Former Cornell President Jeffrey Lehman ’77 was recently awarded the People’s Republic of China Friendship Award for his work as the founding dean of Peking University School of Transnational Law.
“I was honored and touched to have been selected,” Lehman said.
The Friendship Award was presented in China’s Great Hall of the People — the country’s main legislative building — by Vice Premier Zhang DeJiang, Lehman said. The award is part of an initiative to bring foreign experts to aid China’s development in areas that its government “wants to bring up to international standards,” according to Lehman.
According to Lehman, the award is presented by China’s State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs to foreign-born individuals who have played an important role in China’s social and economic transformation.
This year, 100 individuals won awards in the fields of business and technology and in education and humanities. Lehman was selected by the SAFEA to speak on behalf of the 50 recipients in education and the humanities.
The award was presented on Sept. 29, two days before “National Day,” a holiday commemorating the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The Peking School of Transnational Law was founded to provide Chinese law students with an international perspective in legal education, Lehman said. The four-year program gives students the ability to receive both an American Juris Doctor degree — the first mainland Chinese university to do so — and a Chinese Juris Master degree.
For the J.D., students take the same courses, in English, “that you would take at an American law school,” Lehman said. “The goal of our school is to make sure our students are completely immersed in [the American] legal culture.”
Four years ago, Hai Wen, vice president of Peking University and chancellor of its Shenzhen campus, approached Lehman — who was previously dean of the University of Michigan Law School — about starting a law school that would allow Chinese students to receive the necessary education to practice law internationally, Lehman said.
“He recognized that the best law students in China had to come to the United States to get more advanced education if they wanted to work in the international legal world,” Lehman said. “I’ve spent my career working as a part of very large, well-established universities. Starting a brand-new school was an entirely new experience for me.”
Visiting professors at the new Peking University law school have come for five-week stints from top American law schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Cornell. Lehman said the school is in the process of “building a permanent faculty.”
“We were fortunate in that China is a really exciting place right now, so a lot of people from around the world are curious about what’s happening there and are eager to see it for themselves. And when word got out to American law professors that these were wonderful students to teach, they became interested,” Lehman said. “It’s a virtuous cycle.”
The school’s first class will graduate in 2012.
Lehman said he expects that “almost all of them will spend their careers in China,” where both their Chinese language skills and American legal training will be valuable.
Still, he said he thinks that “almost all of our students would love to spend some time in the U.S.,” and many will spend their careers doing international work for multinational corporations or Chinese subsidiaries of American firms while living in China.
“A typical student’s transcript will be much more internationally balanced,” Lehman said. Classes in the new law school focus on comparative law, European Union law, World Trade Organization law and American law.
Lehman said that running a Chinese law school presented some challenges that may not be present at an American law school, mostly due to the disparity in resources.
“Chinese law schools often have a much smaller staff than is typical at an American law school — the career services and admissions departments are usually one person as opposed to a whole staff. People here work long hours; they’re very dedicated,” Lehman said.