Jeffrey Lehman, the University of Michigan Law School dean who has received national attention as a defender of affirmative action, will become the 11th president of Cornell University on July 1, a search committee announced last month.
Lehman will succeed Hunter Rawlings, who has been president since 1995. Rawlings will join Cornell’s faculty as a full-time classics professor after his term ends.
Before Lehman assumes Cornell’s presidency, he will defend the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies in the Grutter v. Bollinger case currently before the Supreme Court. In the lawsuit, Barbara Grutter claimed that the law school rejected her, in part, because she was white.
Lehman said the Supreme Court will probably make its decision in June.
“Every university including Cornell has had a stake in this lawsuit,” Lehman said. Cornell’s “clear commitment to diversity” was important to him in accepting the position, he said.
Edwin Morgens, a Cornell trustee who chaired the presidential search committee, said Lehman’s national stance on diversity played a part in his appointment.
“The president [of Cornell] needs to make a front-and-center commitment to diversity,” Morgens said. “It — didn’t hurt his chances that he’s involved in the Michigan case.”
Lehman, the first Cornell alumnus to assume the presidency, said his appointment is “a dream come true.”
“It’s just amazing,” Lehman said. “I think anybody who becomes a teacher — has to be excited about the prospect of contributing to one of the world’s great universities.”
Yale President Richard Levin said Lehman is “a person of excellent reputation.”
“I look forward to working with him,” Levin said. “I know Cornell is committed to diversity as are all the Ivy League schools and I am sure that the new president will continue that commitment.”
Morgens said Lehman has many qualities that will make him a good president.
“He’s extremely bright,” Morgens said. “He demonstrated the ability to lead [at the University of Michigan]– and then, obviously, the president of any major university has to be a fund-raiser — He had done a superb job at the University of Michigan. He exceeded his [fund-raising] goals.”
Lehman is the fifth president of Cornell who previously served at the University of Michigan. He said there are many similarities between the universities, including a “shared ambition to be a truly superb, comprehensive research university” and a commitment to “breadth, depth, and excellence.”
Morgens said the similarities between the universities are significant enough that the learning acquired at one university transfers easily to the other.
Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman also praised Lehman for his defense of the university’s affirmative action policies.
“Jeff is a distinguished and articulate voice in the University’s defense of its law school admissions policies with an unwavering commitment to educational diversity,” Coleman said in a statement.