Presidential Archives

Inaugural Address of Jeffrey Sean Lehman As President of Cornell University (Qatar)

October 12, 2003, Doha, Qatar

Your Highnesses, Excellencies, Honored Hosts, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We have chosen to begin this week of my inauguration as the eleventh President of Cornell University here, on the campus of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, for two reasons. The first is to signal the importance of this extraordinary campus to our University. The second is more generally to signal Cornell’s unique role in the world.

This campus is only the third campus of Cornell that admits students to a full course of study, teaches them, and ultimately will award them a Cornell degree. It is the first Cornell campus to be established outside the United States. Its extraordinary success means that it will not be the last.

Here in Doha, Cornell is truly honored to be part of a remarkable enterprise. His Highness, the Emir, is bringing about an astonishing national transformation. His vision is truly inspiring: Constitutional democracy. Religious understanding. Shared economic prosperity. Full participation by all citizens.

To have such a transformation take place smoothly and quickly requires exceptional leadership. His Highness, the Emir, and Her Highness, Sheikha Mouza, have recognized that education must be at the center of any such transformation. Excellent education of all forms, including excellent medical education. Excellent education for the men and women of their nation and their region. They are an inspiring expression of the Islamic ideal Talab al-‘ilm, seeking knowledge to the ends of the earth.

The historian Frederick Rudolph, writing in 1977, described Cornell University as “the first American university” because of its revolutionary vision of higher education. We are honored that Cornell is today a part of Education City, a revolutionary vision for Qatari higher education. And we believe that Ezra Cornell himself would be proud of the way that his American university has matured into the transnational university of the future.

In the revolutionary formulation of its founder, Cornell University was designed to be “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

Cornell was the first great university of North America designed to be open to all kinds of students and to pursue all questions that challenge the human species, both humanist and scientific, with equal fervor and with uncompromising rigor.

At the time of its founding, Cornell spoke to the need for American universities to address the changes brought about by America’s industrial revolution. Higher education was required for the industrial class as well as for the professional class. Higher education was required for women as well as for men. Higher education needed to combine its traditional emphasis on the classic languages and humanistic disciplines with an equal and correlative emphasis on theoretical and applied science.

Today that language — any person, any study — must address the changes that have transformed our world over the past fifty years and that are continuing today. A revolution in the technologies of communication, computation, and transportation. The breathtaking implications of that technological revolution for the movement of people around the globe and for their appreciation of one another. The consequences of that movement for the spread, adaptation, and mixing of political, economic, and cultural norms. Despite the persistence of misunderstanding and conflict, we are witnessing the evolutionary development of a truly transnational pluralistic culture — a culture that includes profoundly important universal aspirations while retaining equally important regional, national, and local variation.

The American professor Ali Asani has written about the importance within the Quran of “the idea that God’s message is universal, but its manifestations plural,” and he cites a verse which proclaims that a single divine message has inspired an array of world religions, all of which call for respect. The Quran contains a vision of universalism that reinforces and is reinforced by pluralism. And today this vision is animating progress everywhere.

Two weeks ago, I was an invited speaker at The U.S.-Arab Economic Forum in Detroit, Michigan, a conference designed to examine the theme “One world, two cultures, endless possibilities.” The organizers asked me to speak about how American institutions can partner with Arab governments and civil society to create high-impact educational ventures. And I spoke about this campus, here in Doha, as a shining and hopeful example of the future of higher education worldwide.

This morning I want to emphasize why this development is so fundamentally important, for education and for all humanity. It is essential that we resist those who would attribute all transnational initiatives to the changing global economic order. Falling transportation costs and rising technological capacity are important factors. They are, truly, what enabled the creation of this campus. But the transnational imperative goes far beyond that.

Why are all of us who gather here today so interested in other countries, their people, their societies? One reason is certainly comparativist. We believe, rightly, that we will gain new insight into ourselves and our own society by better understanding how other societies and cultures have taken different paths to resolve similar social questions.

Yet I think an even more significant reason is fundamentally humanist. Even while we respect the importance of national borders, a core part of us subscribes to a community that includes all human beings. We are affirmed whenever we recognize ourselves in people from different cultures. We are ennobled when we appreciate that people everywhere share a joint responsibility to care for the planet we all inhabit.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written powerfully about the importance of educating today’s students for world citizenship. In her recent book, Cultivating Humanity, she has emphasized the way in which such an education must proceed: from a premise that elevates our shared identity as members of the human species above our identities as members of national or group communities. The goal is not to pretend that national or group identities do not exist; it is to allow us to appreciate them for the role they play in a larger drama. In Nussbaum’s words, “Only a human identity that transcends these divisions shows us why we should look at one another with respect across them.”

Cornell — birthplace of the integration of theory and application within American higher education, champion of the equal dignity of humanism and science, exemplar of openness to all peoples and to the critical examination of ideas — has a special duty to nurture a transnational perspective on the human condition.

