Cornell University students and faculty returned to a campus this month in the midst of what one professor described as a “cloud of confusion.” Only months earlier, they had learned the unexpected news that Cornell’s 11th president, Jeffrey Lehman, would resign with little explanation after two years in office — the shortest presidential tenure in the history of the university.
Lehman, the first Cornell alumnus to hold the position of president, oversaw a record fund-raising year in 2003-2004 and witnessed a 17.4 percent application increase in 2005. But Lehman said in a speech given at a reunion weekend shortly after graduation that it would be best for the university that he step aside, citing unresolvable differences with the university’s board of trustees as the reason for his departure.
Though Lehman would not elaborate further, some members of the Cornell community speculated that the departure of Inge Reichenbach, Cornell’s former vice president for alumni affairs and development, for Yale in early May may have contributed to the rift between Lehman and the board of trustees. Rumors also persist that Lehman was forced out.
In a letter to the Cornell community on the day of Lehman’s resignation, Peter C. Meinig, chairman of Cornell’s Board of Trustees, reiterated Lehman’s sentiments and announced that Hunter R. Rawlings III, Cornell’s president from 1995 to 2003, will serve as the university’s interim president until a new leader is found.
“We believe that this decision is in the best interests of Jeff and the University and all of its constituents,” Meinig wrote in the letter.
The student-elected member of the board, Doug Mitarotonda, said Lehman was a relatively popular president.
“I think he was well liked by most students and faculty,” he said. “He was seen by many as an excellent listener and as being extremely engaged in the Cornell community.”
In the board of trustees’ letter Meinig, who could not be reached for comment, did not elaborate on the nature of the internal discord, and the university’s administration has been similarly tight-lipped about the details of the contention between the president and the board. Cornell officials declined to comment further on the resignation.
In the absence of a concrete explanation, theories about the resignation abound within the Cornell community.
Danny Pearlstein, a Cornell graduate student and former undergraduate, said most believe the resignation was not in fact voluntary. But, because of an alleged confidentiality agreement signed by Lehman and others involved, none of the theories has been confirmed by either side.
“It is well understood that the president was fired … nobody seems to dispute that,” Pearlstein said. “There are a lot of credible rumors, but they are just rumors.”
Some observers said they believed the discord was primarily between Lehman, Meinig and the board’s 17-member executive committee. Several trustees were not aware of schism until the night before Lehman’s announcement, Cornell professor Steven Kaplan GRD ’74 said.
“I know that a number of trustees are furious,” said Kaplan, a personal friend of Lehman.
Both Kaplan and Pearlstein said the most credible rumor regarding Lehman’s resignation concerns Reichenbach, who left Cornell this spring to become Yale’s vice president for development.
Kaplan said the departure of Reichenbach was “clearly the triggering event,” for the contention that led to Lehman’s resignation. Reichenbach, the Cornell “development tsar,” was seen as indispensable by the board of trustees, and Kaplan said tensions between Reichenbach and Lehman may have led her to resign in April of this year.
“It’s unclear whether she resigned or was fired,” Pearlstein said. “All we know is that she left to go to Yale, which looks like a promotion.”
Reichenbach could not be reached for comment.
Kaplan has been an outspoken critic of the Board of Trustees and the secrecy surrounding the resignation since the June announcement. He says the faculty is up in arms over what he and others see as “a breach of trust between the faculty and the board.”
Although Cornell’s administration has organized a presidential search committee which has announced its intention to incorporate student and faculty input in the search for a new leader, Kaplan said faculty members will not be happy until they have better answers.
Others are willing to accept the answers provided and move on, Mitarotonda said.
“I think people are gradually accepting the fact that the board and Jeff agreed that neither party would benefit from a public discourse over their disagreements and hence details will not be provided,” he said.