Sudden Departure at Cornell

June 13, 2005

Most of Jeffrey S. Lehman's speech to Cornell University alumni Saturday consisted of what reunion attendees expect from such presidential addresses. Praise for a music professor's Pulitzer Prize and a student's Rhodes Scholarship. A report on applications (way up). An update on fund raising (setting new records).

But in the final minutes, he stunned the audience by announcing that he was leaving the presidency, after only two years in office, because of disagreements with trustees. "Over the past few months, it has become apparent to me that the Board of Trustees and I have different approaches to how the university can best realize its long-term vision. These differences are profound and it has now become absolutely clear that they cannot be resolved," he said.

The hundreds of alumni present were totally quiet during the surprise end to the speech, gave the outgoing president at rousing standing ovation, and then -- like faculty members and students at the university -- tried to figure out what happened. Lehman, the first Cornell alumnus to serve as its president, was popular with many alumni (as well as with students and faculty members). And while he has had his share of controversies in two years in office, none of them appeared to be of the sort that ends a presidency.

In an interview Sunday evening, Lehman said that the Cornell presidency was "a dream job" and that there was no one reason for his departure. He offered the analogy of a long car ride. "Let's say you are driving down a road for 18 months and it's smooth and then you hit your first bump. You think, 'it's still a smooth road,' and then you hit another bump, and then in a few months, you realize you've hit 20 bumps. None of them is a mountain, but this is a bumpy road," he said.

He declined to get specific about what the bumps were, but said that they were about strategy to accomplish goals, not the goals themselves. He said that when he realized the extent of the bumps -- and the extent to which his strategy was not aligned with that of the board -- he tried to improve the relationship. But Lehman said that when a president and a board have tried and failed to get on the same page, it is the president's obligation to step aside, for the good of the institution. And he said he reached the "sad" conclusion that he needed to do so.

Peter C. Meinig, chairman of Cornell's board, said Sunday that he appreciated Lehman coming to his decision, and that the board had been talking with him for several months about their disagreements. "This has been on the table for a while," he said. Meinig added that it was "not unheard of" in large organizations for such a departure to take place, and that it "serves no useful purpose" to discuss the specific areas of disagreement.

Still, there is much speculation about what the bumps were on Lehman's road.

Faculty members pointed to an aborted deanship search, the departure of Cornell's top fund raiser for a similar job at Yale University, and the adjustment for Cornell of having a presidential spouse who also was a university administrator. Still others said that although those were clearly issues in Lehman's presidency, probably only Lehman and a few trustees know what really happened to hurt their working relationship. Lehman declined to go into more detail about the "bumps," saying that to do so would be misleading because it would place too much emphasis on some issues, when the real issue was a broader sense that he and the board leadership were not moving in the same direction.

Faculty members and administrators at Cornell -- Lehman fans and critics alike -- stressed that the university was in excellent shape and would withstand the sudden transition. But a presidential tenure this short is difficult for any university, as it comes after a new president has started to formulate an agenda and build connections to faculty and donors, but before plans have been executed. Given the long length of presidential searches, the university probably won't find out who its new leader is for some time.

Hunter Rawlings III, who was president prior to Lehman and who currently teaches classics at the university, will take over as interim president when Lehman leaves office on July 1. (After a sabbatical, he will return to teach in the law school.)

Several senior faculty members noted that there had been a contrast between the Rawlings and Lehman agendas. Rawlings was known for an emphasis on undergraduate life. He moved all freshman housing, which had been dispersed on the campus, to one area; started a major campaign to renovate dormitories and encourage more of a sense that they were places for learning, not just sleeping; and devoted time and public appearances to the idea of building a sense of community on the campus.

Lehman, in contrast, had a more outward looking agenda. He focused on the idea of Cornell as a "transnational university" and devoted considerable time to setting up new university programs involving colleges abroad. He also focused on Cornell's image, noting for example in Saturday's speech an increase in press coverage for the university.

