Presidential Archives

Bridging the Rift Center, Groundbreaking Ceremony

Remarks by Cornell President Jeffrey S. Lehman

March 9, 2004, on the border between Jordan and Israel

As Sala’am Aleikum. Shalom Aleikhem.¬†Greetings to all who are here to join us on this special occasion.

I am Jeffrey Lehman, the President of Cornell University. It is a great honor for Cornell to be a key partner in the Bridging the Rift Center. We are grateful to the State of Israel and to Prime Minister Sharon, and we are grateful to the Kingdom of Jordan and His Majesty King Abdullah II, for their leadership in enabling this initiative to go forward.

We are also grateful to the Bridging the Rift Foundation for inviting Cornell University and Stanford University to lead the development of the Bridging the Rift Center into a transnational educational and research institute.

Great universities strive to advance scientific understanding. Great universities also strive to promote the peaceful and spiritually satisfying coexistence of people with one another and with our planet. The Bridging the Rift Center presents a rare opportunity to advance both those goals.

The center will be the first step in the development of a Library of Life, a comprehensive databank of genomic, locational, and organismic information and samples that will ultimately cover each of our planet’s 20 million species.

This is an enormous undertaking. It will require collaboration across the disciplines of modern biology, physical sciences and computational sciences. When it reaches full maturity, we will be able to characterize and understand living systems with a depth and breadth never before possible. We will understand how genomic information interacts with environmental conditions to shape biological function. We will understand how DNA sequences have changed through time, creating a diversity of life form. This ambitious project has the potential to create breakthroughs that could be critical to the preservation of life on our planet.

We will begin here with a Library of the Desert, focusing on the life forms found between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. Working with this distinct ecosystem, we hope to be able to make progress relatively quickly and also to develop new techniques for DNA and tissue storage and data mining that will be necessary for the project’s success.

As the center develops, we look forward to welcoming to the Cornell campus even more graduate students from Jordan, Israel, and other nations in the Middle East. And we look forward to having Cornell faculty members working with students and colleagues from universities in the Middle East to enlarge the scope of knowledge, tap new sources of creativity, and make transformative discoveries about the origins, mechanisms and interconnections among life forms.

Cornell has maintained a strong tradition of building collaboration across boundaries ever since 1868, when its very first class of students included five students from outside the United States. Today on our Ithaca campus we find our Jewish and Muslim students working together on award-winning collaborative projects, from a joint mosaic that they designed and made together, to a shared dining room that is both Kosher and Halal.

The spirit of collaboration that we see in Ithaca has brought us to the Middle East before. Israeli and Jordanian universities have often welcomed our students and faculty for study and for research collaborations. And this past October, we dedicated the new building of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, that country’s first coeducational program of higher education.

At the dedication in Doha, I quoted the writings of the American professor Ali Asani. Professor Asani stresses the importance within the Qur’an of the idea of a universal divine message that is manifested in plural ways. I suggested that universities should be nurturing within their students this transcendent vision of the human condition, a vision of universalism that reinforces and is reinforced by pluralism.

Here at the Bridging the Rift Center, I see that vision in full bloom. The best young minds in the Middle East will come together to pursue cutting-edge research while earning doctoral degrees at Stanford or Cornell. Faculty members from Cornell will come to the center regularly to work with students and faculty colleagues from some of the best universities in Israel and throughout the Arab world.

Throughout human history, scientific and technological progress has challenged political and cultural institutions to adapt and to sustain humanistic and environmental values, while also enhancing the quality of human life. The Bridging the Rift Center offers an exciting response to that challenge. It has unlimited potential to nurture new dimensions of knowledge and understanding. On behalf of Cornell University, I am honored to be here to celebrate its birth.