Office of the President


Inaugural Address of Jeffrey Sean Lehman As President of Cornell University

October 15, 2003, New York, NY

Dr. Fauci, Distinguished Colleagues, Friends of Cornell:

This morning we are privileged to be here on Cornell's Manhattan campus, where students at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City come to the most exhilarating city in the world to study medicine and prepare themselves for lives of inquiry and service. We are continuing an inaugural week that began on Sunday at the campus of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar and that will conclude tomorrow at the Ithaca campus of Cornell University.

Great universities help to advance scientific understanding of our world's unifying forces. In my remarks this morning, I would like to talk about how Cornell's leadership in the sciences is associated with a strong culture of intellectual collaboration. And I would like to talk about how that culture has spawned a longstanding and ever-expanding presence for Cornell in New York City.

When Cornell University was founded in 1865, it embodied a revolutionary vision of higher education. Forged in the aftermath of the industrial revolution and the Civil War, Cornell was designed from the outset to be coeducational, nonsectarian, and open to students of all races, and to be a university where outstanding classical liberal education would share the intellectual stage equally and comfortably with outstanding scientific education. From the beginning, that education had included the study of agriculture, veterinary science, and premedical instruction for students. But it took 35 years to fulfill the Founders' desire to include a true medical school.

In 1898, the trustees accepted a gift from Oliver Payne to establish the Cornell University Medical College in Manhattan, on First Avenue, between 27th and 28th streets. Why was the four-year Medical College placed here, when the rest of the university - including arts and sciences, engineering, agriculture, veterinary medicine, and a two-year medical program - was in Ithaca? Because it was the best way to ensure that the teaching of medicine would be truly world class.

By the end of the nineteenth century it had become evident that a great medical education required strong intellectual collaboration between a great medical school and at least one great hospital. Here in New York City, faculty and students at our medical college would have access to some of the finest hospitals in the world. In the 1920's, Cornell forged a permanent alliance with what is now New York - Presbyterian Hospital. In 1932, the two institutions moved together to their present location. By 1938, the university had discontinued all medical instruction in Ithaca, requiring that all medical students conduct a full four years of studies here in New York City.

It was a propitious judgment that the trustees made in 1898. For here in New York City, we have truly thrived. The College has enhanced the life of the City, and it has made transformative contributions to global health.

The work on this campus led to the first double-blind experiment to test the efficacy of pharmaceuticals. The work on this campus led to the first organic synthesis of penicillin. The work on this campus led to the Pap smear. The work on this campus led to the synthesis of oxytocin and a Nobel Prize. And the inspiring history of the Medical College was made even more exciting by a series of developments around the time of the College's centennial.

As the twentieth century was drawing to a close, the College experienced a renaissance, renewing its collaborative ties in order to permit ever more significant contributions to human well-being. The vision of Joan and Sandy Weill, coupled with the institutional leadership of Dean Antonio Gotto, forged a renewed commitment to make this Medical College the center of innovative education, pioneering scientific research, and transformative clinical research in what is truly a new era of understanding about human health.

What insights define this new era? I am not a scientist myself. But since being selected to become Cornell's eleventh President, I have had the opportunity to speak with many Cornell scientists who have taught me a great deal about the contemporary science. Some are already Nobel laureates; some are surely destined to become Nobel laureates in the future. In one of the most interesting meetings I had last spring, a scientist began with the observation, "Today we understand: it's all one biology."

It's all one biology. The projects to sequence and map genomes - human, mouse, zebrafish, mosquito, nematode, tomato, rice, yeast, and more - have already shown us that the many different life forms that populate this planet have far more in common than any of us ever imagined. The differences among species no longer seem so stark. New understandings are as likely to have implications across species as within a single species. That awareness has, in turn, opened broad new frontiers of inquiry and created entirely new opportunities for understanding and for therapeutic intervention.

Let me take a minute to give an example of how this new understanding might affect human health in the future.