But while Rawlings and Lehman might appear to have been in contrast, that may oversimplify. Much of the student housing changes Rawlings started were not finished, and Lehman has pushed to complete them. And Cornell's medical school in Qatar, a key part of Lehman's vision of the university as transnational, was created under Rawlings. Lehman said Sunday that he believed the board shared his vision for a transnational university.

There are also been criticism on some of Lehman's personnel issues. Lehman came to Cornell from the University of Michigan, where he was law dean. He appointed as dean of Cornell's hotel school a professor from Michigan, and this spring, he offered the deanship of Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations to Jan Svejnar, a business and economics professor at Michigan. Svejnar turned down the job amid complaints from faculty members and students that his expertise was not in labor relations and grumbling on the campus about whether Cornell should be turning to any one university to fill so many jobs.

There has also been grumbling in some quarters on the campus about another former Michigan administrator who came to Cornell with Lehman: Kathy A. Okun, his wife. At Michigan, she worked in development positions for 20 years, rising to the rank of associate vice president for development.  At Cornell, she has the title of senior university advisor, and an office in Day Hall, the main administration building. According to several long-time faculty members and Cornell officials, Okun surprised some senior administrators by showing up and participating in meetings. She also reportedly pulled back recently, apparently in response to those concerns.

Okun was described by several Cornell sources who have seen her in action as highly intelligent and thoughtful in her ideas about Cornell and higher education. One said that had she had no marital tie to the president, there would have been no criticism about her as a Cornell administrator. Another said that Cornell is just going through an adjustment period as it has its first presidential spouse with a career -- and that such an adjustment is a good one for the university to have gone through.

Thomas W. Bruce, vice president for communications and media relations, called the suggestion that Okun's role had anything to do with Lehman's departure "untrue idle speculation." Finding a job for Okun was consistent with the way Cornell treats other employees, he said. And while Lehman declined to identify the "bumps" he had faced with the board, he said flatly that his wife's position "was not a reason why" he quit. Meinig, the board chairman, said that trustees were aware of Okun's plans to work at Cornell when Lehman was hired and that he thought she had done excellent work for the university.

A resignation that may have hurt Lehman, several Cornell insiders said, was that of Inge Reichenbach, vice president for development, who left the university this spring for a similar position at Yale. Reichenbach was seen as key to Cornell's fund raising success and was well liked by trustees. In an e-mail message, Reichenbach said that she left because of the "outstanding opportunity" for her at Yale and that Lehman had tried to get her to stay at Cornell.

Part of the reason so many at Cornell are trading theories about Lehman's departure is that he had been winning strong alumni support and could point to the kinds of statistics (a 17 percent increase in applications this year) that tend to make trustees happy. He also had spent many months since assuming the presidency in a "Call to Engagement," in which he asked students, faculty and alumni for their ideas about Cornell's future. That process won him many fans from people who appreciated being asked. One alumnus, commenting on Lehman's resignation on the Web site of The Cornell Daily Sun, wrote of that process, "It was the first time Cornell has asked for something from me other than money," adding that being asked for his ideas would make him more likely to give money.

And Lehman won fans from other quarters as well. When he was law dean at Michigan, he participated in the university's successful defense of the use of affirmative action in admissions decisions. At Cornell, he won praise from many professors who support affirmative action for giving serious addresses on the topic -- not just talking about his general support, but writing scholarly speeches that put affirmative action in legal and historical context. And he didn't just speak about issues of race from time to time, but made it a regular topic of engagement with students and faculty members. He also gave numerous speeches in which he urged students to think about moral issues and choices.

Campus observers uniformly agree that Lehman brought gusto and passion to the job. In the interview Sunday, Lehman talked about how much fun he had at reunion weekend, even with the "sadness" of announcing his resignation.

Asked if he would like to be a president of another college, he said, "I've loved being president here," and then said that it might be premature to say whether he'd do it again. But after a moment's reflection, he said, "I would entertain that, happily."

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