Jeffrey S. Lehman
Bill Long 7/13/05
Two Years and Out as President of Cornell Univ.
Ever since Jeffrey Lehman, the 11th President of Cornell University, announced his unexpected resignation to a meeting of Cornell alumni a few weeks ago and less than two years after becoming President, college officials have been tight-lipped about the reasons for Lehman's abrupt departure. This essay makes no claim to have inside information on why he may have resigned. The burden of this piece, however, is to show that his major address to the university community--at the 2004 Commencement --sent off several "nonpresidential" signals as well as inconsistent and inaptly expressed ideas that, in hindsight, probably help to explain the cross-purposes between him and the trustees that led to his resignation.
The 2004 Commencement Address at a Glance
The Address had a promising enough theme. You must get your hands "dirty" in order to be effective in the world. The stadium where Commencement was held, Schoellkopf Field, consists of Astro-Turf. There is no dirt underneath the turf. You can't, therefore get your hands dirty at Schoellkopf. And, he took that as a metaphor of life at Cornell. You can't graduate by just hanging around Schoellkopf. You have to go into the Quads, enter the classrooms, go to the places where there is dirt, engage yourself in the world where there is dirt, in order to get to the next stage of life. So far, so good. The metaphor might be used to make one point, but Lehman tried to stretch it for the entire speech. It was in his trying to stretch the point that he ran into intellectual difficulties and verbal infelicities.
An Unclear Point from Sartre
He tried to develop the point of dirt and engagement with the world by making reference to two works: one by Sartre and one by Vonnegut. He probably should have realized that Commencement addresses, even at places like Cornell, should be short on literary and moral analysis of texts and long on exhortations, commendations and rather light-hearted banter, but he didn't, and so got himself tied up pretty quickly. He first told the story of a conversation between two men in Sartre's Dirty Hands, one who was going to make a deal with the right wing in order to govern, and one who was sent out by the communist party to kill the deal-maker. The deal-maker excoriates the would-be killer for his "moral purity"--i.e., for not engaging in the hard work of compromise and for not getting his hands dirty under the guise of holding fast to principle. Ok, so far so good.
But then, Lehman seems to make the point exactly opposite to the point he was setting up people to receive. Instead of saying something to the effect--we have to get dirty in order to live, which was his basic overall point, he says that the deal-maker's argument was "seductive." Usually when you say that someone's argument is seductive you want to reject it, but here he seems to embrace it. But then he says that if you embrace this compromise thinking there is a slippery slope whose effects on the soul can be cumulative. The effects seem to be negative.
Huh? Is he trying to give the impression that it is wrong to compromise, that the killer, the "pure one" was really the one to be emulated, and that the graduates ought to resist the siren call of the deal-maker who realizes that you have to get your hands dirty in order to govern? I don't think so. But then he warns against the danger of getting dirty--that it will lead to relaxing of moral guidelines. What is he trying to say? In his apparent moral earnestness, he has confused both himself and the listeners. He has misjudged his audience and situation, and seems to be warning the graduates of how they will fall in the next few years as they try to get their hands dirty. Hardly an edifying theme.
Digging Himself Deeper into a Hole
Then he provides another example from literature, from Cornell's own Kurt Vonnegut. Whereas I could mostly follow the first example, this one is completely opaque. He talks about Vonnegut's example providing even "greater complexity" than Sartre--a wonderful signal to a patient Commencement audience. I won't retell his story; but he gets himself tied up in knots of second-order contamination and contrasting first and second-order contamination. Then, in an unusually tasteless display of learning, he probes the Anatomy of Disgust by William Miller and the "emotional domain of disgust." He quotes Miller, and his words ring with inappropriateness for the occasion-- "disgust .."despair"..."impurity"..."evil.." "contagious.." and "take everything down with them." He talks about "Ice-9 contamination" without laying out why it is contamination or distinguishing it from any other kind of taint. [Ice-9 freezes almost everything on contact].
Where could he possibly be going? I am sure that I don't know, but then he proceeded to call Jean-Paul Sartre's decision not to come to Cornell 39 years previously a mistake while the "Bridging the Rift Center," a joint venture among Cornell, Stanford, Israel and Jordan, was an example of something good in the world.
I have never met Mr. Lehman, but from his speech I infer that he saw himself as trying to establish a moral agenda for the school or, to put it differently, that he wanted to cast what he was about in moral terms. The only problem with this strategy is that you can tend to give people with whom you deal the impression that you are trying to gain the upper hand not by virtue of the persuasiveness of your ideas but because of your moralistic verbiage. People don't like that, especially from a college president. Oh, let me take that back. They will let a president speak moralistically if s/he either has saved the place from financial disaster or has served 15-20 years in a distinguished capacity and has already won people over by personality, humor, or other kinds of personal skills. Starting out with moral language, however, especially when you do it as unskillfully and inappropriately as Lehman did in his address, should probably have warned the Trustees that rough seas were ahead, whether or not you had enough Ice-9 with you to freeze them.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long