptation, in a way that ends up . . . damaging to the larger community." Lehman went on to further refine the notion by raising the issue of "fanaticism's much milder cousin: tunnel vision."
"People afflicted with moral tunnel vision recognize a good, something that carries a positive benefit for the world," he said. "They see a path to the good. And they become so committed to pursuing that path that they lose sight of the costs to other values that might be associated with going down that path. These are the kinds of blind spots that can undermine communal life and collective progress."He gave several examples--soldiers who use torture in wartime, businessmen who ignore workplace safety in pursuit of profit. "The temptations of moral tunnel vision are everywhere we look," he said. "Think of the university leaders who are tempted to deform their institutions in hopes of rising in the magazine rankings."
Less than two weeks later, Lehman gave another speech, and his cryptic statements at Commencement took on more significance. In his State of the University address during Reunion 2005, Lehman stood at a lectern in Newman Arena and reiterated many of the ideas he had expressed throughout his presidency--his vision of his alma mater as both "revolutionary" and "beloved"; his now-familiar definition of Cornell as a "transnational" university. He praised Cornell for its accomplishments during the first 140 years of its history. And then he announced that because he and the Board of Trustees had "different approaches to how the University can best achieve its long-term vision," he was resigning as president, effective nineteen days later.
The announcement drew a multitude of questions from stunned alumni, faculty, students, and staff about the reasons behind Lehman's abrupt departure. Some of those reasons may never be revealed, hidden as they are behind a legal separation agreement that binds both Lehman and the trustees to silence about the specifics of their dispute. But since then, a clearer picture has gradually emerged: Lehman's term was cut short by a group of trustees whose differences with the president--over issues that ranged from personal chemistry to achieving the mission of the University-- proved too intractable to overcome. By the time Lehman delivered his Commencement speech, his resignation was a foregone conclusion, and he seized the opportunity to indulge in some thinly veiled commentary on the forces that had doomed his presidency.
Still unanswered, however, is a larger question, one that we will begin to address here: how will Jeffrey Lehman's term as the eleventh president of Cornell be remembered? Some presidential legacies, like that of Andrew Dickson White, involve lengthy lists of academic initiatives and physical improvements--colleges and programs started, faculty members hired, buildings constructed, quadrangles created.Others, like that of James Perkins, have been defined by a single event. Today, only a few months after Lehman's departure, the substance of his presidency is all but overshadowed by its troubling conclusion. But there was more to it than a resignation. Only time will provide the full picture, but to get a better sense of what Lehman accomplished and how his ideas and actions will affect the future of Cornell, we polled faculty, administrators, students, staff, and alumni--some in lengthy formal interviews, others in informal conversations.
When asked about President Lehman's legacy, many members of the Cornell community mention two things: the Call to Engagement and Lehman's characterization of Cornell as a "transnational" university.
The Call to Engagement grew out of the inaugural address, in which Lehman asked a series of questions about Cornell's mission. Those inquiries became codified in a set of eight questions that Lehman posed to his fellow Cornellians. "He will definitely be remembered for the Call to Engagement," says Rolf Frantz '66, ME '67, president of the Cornell Alumni Federation. "I enjoyed getting his request and thinking about the questions, as well as the time I spent jotting down some thoughts and participating in discussion sessions. Other alumni have told me that they also appreciated being invited to share their thoughts, opinions, and suggestions, and some suggested that it was precisely because Jeff was an alumnus that he was asking other alumni for their ideas."
Lehman catalogued and collated the hundreds of responses to the Call, and in his October 2004 State of the University speech on Trustee-Council weekend, he announced that the suggestions he had received had led him to formulate a plan for addressing the three great challenges he saw facing humanity, which he defined as "life in the age of the genome, wisdom in the age of digital information, and sustainability in the age of development." He concluded by saying: "For each of these challenges, I have asked Provost Biddy Martin to work with deans and faculty members to develop a long-range strategic plan."
Lehman's challenges became known on campus as "the three themes," and they proved to be both a stimulus for inquiry and a source of confusion. "In some of the early discussions with faculty, the humanists said, 'What has this got to do with us?' " reports Charles Walcott, PhD '59, dean of the faculty. "But after an hour of discussion, they began to see what it had to do with them and became interested and in some cases enthusiastic about thinking through the issues that these themes posed."