In the year 2000, Cornell alumnus Philip Reilly published a widely read book called Abraham Lincoln's DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics. One chapter of the book explains the possibilities of a medical treatment called somatic cell gene therapy. It describes the case of a boy named David who was born with a rare disease called Severe Combined Immune Deficiency. Because of a small genetic error, his immune system could not make the T cells and B cells he needed to protect him against potentially lethal bacteria, fungi, and viruses. For twelve years, David lived in a specially designed sterile environment. He became known as "the boy in the bubble." When he was twelve, David decided to undergo a risky bone marrow transplant. During the surgery he acquired the Epstein-Barr virus, and ultimately the virus took his life.

In his book, Dr. Reilly explains how somatic cell gene therapy could, in principle, help a patient like David. Somatic cell gene therapy begins with the identification of a virus that is not injurious to humans. This benign virus is used as a so-called "vector" to carry normal genes into the patient's own bone marrow. If the treatment works, some of the vectors insinuate themselves into the patient's cells and stimulate them to behave normally. The hope held out by such a therapeutic approach is that patients would be spared the immunological risks and problems of donor scarcity that are associated with organ transplants.

On the other hand, somatic cell gene therapy carries its own risks. In the late 1990's, a patient named Jesse Gelsinger who was participating in clinical trials in Philadelphia died when it turned out that the vector being used was not benign. The virus that was inserted into his body triggered a lethal immune system response.

Yet despite these risks, and despite the relatively slow pace of development of gene therapy during the 1990's, Dr. Reilly's book predicts that by 2010 the technique's promise would finally be realized, and that somatic cell gene therapy will emerge as a powerful and routine treatment for a wide variety of genetic disorders.

Recent developments on this campus suggest that Dr. Reilly might well be right. Seven weeks ago, CNN reported that Dr. Michael Kaplitt, Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery at the Weill Cornell Medical College, had been the first person in the world to use gene therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's disease occurs when certain areas of the brain lose their normal supply of a calming chemical called L-DOPA and become hyperactive. The patient, a 55-year-old man named Nathan Klein, had a severe and longstanding form of Parkinson's disease that had been unresponsive to any known therapy.

In the surgery, which took place here at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. Kaplitt used a vector that, in collaborative research he had conducted a decade earlier, had been shown to be a potentially safe and effective vehicle for gene therapy in the brain. Through the use of modern scanning techniques, Dr. Kaplitt was able to insert the vector directly into the affected area of Nathan Klein's brain. The vector was carrying a gene that triggers the production of a chemical called GABA, which is believed to compensate for the loss of L-DOPA.

The surgery marked the beginning of clinical trials to evaluate its safety and effectiveness as an approach to treating the symptoms and arresting the development of Parkinson's. It will probably be a year before Dr. Kaplitt and his colleagues can begin to make strong statements about the therapy's likely effectiveness. But whether or not this particular intervention is the one that ushers in Dr. Reilly's predicted new era of treatments, it is instructive to reflect on its underpinnings of intellectual collaboration.

Modern medicine depends on broad collaborations. Dr. Kaplitt was the co-leader of a team that included neurosurgeons, molecular biologists and engineers. And such teams are as necessary for bench research in the life sciences as they are for clinical research.

Great universities must continue to advance scientific understanding of our world's unifying forces. Today we recognize that, in order to understand the unifying forces of biology, many different disciplines are required. To appreciate the likely influence of a particular gene, one needs experts on plant genomics, animal genomics, and human genomics. To analyze the enormous quantity of data that specifies gene structure and protein structure, one needs experts on information science and computing. To understand the processes by which genes and proteins operate, one needs expert chemists, physicists, and engineers.

Cornell's unique structure and history have given it the ability to lead the new life sciences revolution. The revolutionary values of Cornell's nineteenth century founders caused it to evolve in ways that have given it a unique advantage in twenty-first century life sciences research. For Cornell is the only one of the world's great universities that has - in addition to a medical college and an arts and sciences college - colleges of agriculture, veterinary medicine, engineering, and human ecology, and a faculty of computing and information science, all of which include scientists who are actively contributing to the post-genomic research revolution.

Today approximately one third of the professorial faculty in upstate New York, as well as the entire professorial faculty here in New York City, is involved with the study of living organisms. Students flock to Cornell to study the new biology - Cornell produces more undergraduate life science majors who go on to earn Ph.D.'s than any other university. And Cornell has committed half a billion dollars to a new life sciences initiative. This initiative will ensure that Cornell's potential continues to be translated into new discoveries. Just as significantly, the initiative is drawing humanists and social scientists into the collaborative mix, in order to ensure that the ethical and sociological implications of post-genomic research are considered with the same care as the scientific implications.

