This article is part of a special issue looking back at the 2011-12 academic year. Read the rest of the issue here.
Columbia has seen significant administrative turmoil over the last year, with two of University President Lee Bollinger’s most prominent hires abruptly resigning and another one facing a faculty revolt.
In 2009, Bollinger brought in three top administrators from outside the University—Claude Steele as provost, Michele Moody-Adams as Columbia College dean, and Feniosky Peña-Mora as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. All three were the first minorities to hold those positions.
The reasons behind Moody-Adams’ August resignation remain largely unknown to students and professors. In an Aug. 20 email to a group of alumni, Moody-Adams—who came to Columbia from Cornell University—wrote that impending structural changes to Columbia’s administration would “ultimately compromise the College’s academic quality and financial health.”
“Just a very few days ago, it was made clear to me that the structural transformations intended to fundamentally alter decision-making in and for the College cannot be stopped,” she wrote. “I believe in offering my best as an administrator, educator and scholar and in doing the right things by the constituents I serve. Columbia is developing a structure that will no longer allow me to do that as Dean.”
Moody-Adams originally said that her resignation would be effective June 30, 2012, but shortly after her email to alumni, Bollinger requested that she step down immediately.
There has been much speculation that Moody-Adams stepped down because of a report from the consulting firm McKinsey and Company that recommended administrative restructuring in the Arts and Sciences. But most of the report’s suggestions for structural changes ultimately were not implemented, and Bollinger described the report as “a kind of red herring.”
“It was nothing more than a set of ideas, and it was up to us to decide—it was really up to everyone to decide—what we would do,” he said in a recent interview.
Since September, several administrators have declined to explain why Moody-Adams resigned, citing a legal agreement that prohibits them from doing so. Bollinger said he understands why some would assume that the McKinsey report was a factor.
“You can understand how people can make a conclusion or develop a story based on the facts as they know them—as I know they know them—and make different assumptions than what I know to be the truth,” Bollinger said.
Chemistry professor James Valentini has been serving as Columbia College’s interim dean since September, and a search committee composed of professors and students is currently looking for a permanent dean. The committee, which will send a list of finalists to Bollinger for consideration, plans to complete its work by the end of the month.
Moody-Adams was not the only high-profile administrator to resign suddenly during the last year. In June, Claude Steele announced that he would be resigning as provost to become dean of Stanford University’s School of Education.
Steele had previously been the director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He taught psychology at Stanford from 1991 through 2009, chairing the psychology department from 1997 through 2000.
Steele told Spectator that he had mixed emotions about leaving Columbia, but that he was looking forward to teaching again and leading research on education. Steele has done research on achievement differences between different groups of students, focusing on the “stereotype threat” theory that members of negatively stereotyped groups operate under the anxiety that they will confirm those stereotypes.
“After a certain age you only have so many epochs left in a career,” Steele said. “I’d like this final epoch to be dedicated to this.”
Peña-Mora is still dean of the engineering school, but he has been a polarizing figure since from the beginning of his tenure.
In the spring of 2010—just a few months after he arrived from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—the chairs of the nine SEAS departments privately gave him a letter outlining situations in which they believed he had not acted in the best interests of the school, as well as suggestions for how he should fix his mistakes.
In August 2011, after the relationship between Peña-Mora and faculty members deteriorated further, the chairs wrote then-Interim Provost John Coatsworth a letter calling for Peña-Mora’s resignation. Many SEAS professors signed a similar letter in October, writing that Peña-Mora had worsened SEAS’ long-standing space crunch, sacrificed graduate students’ education for short-term profits, and compromised the quality of the faculty, among other complaints.
The University’s central administration made several changes to the engineering school’s administrative structure in response to faculty concerns, transferring many of Peña-Mora’s responsibilities to the newly created position of executive vice dean and forming a faculty committee that is looking for ways to improve communication between the dean and the faculty. The offices of the provost and the president will complete a report on possible structural and administrative changes to SEAS by the end of June.
But despite the changes, many faculty members are still adamant that Peña-Mora resign. Asked if he would rule out the possibility of asking Peña-Mora to step down, Bollinger declined to comment.
“No one knows what the next step will be, but it’s clear that if it continues like this, the school will be hurt,” one former department chair, who asked to remain anonymous, told Spectator. “If he [Peña-Mora] puts the school’s interests first, he will step down.”
Although Bollinger declined to draw connections between Moody-Adams’ resignation, Steele’s resignation, the calls for Peña-Mora resignation, he seems to have rethought the strategy of outside hires for high-profile positions. He chose Coatsworth, who was previously dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, as interim and then permanent provost, and he has limited the search for a Columbia College dean to internal candidates. Valentini is widely considered to be a frontrunner for the position.
“It’s always difficult to come from the outside, whatever your position is. In an administrative leadership role, it’s always difficult,” Bollinger said. “It takes a long time, sometimes a very long period of time, to build relationships, to figure out the system, to build trust. And you have controversies that you can’t predict or control, and so it’s always difficult. I’ve seen this many, many, many times.”
Leah Greenbaum, Sammy Roth, and Finn Vigeland contributed reporting.
Read the rest of the special issue here.