President Lehman announces he will step down to shocked alumni

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- President Jeffrey S. Lehman's State of the University address Saturday morning in Bartels Hall began as expected for a hot day in June: Newspapers used as fans in the stifling Newman Arena heat; jovial alumni, sorted by age -- 1940s and 1950s graduates in Cornell-red folding chairs; just-out-of-school 20-somethings in the bleachers behind.

By the end of the address, the alumni would share sadness and shock as they digested the unexpected news: Lehman, the first Cornell alumnus to hold the university's highest office, had closed his speech by announcing his resignation after just two years as president. 

Adding to the surprise and confusion, Peter C. Meinig, chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees had followed Lehman's announcement with the news that Hunter Rawlings, Cornell's 10th president, would return until a new president was chosen.

The news came six pages into Lehman's seven-page speech when, after listing the university's many accomplishments, from scientific achievements to athletic victories, over the past year, he said: "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, Lehman continued, an airplane en route to Bali.

"It can get there by flying east," he said. "Or it can get there by flying west.

"But even if the pilot and 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."

The announcement stilled the fanning newspapers. The audience seemed at a loss. 

Lehman went on:

"Revolutionary and beloved, Cornell will always 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."

With that, and to a standing ovation, Lehman left the stage. 

Board chair Meinig, stepping up to fill the empty spot on the stage, thanked Lehman for his work. "Much has been accomplished over the past two years," he said. The university has benefited from Lehman's service. Lehman, he said, will continue to hold the position of tenured professor of law at Cornell Law School and will also become a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Meinig assured the audience that the board would establish a search committee quickly. In the meantime, he said, Rawlings will become interim president. "Hunter Rawlings needs no introduction to this group," Meinig said. "We are in your debt. We cannot say thank you enough."

When the Alma Mater had been sung, Sandy Chachkes Temkin, Class of '55, emerged from the arena looking stunned.

"We were so charmed by him," Temkin said, referring to an encounter with Lehman at an event in Rochester, N.Y., recently. "He was like this burst of vitality and youth. He was the best thing that's happened to Cornell in a long time. I was completely blown away."

Marguerite Antell, Class of '45, was mystified. "We didn't even get to know him. He was at our barbecue, and -- no word," she said, shaking her head. "How heartbreaking for him."

It was a sad ending to what had begun as an optimistic, forward-looking State of the University address. The audience clapped in appreciation for Presidents Emeriti Frank H.T. Rhodes and Rawlings, both present. And when the applause subsided, they all settled in to hear Lehman speak words as familiar as any in Cornell's collective conscience.

"The State of Cornell University today was shaped by the towering ambition of Ezra Cornell," he said. "Listen once again to the words of Cornell's creed. 'I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.'"