ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

When Minds Don’t Meet

June 13, 2005 by ACTA

Cornell University alumnus and current president Jeffrey Lehman has stepped down after only two years on the job. His reasons are veiled, but apparently amount to an inability to agree with trustees about the mechanisms of management. In a "state of the university" speech delivered to alumni on Saturday, Lehman concluded a long and laudatory recounting of Cornell's achievements--the awards won by students and faculty, the soaring number of applications, increasing media presence, unparalleled alumni support--with the surprising news of his resignation:

But as encouraging as these signs are for Cornell's future, there is today an important obstacle to Cornell's ability to realize its full potential. 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.

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. 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.

Cornell University is meant to fly. Its pilot and co-pilot must agree on the strategic direction to be taken. Since I now understand that it is impossible for such an agreement to emerge as long as I am president, I have notified the Chairman of the Board, Peter Meinig, that I will step down as Cornell's eleventh president at the end of this month.

In my talk at last year's reunion, I observed that Cornell enters one's soul in a way that no other university does. It teaches us hope and optimism and it makes us brave. It nurtures the conviction that what we do in the world really matters, and it inspires us to take chances so that we will leave that world a better place than we found it. Cornell binds us to one another as a community that transcends all boundaries of time and place. And in turn that community inspires Cornell to continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of humanity.

My fellow Cornellians, our alma mater has entered my soul, and it will never leave. It has taught me to believe in the capacity of great institutions to evolve to meet the changing needs of humanity. And that lesson is a gift I will treasure forever.

Kathy and I are profoundly grateful for the many kindnesses you have shown us these past two years. You have taken us into your homes and into your hearts. You have made us members of your extended family. Revolutionary and beloved, Cornell always has inspired me. This is the university that recognizes the transformative power of the horizon. This is the university of Why not? And What if?

Revolutionary and beloved, Cornell always will inspire me. This is the university of life, of wisdom, and of sustainability. I can imagine no greater honor than to have been asked to be the eleventh president of Cornell University. I have served with all the ability that was mine to offer. Thank you for having given me the opportunity to do so.

Speculation about the precise nature of Lehman's disagreements with Cornell trustees is rampant--and still very much on the level of gossip. Some point to concerns about nepotism--Lehman's wife came to Cornell from Michigan with him, and now occupies a high-level administrative post. Some point to concerns about favoritism--Lehman offered two different deanships to former Michigan colleagues. Some cite the recent departure for Yale of one of Cornell's top fund raisers.

For his part, Lehman is sticking strictly to vague metaphors of uncoordinated and unpleasant travel. When asked by InsideHigherEd.com to specify his reasons for departure, he said, "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." It's a telling, and less careful image, than the airplane one that he used in his speech. If Lehman is a precise image-maker, he has revealed the time frame of his discontent--the last six months--if not its exact contours. He's also intimated that the problem with his presidency may have been obstructionist behavior on the part of the trustees. But images aren't accusations, and for the moment Lehman's precise reasons for leaving his post remain undisclosed.

Hunter Rawlings, a classics professor who served as Cornell president before Lehman, will act as interim president beginning July 1.

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