Stewart Schwab, dean of the Law school, notes that Lehman proved a persuasive advocate for his causes. "He was a good listener, and patient," he says. "You need buy-in from the faculty for a new initiative, or it'll just be a bureaucratic pain in the neck. The whole academic side of the university was becoming comfortable with these three themes and where they figured into them. Part of it was the idea that these [themes] were not the whole university."
Similarly, Lehman's characterization of Cornell as a "transnational" university produced both animated debate and puzzlement. "I would give him credit for identifying the transnational role," says Austin Kiplinger '39, chairman emeritus of the Board of Trustees. "It's not unique to Cornell, and it's not new--Cornell has been in this business since I was an undergraduate.My roommate was the son of the Chinese ambassador. But Jeff gave it a new kind of packaging concept, of what it means to be transnational. It means a whole new structure that looks out over the world as a unit." Others found the concept of Cornell as a university that transcends national boundaries intriguing but hard to grasp, and Lehman spent a great deal of time explaining it, even writing an article called "Why 'Transnational'?" that was published in the January/February 2005 issue of this magazine.
"He not only talked about it," says Walter LaFeber, the Tisch University Professor and a member of the history faculty since 1959, "he did a lot to implement his vision for what Cornell should be, internationally." Lehman's advocacy of transnationalism led to joint academic programs with Tsinghua University and Peking University in China, and to new agreements in Singapore and India as well as the ongoing development of the medical college campus in Qatar.
Lehman also sought to improve Cornell's image in the world. One of his first moves as president was to dissolve the Division of University Relations--removing its head, Vice President Henrik Dullea '61, even before taking office--and divide it into two new divisions: Communications and Media Relations (later renamed University Communications) and Government and Community Relations. The communications division, under Vice President Thomas Bruce, undertook a sweeping remake of Cornell's image. The "Big Red Box" logo installed under President Hunter Rawlings was dumped in favor of a more traditional design, the University's website got a top-to-bottom redesign, and key publications such as the viewbook sent to prospective students were revamped. More than one observer has noted that many of these changes were driven by the recommendations of the studentrun Image Committee, but Lehman gets credit for making the makeover a priority, says committee leader Peter Cohl '05. "He was very responsive to the Image Committee's concerns regarding Cornell's ranking and its place in the world. Lehman gave Cornell a huge shot of really vibrant energy. I think he really inspired us."
To enhance media relations, Bruce reorganized the Cornell News Service, with former News Service director Simeon Moss '73 heading the newly created Press Office and veteran science writer David Brand taking over as News Service director. A plan to expand and redesign the Cornell Chronicle was initiated, and much greater emphasis was placed on rapid electronic dissemination of news, with a steady stream of press releases and news summaries flowing out of the Press Office daily.
The increased emphasis on press coverage was accompanied by an internal outreach effort that sought greater involvement with faculty and students. "There was genuine intellectual engagement with the faculty," says Walcott. "Every time I went to a party with Jeff, he was talking with faculty--and it was talk with some kind of substance. As a result, I think many faculty felt he was interested in their work and interested in the academic side of the University."
Student leaders largely echoed these sentiments. "Jeff was very engaging," says student-elected trustee Doug Mitarotonda '02, MEng '03, a graduate student in economics."He asked a lot of good questions, and you could tell that he was really trying to make the effort to learn more." Interfraternity Council president Alex Deyle '06 lauded Lehman's approachability."He was very accessible," he says."It's an expectation that students from here on will have." Alex Shapero '06, president of the Jewish Student Union, recounts how the president once showed up unannounced at a Latin- Israeli dance practice--"he put more energy into it than I could have"--and had "a strong interest in what students were doing and what they really cared about." Not every student leader was impressed, however: former Daily Sun editor Andy Guess '05 characterizes Lehman as a "lovable dork with big ideas"who failed to follow through on the schemes in his "grandiose speeches."
Lehman stumped tirelessly for those schemes, traveling widely in his first year to meet with alumni at both domestic and international events--again, in the name of outreach and engagement. "Jeff was well-liked by just about every alumna and alumnus I've met," says Frantz."He was 'one of us,' and because of that people were willing to give him a little extra time."
This, too, led to criticism, though: Lehman was accused of being out of Ithaca--and thus out of touch--too frequently. The demands of his daily schedule and frequent campus absences were such that some faculty noted a lack of personal communication with Day Hall. "Looking back," says Schwab, "it might have been nice if there had been more direct contact between the deans and the president."