What does such a perspective entail? In its essence, a transnational perspective must be open and engaged. Open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of feeling. A transnational perspective must recognize the world’s radically varied texture without rushing to presume some variants superior and others inferior. A transnational perspective is different from a global perspective because it transcends nationalism without insisting on a unitary global substitute. It embodies the Quranic vision of universalism that reinforces and is reinforced by pluralism.

Such a vision entails much more than a detached acceptance of alternative perspectives, however. A transnational perspective implies a willingness to engage. To participate in the efforts of people everywhere to better understand the world and to improve the conditions of their lives. To advocate for certain humanist values, even while listening carefully and respectfully to those who might reject those values.

From the moment of its founding, Cornell University has engaged the world. Cornell was founded in 1865, and among the 412 students in its first entering class were five students who had come from overseas.

Over the years, thousands and thousands of students have come to Cornell from around the world, studied, and returned to their home countries prepared to provide extraordinary leadership. Consider the example of Hu Shih. After graduating from Cornell in 1914, he returned to China to become one of his country’s most prominent intellectuals, President of Beijing University, and Ambassador to the United States. Hu’s advocacy led to the adoption of a new, vernacular written language as the official language of China, fundamentally transforming his society.

Today Cornell is embracing the challenges of transnational humanistic and scientific education on an unprecedented scale.

At the level of the individual, this year more than 500 undergraduate students from the Ithaca campus are studying abroad in 45 different countries, and over 3000 students from more than 120 different countries around the world have come to Ithaca to pursue their educations.

Programmatically, Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development help to sustain dozens of interdisciplinary programs that transcend traditional academic, professional, and national boundaries as they help students understand major regions of the globe. And every year the School of Criticism and Theory, directed by Cornell Professor Dominick Lacapra, brings leading scholars from every corner of the world to our Ithaca campus for an intensive six-week program of seminars, colloquia, and lectures exploring literature’s relationship with history, art, anthropology, and the law.

Outside of Ithaca, Cornell’s presence is felt in every corner of our planet. Permit me to offer just three examples from among many.

The International Rice Research Institute was founded in 1960 in Los Banos, the Philippines, by Cornell Professor Robert Chandler. The IRRI helped to trigger the Green Revolution that vastly multiplied food yields across Asia. Today a successor of Professor Chandler’s on the Cornell faculty, Professor Susan McCouch, is making the tools of post-genomic molecular biology available to rice breeders and farmers throughout the world who want to know how their indigenous wild species can help provide the basis for durable, high quality, high yielding rice for their region.

Consider as well the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan. The UNU is home to 13 different institutes and training centers around the world. The program that is coordinated from the United States is the Food and Nutrition Programme for Human and Social Development, which since 1995 has been led by Professor Cutberto Garza at Cornell. The Food and Nutrition Programme helps developing countries worldwide to develop local institutions with the capacity to fulfill their populations’ nutritional needs. Recently, the program initiated the development of a ten-year action plan for enhancing capacity in food in nutrition in the Middle East.

Finally, consider the Institute for the Study of the Continents. Directed by Cornell Professor Bryan Isacks, the Institute leads collaborative studies of tectonics and geodynamics with partner governments and universities in Argentina, Chile, China, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. At the same time, one of the Institute’s programs is producing a digital geoscience library that will ultimately offer researchers around the world a comprehensive set of interdisciplinary tools for analyzing the world’s complex of interrelated systems.

These are a sampling of Cornell’s activities in the world today. I believe that these activities have made a difference to the quality of life around the world. I know that they have made a difference to Cornell, bringing us exposure to cultural insights and perspectives from other nations that have enabled us to understand our world and our own lives in new ways.

The future demands more, and, true to its tradition, Cornell will continue to innovate in ways that others may follow. Our University will continue to give bold expression to the ideal of education for world citizenship and to the ideal of engagement with the most challenging issues that face us. In the nineteenth century, Cornell was established as the model for a new kind of university. In the twenty-first century, Cornell will continue to renew that model, showing the way for higher education to nurture a transnational perspective on humanity.

The Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar is designed to promote healing. Every day, the classes that are taught here will serve the cause of human health throughout the region by helping us to meet the challenges of disease. But I think it might also promote a different kind of healing as well.

War and violence, hate and misunderstanding continue to scar our planet. I hope that the commitment to higher education that His Highness and Her Highness have shown in Qatar might become a model for the region, and for the world. We know that, at their best, universities are powerful engines of human transformation. Students and faculty from very different backgrounds are brought together, and through study and discussion they come to view the world in new ways. Endeavors such as Education City can point the way to mutual respect, understanding, and peace, in ways that few other social institutions can.

This is an extraordinarily important project. I am truly privileged to be able to begin my inaugural week here, on our newest campus, in Qatar.