This is all enormously exciting for Cornell. But this morning I would like to speak about what we, as individuals and as a university, must do to ensure that these institutional virtues yield benefits for all humanity. I want to spend a moment considering what intellectual collaboration really entails. I want to consider what institutional preconditions are necessary for healthy collaborations. And I want to look at two geographic axes of intellectual collaboration that have particular salience for our campus in New York City. One axis runs through the heart of New York City. A second runs from Ithaca to York Avenue.

For high school students and undergraduate students, intellectual collaboration is the exception rather than the norm. Notwithstanding the occasional so-called "group project" or work with a "lab partner," students are usually asked to take tests and write papers on their own, without any help from others. This is a good thing. Just as athletes must develop their own bodies individually, so all of us must develop our own minds. In order to build essential stores of information, develop habits of thought, and come to recognize our own abilities to think and do, we must both endure the frustrations that attend difficult individual work and experience the satisfactions that follow from successful effort.

But after we complete our student years, things change. As adults, we far more often find ourselves undertaking tasks in concert with others. That is especially important true in experimental scientific research, where we often find giant research teams engaged in hierarchically structured efforts that resemble work teams in the private sector. But it also is becoming more and more true in theoretical domains of science, in the social sciences, and even in the humanities. Today interdisciplinary research teams regularly develop insights that never would have emerged from sets of atomized researchers working in isolation.

Return with me for a moment to the problem of gene therapy. Almost two decades before Dr. Kaplitt and his team developed a method for treating the symptoms of Parkinson's disease in people, Cornell horticultural scientist John Sanford joined forces with Cornell nanotechnology experts Edward Wolf and Nelson Allen to develop a way to protect plants from equally dangerous viruses. Only by combining their expertise from two very different fields could these researchers invent a technique that went on to transform agriculture around the world.

As a society, and as a university, we therefore have a stake in nurturing the background conditions that make it more likely that two or more researchers will develop a fruitful collaborative relationship. And we have a particular stake in understanding what leads a small set of intellectual peers from different disciplines to develop a fruitful collaboration.

The literature suggests a variety of different factors. I think it is helpful to distinguish two different categories of background conditions. The first category concerns the individuals. The second concerns their institutional environment.

At the level of the individual, scholars have identified a variety of personal motivations that might lead researchers to collaborate with others. While I have not seen an analysis of what qualities of the individual researchers are likely to produce fruitful research partnerships, I would not be surprised for the answer to be that the researchers share a sensibility about what is interesting while at the same time bring different methodological perspectives or talents to the relationship. And I would certainly not be surprised to learn that the most successful collaborators are people who are open to different approaches and perspectives, and are eager to engage. In my talk in Qatar on Sunday, I talked about how openness and engagement characterize a transnational perspective on humanity; those same qualities surely characterize fruitful interdisciplinary intellectual collaborations as well.

But what about institutions? What kind of institutional environment nurtures successful collaborations? A number of scholars have noted how many collaborations begin by happenstance, as the result of chance encounters, spontaneous third-party introductions, or informal communications. And they have suggested that this might imply something about the importance of environmental factors such as spatial proximity. For myself, I would be prepared to draw even broader inferences.

Knowing that collaborations are often the product of a chance encounter, we must remain alert to whether the organizational and architectural structure of our universities facilitates or inhibits such encounters. Being part of one university gives people a shared identity that can make collaboration easier and more natural, but we must also take care to ensure that people are regularly exposed to their colleagues and their work, so that they are aware of the range of potential intellectual partners available to them. And then, the university has to take full advantage of modern technology to facilitate informal communication as well as formal communication, to ensure that a few thousand miles of distance between New York and Qatar, or a few hundred miles of distance between Ithaca and Manhattan, do not impede the flow of ideas.

Finally, at a more general level, the institutional culture must support fruitful collaborative work. It must celebrate joint insights every bit as much as it celebrates individual insights. And it must channel our competitive drives in healthy and productive directions, directions that respect the need for collaborations across institutional boundaries, even within a competitive world.