As Lehman began his second year as president, it appeared that many of his initiatives were moving ahead smoothly. Cornell's transnational role was taking shape in the new academic agreements with universities in China and elsewhere. The three themes were being coordinated with existing programs such as the New Life Sciences Initiative and helping to spur plans for new programs and facilities in a wide range of fields, from computer science to the humanities. And Cornell was embarking on the "quiet phase" of a major capital campaign that would seek to raise more than $3 billion over the next seven years.
But behind the scenes all was not well.What follows is an account of the events that led to Lehman's resignation, compiled from interviews with multiple sources, all of them highly placed and well-informed members of the University community. Almost all spoke on the condition that their names not be used in the story.
Board of Trustees Chairman Peter Meinig '61 and other trustees were growing troubled about Lehman's stewardship of the University and losing confidence in his leadership. Their concerns revolved around a perception of the way he was making decisions and the effect those decisions were having on both day-to-day operations and the capital campaign. Lehman did not agree with this perception.
Publicly, little evidence of these concerns emerged until Inge Reichenbach, vice president for alumni affairs and development and a highly successful fundraiser during her twenty-five years on the Hill, announced in April that she was resigning to accept a position at Yale. Reichenbach was close to many of the trustees, whom she had cultivated for years as major donors; in return, they enjoyed her company and greatly admired her skill as a fundraiser.
Many of the trustees were shocked by Reichenbach's resignation, and according to reports several traveled to Ithaca to try to persuade her to stay. Lehman also asked her to reconsider. She refused.
Reichenbach did not respond to inquiries from CAM and has refused to comment on the reasons behind her departure when asked by the New York Times and other publications. And, as noted, the terms of the separation agreement prevent Lehman and the trustees from airing the reasons for their disagreement. But it's clear from discussions with campus observers that the Reichenbach resignation was the "defining moment," as Austin Kiplinger put it, in a deteriorating relationship between Lehman and the trustees who eventually forced him out.
Insiders attribute Reichenbach's departure to two factors. First, as Lehman brought new people into his administration, her role changed from what it had been under Hunter Rawlings. Lehman had his own way of working with senior administrators and a different decision- making style. More important, Reichenbach's personal relationship with the president grew increasingly strained--a matter of "chemistry," according to one source.
The tension was heightened by Reichenbach's discomfort with the part that Lehman's wife, Kathy Okun, was playing in the administration. As one person close to Lehman commented, "She didn't like it." Okun had been an associate vice president for development at the University of Michigan. After she came to Cornell, she was named "senior university advisor," a position created for her by the Board of Trustees in recognition of her previous administrative experience. Although Okun focused largely on faculty recruitment and community relations, Reichenbach was reportedly unhappy about her presence in Day Hall.
Reichenbach's displeasure finally reached the point where she decided to accept an offer from Yale. That Lehman would allow her to leave Cornell early in a major campaign was deeply disconcerting to many members of the Board--although Meinig denies that it was the reason for their dispute.
The trustees also believed, according to Kiplinger and other sources, that Lehman was relying too much on a small inner circle of key administrative associates. This "kitchen cabinet" included his wife and Barbara Krause, JD '86, who had served as Cornell's judicial administrator, associate university counsel, and executive secretary of the search committee that had selected Lehman. Krause had come to know Lehman well while overseeing the transition between the Rawlings and Lehman administrations, and in September 2003 Lehman named her "senior advisor to the president." To Lehman's consternation, the trustees forced him to diminish Krause's role in April.
Some trustees were troubled by what was seen as Lehman's excessive emphasis on Cornell's transnational role and the effect it was having on his schedule. They reportedly told him that his journeys abroad were distracting him from more pressing issues in Ithaca, including initiatives that were key to the capital campaign, such as nanotechnology and the life sciences.
Similarly, there were questions about how the three themes fit with the campaign--especially "sustainability in the age of development," which reportedly left some trustees perplexed. At a Faculty Senate meeting on April 13, Provost Biddy Martin announced Reichenbach's resignation and then responded to a question about the direction of the campaign. "You think . . . that the three themes are sort of the guiding principles of the campaign," she said, according to the minutes of meeting. "That, I think, is something that many people have worried about, including our trustees."Martin went on to tell the senate that the three themes "are the way in which, I think, this particular president feels universities can make transformative contributions beyond the traditional ways in which we organize our disciplinary knowledge . . . but they are by no means the bulk or the dominating focus of our campaign strategy."
