Lehman strikes hopeful tone with 20th Annual Coffin Lecture
Nov. 15, 2012
PORTLAND, Maine – Before Jeffrey Lehman first visited China in 1997, the longtime law professor knew little about the world’s most populous nation, beyond the understanding that rapid globalization was reshaping both China and the United States.
“My impressions were vague, and, candidly, not very optimistic,” Lehman said.
Fifteen years later – having directed the first post-graduate school in China modeled on American legal education, and now overseeing the development of NYU Shanghai, China’s first Western-style undergraduate university – Lehman is far more hopeful. He has seen the enthusiasm among future leaders of China, the U.S. and other countries to work collaboratively on challenges such as climate change, energy scarcity and disease.
This momentum toward action that benefits a “global public” was a focus of Lehman’s talk on Thursday night, as he delivered the 20th Annual Frank M. Coffin Lecture on Law and Public Service. Lehman spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of more than 150 people at the Portland Museum of Art.
The lecture series, sponsored by the University of Maine School of Law, honors the late Judge Frank M. Coffin, longtime federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, former member of Congress, and renowned leader and mentor in public service.
Lehman, a former law clerk to Judge Coffin, is founding vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai, as well as chancellor and founding dean of the Peking University School of Transnational Law. He formerly was president of Cornell University and dean of the University of Michigan Law School. The title of his lecture was “Worldly Public Service.”
The Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen was founded in 2008 as the first law school in China with an educational program modeled on American legal education. NYU Shanghai, a collaboration between East China Normal University and New York University, is a comprehensive research university opening in 2013 with a liberal arts and science college in China’s financial capital. It is the first American university with independent legal status approved by China’s Ministry of Education.
“These projects have led me to see first-hand the kind of hope and possibility that globalization holds out for humanity, alongside the challenges,” Lehman said.
“The students and professors who participate in these educational adventures all come away with an appreciation for several powerful facts,” he said. “First, cultural differences are tiny when compared with the overwhelming similarities that unite all humanity. Second, when students from different cultures are studying side by side, they develop a deeper appreciation for their differences, a sense that these differences help to make life more interesting.
“And third, the most daunting challenges that we are facing in the 21st century, whether we are talking about climate change, or energy scarcity, or economic inequality, or disease, all transcend national borders. They are all challenges that we must solve together.”
After clerking for Judge Coffin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Lehman served as law clerk to Associate Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court. He practiced law in Washington, D.C., and later became a law professor at the University of Michigan, where he had earned graduate degrees in law and public policy.
Lehman serves today as chair of the board of Infosys Public Services, as a nonresident senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as a director of Infosys Ltd,, and as an American representative in the U.S.-China Legal Experts Dialogue. His many honors include the Friendship Award from the People’s Republic of China, the National Equal Justice Award from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and an honorary doctorate from Peking University.
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