Today the culture of intellectual collaboration at Cornell's Ithaca campus and at the Weill Cornell Medical College is truly admirable. I must begin by expressing my deep respect for the faculty who have worked to make our campus in Qatar such an extraordinary success. This weekend, I had the opportunity to see first-hand how Weill-Cornell Medical College in Qatar is already having the effects that the Qatari leadership and we desired, bringing exceptionally talented students from around the Gulf region together to study in a coeducational environment, in a curriculum of comparable rigor to what we provide in New York. The gifted architect Arata Isozaki has blended architectural elements from the Cornell campus in Ithaca, the Weill Cornell Medical campus in Manhattan, and the Arab-Islamic tradition to create an astonishing building. And because the campus is designed to provide both undergraduate premedical education professional M.D. education, pedagogic elements of each American campus are being reflected there as well. And our campus has inspired other academic institutions to come as well, to participate in the creation of an multi-university Education City and to support a tiny nation whose farsighted administration is a beacon of hope for that region.

Closer to home, the Weill Cornell Medical College sits on an axis of institutional collaboration with other outstanding institutions that runs through the heart of New York City. The permanent alliance formed in the 1920's between Cornell and New York Hospital has blossomed and grown, expanding to include the Hospital for Special Surgery and the other members of the Healthcare System, and expanding again as New York Hospital merged with Columbia Presbyterian, so that we were drawn into a close and productive partnership with Columbia University.

In addition, since the year 2000 researchers on both our Ithaca campus and our Manhattan campus have been participants in a collaborative research and training program called the Tri-Institutional Research Program. In the Tri-Institutional Program, we have joined forces with Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to support collaborative research programs in chemical biology, computational biology, and cancer and developmental biology - research programs of a scale and quality that none of the three universities could undertake on its own. I will be having lunch today with the Presidents of several other prominent universities with strong presences in New York City, and I look forward to talking with them about how we can continue to nurture intellectual collaborations across our institutional boundaries for the good of all New York, and for the good of the world.

As for the collaborations between faculty on our Ithaca campus and faculty here on the Weill Cornell campus, they are plentiful and inspiring. To pick a few examples, today faculty members at the two campus are cooperating:

  • To examine life-course transitions and social integration for aging adults,
  • To control arrhythmias in human and animal hearts,
  • To study post-traumatic stress disorder among children following September 11, and
  • To develop ways to read magnetic resonance images even when the patient can't hold still.

And later this morning, I will have the opportunity to visit the laboratory of Dr. Frederick Maxfield, who, in collaboration with researchers from Ithaca, is developing and using new optical microscopy and biophysical techniques to study the properties of living cells.

This brings me to my final point. Cornell's presence in New York City began over 100 years ago because an intellectual imperative required us to locate our medical college here. Today, other intellectual imperatives have led Cornell to nurture an ever-expanding presence within the five boroughs that goes far beyond medicine and the life sciences.

Cornell is in the workplace, advancing knowledge of alcohol, drug and health issues. Cornell is in union halls and corporate headquarters, helping organized labor and management increase their effectiveness. Cornell is in the South Bronx, working with community groups on new ways to reduce air pollution, and in Brooklyn, carrying out participatory research on sustainable agriculture with local gardeners. Cornell is in disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout the city, teaching young people reading, critical thinking and leadership skills. And Cornell is on Wall Street, developing innovative solutions to practical problems in computational and mathematical finance, portfolio optimization, and risk management.

New York City is an educational venue for our faculty and students, a research site and an intellectual and cultural resource, a central focus of our efforts in outreach and extension. I believe it is inevitable that in the decades ahead, the interdependence of our two New York campuses will continue to deepen, and that faculty and students who name the Ithaca campus as their primary base will spend more and more time in New York City.

Cornell's presence in this city speaks to what the university is and what it aspires to be. Cornell is not an Upstate university. Cornell is not a New York City university. Cornell is everywhere in New York State. And as I mentioned in Doha on Sunday, Cornell has become a transnational university whose presence is felt everywhere in the United States and around the world.

These are great and challenging times. They summon us all to offer our best ideas and energy to serve the evolving needs of humanity. It is an extraordinary privilege for me to have been called to serve as Cornell's eleventh President