The relationship between the president and the trustees bottomed out shortly before Commencement. A deal was struck: Lehman would resign, in return for which he would receive compensation and both sides would agree to a non-disparagement clause--they would not reveal the reasons for their dispute or speak ill of each other.
Lehman's announcement of his resignation did not offer any reasons beyond a vague statement about "different approaches." The official University statements have not expanded upon that. Hunter Rawlings, in an e-mail sent to alumni after the approval of his appointment as interim president, stated: "President Lehman and the Board of Trustees have agreed that his and the institution's best interests will be served by foregoing more open discussion."
Many in the Cornell community disagree--not only because the silence makes it difficult to come to terms with the resignation of a leader who appeared to be succeeding on many counts but also because it has fueled so much speculation, some of it outrageous. The wild rumors are unfounded, says Austin Kiplinger. "There wasn't anything dishonorable," he emphasizes. "That needs to be said over and over again. All parties acted in good faith." Kiplinger characterizes the dispute as "not so much a difference between the president and the Board of Trustees as between the president and the ongoing structure of the University."He believes that Lehman did not develop the necessary "symbiotic relationship" with the institutional structure of Cornell.
Another chairman emeritus, Stephen Weiss '57, says, "The obvious question is: should we have had a more experienced person? Hunter Rawlings had run the University of Iowa, and Frank Rhodes had had a significant position at Michigan [as vice president for academic affairs] before coming to Cornell. Jeff ran the law school very well at Michigan, but I don't think anyone would argue that that's a major administrative position." President Emeritus Dale Corson concurs: "While Jeff was eminently qualified for the position, he came from a deanship, and it's a fairly big step from a deanship to being president of an institution--and Cornell is a very complex university."
Looking beyond the possible reasons for the resignation, many are asking if the lack of information about Lehman's departure will be a problem in the search for Cornell's twelfth president. "I would think every candidate would want to know what he or she was getting into," says Kiplinger. "You've got to know if you're coming into a hornets' nest." The role of the Board in overseeing the president is sure to be a topic of discussion, and there is general agreement that candidates will want to know more about the specifics of Lehman's disconnect with the Board."People who are serious candidates will want to talk about what the issues were--and they will want to talk to [Lehman] about that, as well as to the trustees," says President Emeritus Frank Rhodes. Even so, he adds, "Cornell remains an immensely attractive university, capable of recruiting really top-notch players, world-class players, into that role. It's an enormously challenging position but also a very attractive position."
There is also a need for reassurance about the adequacy of the search process itself. "There are a lot of faculty and alumni who are not clear about what's happened," says LaFeber. "It seems to me that all this makes it doubly important that the Cornell community has confidence in the search process."
Even with the uncertainty that still hangs in the air,Meinig is optimistic that Cornell can find a strong candidate who will continue the initiatives now under way, be an effective leader for the capital campaign, and clearly articulate the University's mission as it approaches its sesquicentennial in 2015. "The institution is strong and will survive this unforeseen and unfortunate departure," says Provost Martin. "It is sad that Jeff 's tenure ended up being shorter than expected, but he made enduring contributions while he was president. If you think of it historically, consider the ongoing involvement of other former presidents, and take into account the contributions that Jeff made, we can look forward with a great deal of confidence."
Others are less sanguine about Lehman's future role at Cornell. "I hope that the University gets the value out of him that we get out of our other three emeritus presidents," says Schwab. "We'd lose a resource and opportunity if we're not able to convince President Lehman to play a similar role. He's talented, articulate, and very committed to Cornell--we should take advantage of that." Lehman remains a tenured faculty member, though his immediate post-presidency plans involve a year-long appointment at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Schwab says that he has discussed the possibility of Lehman's return to campus to teach at the Law school in 2006. "We could certainly use him," he says. "But he's weighing his options."
Many feel that Lehman's legacy will be more fully appreciated as time passes and the controversy over his resignation fades. "I think it would be a tragedy for Cornell to write off his two years because of his resignation," says Weiss. "Jeff worked very hard, he loved the place, and he did a lot of good things. . . . I don't think this is a good guy/bad guy situation, but one where the chemistry didn't work for a lot of reasons. He's a good guy and will be better in his next position than he was here--and Cornell will select a great president."