Presidential Archives

Formal Announcement of the Call To Engagement From Jeffrey S. Lehman to the Cornell Community

November 20, 2003, Barton Hall

In my inaugural address, I asked the Cornell community to consider how our university should evolve during the years leading up to our sesquicentennial in 2015. I believe that Cornell, with its unique set of animating principles, history, and contemporary structure, can make contributions to humanity that no other university in the world can make. We have a shared responsibility to reflect carefully on how to pursue that goal.

I hope that during this academic year the broad community of Cornellians — faculty, students, staff, alumni, and other neighbors and friends near and far — will engage a set of important questions and will share the fruits of that engagement. Before enumerating those questions, however, I want to offer some of my thoughts and hopes about the process.

I am not asking you to consider all the important issues that face Cornell. Rather, I am asking you to approach a subset of those issues, a subset that touches the core of our identity. In challenging us to think about Cornell’s fundamentals, I anticipate that much of the discussion will reaffirm what we find good about our university. I nonetheless encourage us to reflect on all of Cornell, even the aspects that are its greatest strengths.

To be sure, it is not my intent to revisit or second-guess major commitments that Cornell has made; I am fully dedicated to their successful realization. This exercise is about the future – the new commitments we should be making to ourselves and to others, so as to ensure that Cornell is the university we want it to be when we celebrate our 150th birthday.

These are not matters that lend themselves to easy, consensus to-do lists, or to simple, one-sentence answers. They are complex, difficult subjects about which reasonable people will disagree. Accordingly, responses will be most helpful if they convey people’s approaches to the questions and the ways they think about them, rather than simply generating a list of agenda items. When a group considers a topic, I hope that they will produce a response that conveys the broad heterogeneity of reaction within the group rather than stating a simple “bottom line.”

I am asking our community to begin this discussion over the coming weeks. The opportunities for thought and conversation are varied and numerous. Members of the senior administration will help develop and organize discussion among all of our stakeholders, but many of you will want to engage, instead, in smaller group discussions or in individual reflection. I encourage you to take whatever opportunity arises to give consideration to these questions. We invite you to share the results of your deliberations by sending an e-mail to or simply sending a note to the President’s Office at 300 Day Hall. My colleagues and I will be reading the ideas you write down and mixing in our own views. By next fall, I expect to have framed an initial set of goals for myself and for our university that will reflect the dreams and aspirations of Cornellians everywhere.

Thank you, in advance, for participating in this exercise. I look forward to joining with you in the conversations that these questions stimulate. It is a great privilege for me to serve as Cornell’s president and to lead what I trust will be an extraordinarily stimulating conversation.