One day late in 2008, Lee Bollinger lost his way en route to a faculty meeting. It happened during his morning run around the Central Park reservoir, perhaps the most solitary moment of his day. Though Bollinger doesn’t remember exactly how he came face-to-face with a released Bellevue patient, he does know that one moment he was running and the next, with a loud thump to his chest, he was flat on the ground.
“I wasn’t unconscious, it turns out now. I’m sure I thought I was,” he recounts one-and-a-half years later, reclining in an armchair in the sun-filled library of the President’s House. “He just hit me very hard in the chest. I collapsed and was semi-conscious, dazed.”
After giving his account to police, Bollinger skipped the emergency room in favor of a faculty meeting. He walked into the meeting a few minutes late, almost entirely unfazed. Those who had been worried when they couldn’t reach him sighed in relief, and the day continued according to schedule.
By that evening, the incident had been reduced to fodder for a conversation with a reporter after one of his twice-a-semester “fireside chats” with undergraduates. He was in good spirits, playing the reflective-yet-critical grandfather figure to the 50 or so students lucky enough to win the event’s lottery.
His nonchalance is telling: A hard punch didn’t stop Bollinger, the head of Manhattan's third-largest landlord and preeminent university, from making his afternoon meeting.
The name Lee Bollinger means many things to many people. Bollinger’s colleagues from the University of Michigan remember him as a “jock” and a quiet, mysterious figure. Undergraduates are most familiar with his fireside chats and annual 5K Fun Runs. Perhaps that’s why the image of a semi-knocked-out PrezBo feels so incongruous. The cool demeanor he kept afterward, though, is another story entirely. To all observers, be they proponents or critics, one of his cardinal characteristics is his composure. He speaks in muted, measured tones, suggesting thoughtfulness to friends but detachment to those who don’t know him well. This dual reading of Bollinger has dominated his presidency for the last eight years.
Bollinger has heralded a new style of governance at Columbia from almost the moment he came into office. He infused new blood into the administration and tinkered with the structure of the bureaucracy to create a more active presidency. He focused his efforts on streamlining Low Library and bridging the gap between internal and external affairs most often seen between presidents and provosts.
Nearly every fight he’s been part of—from land use issues in Manhattanville to questions about his consolidation of power at Columbia—has proven polarizing for the constituents involved, and maybe even for Bollinger himself.
Throughout his administration, it seems Bollinger has seamlessly shifted among the different personas that make up a contemporary university president. As both a CEO and a scholar, his demeanor and remarks change with the context. But his navigation of these dueling identities has yielded a particularly dynamic presidency, one that seems likely to culminate with a new Manhattanville campus and increased international influence through Columbia’s Global Centers. The way he streamlined Columbia’s bureaucracy when he first got here along with his ruthless but understated management of the administration have facilitated a hightailing of what is often referred to as academia’s snail’s pace of change.
Perhaps his most important internal reform was the creation of a new position for Robert Kasdin, a colleague who followed Bollinger from his previous stint at the University of Michigan to become “senior executive vice president” here. Today, Kasdin is Columbia’s most powerful non-academic chief operating officer, having absorbed some responsibilities that were previously under the provost’s auspices. In this and other ways, Bollinger has consolidated control of the University more centrally under the Office of the President than have perhaps any of his predecessors dating back to Nicholas Murray Butler in the 1930s.
“It’s a return to a presidential style that fell out of favor in the preceding three presidencies: showcasing Columbia as the gateway to America,” says Robert McCaughey, the Barnard professor of history who wrote Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University.
But that progress has come under increased scrutiny recently, as Columbia’s Manhattanville plans have been placed on hold pending a New York State Court of Appeals ruling on whether the state should be allowed to use eminent domain to seize private properties on Columbia’s behalf, in exchange for market-rate compensation for the current owners. The initial decision by the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, which was made in December, surprised many with its strong language and unexpected rebuke of Columbia’s plans. As the June Court of Appeals hearing looms, the delay calls into question the more strategic aspects of Bollinger’s plans, even as expansion in some significant form seems to be a foregone conclusion.
Professor Bollinger vs. CEO Bollinger
On a recent Monday evening, Bollinger appeared before a crowd of students and faculty in the World Room of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He stood in front of a stained-glass depiction of three globes, with his bodyguard and chauffeur, Danny, hulking in the background.
Bollinger was in the midst of a whirlwind tour to promote his new book, Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide Open: A Free Press for a New Century (January 2010), which represents an attempt to open his technical First Amendment scholarship to a popular audience and to extend concepts of American free-speech jurisprudence to the rest of the globe. He’s brought his theories to international audiences, as well as kingpins of pop intellectualism such as Charlie Rose.
Probably the most surprising claim in the book—the one he often says is “not a winner”—is the idea that the U.S. government should fund more media outlets. He also suggests that the U.S. should attempt to export its free-speech-protecting regime to a world characterized by freer information flows and increasing attempts at censorship in some countries.
Practitioners and scholars have poked holes in the work, though it is clearly receiving a lot of attention. “He’s right that the increasing interconnectedness makes it more important that we get good information ... but it’s not very persuasive,” says Vincent Blasi, a Columbia Law School professor and fellow First Amendment scholar who worked with Bollinger at the University of Michigan Law School.
At a recent undergraduate book-signing event, Bollinger closed the question-and-answer session by responding to a concern about his theories’ applicability. He said, with a smile, that this was the next generation’s problem to solve.
“It wasn’t a cookbook for what we can accomplish and how,” says Paul Steiger, editor in chief of ProPublica, who was impressed with the book. “It was more a statement of values and a call for change.”
The J-School event and the book signing were rare moments at Columbia that featured a president promoting a new scholarly work. Former University President and current Columbia Law School professor Michael Sovern, for example, says, “I really gave up the scholarly life. I just saw the job as requiring my full attention. ... I missed that, and God bless President Bollinger, he’s doing it.”
Bollinger says making the time to write increases his job satisfaction. “I’m much happier if I’m doing lots of different things,” he says, “and so not just sitting there thinking and feeling dumb and not having any new ideas.”
The book, which Bollinger drafted two summers ago in Vermont, speaks to his continuing academic ambition, an exceptional trait for a university president and one that takes time away from his administrative duties.
“There’s something about the testing,” Bollinger told Runner’s World magazine in 2004. “I think we try to find in life various ways to test the better sides of ourselves.” Though he was referring to his running habit, it seems to serve as a mantra for all aspects of his life, both personal and professional. As an example, Bollinger, a consummate Oregonian, enjoys backpacking and camping in remote places with his family. One friend says—and Bollinger confirms—that one time at Michigan, he decided to hike alone in a Montana spot known for its many grizzly bears to see how he would fare.
These two sides of Lee Bollinger emerge in his presidency. On the one hand, he has shown the aptitude to be as single-minded as a CEO, pushing through administrative changes and combating academia’s slow pace in expanding up and out. On the other hand, he is a legal scholar. He advocates for free speech, writes books, and stresses the importance of including all voices on all issues.
These two sides can become an occupational hazard. The same qualities that make Bollinger a successful CEO may cause some people to see him, on first impression, as more of a pretty boy than a professor. “I remember most, if not all, of the women in our section (and no doubt in other sections as well) being smitten with his blond and athletic good looks,” Rocky Unruh, who was formerly a law student under Bollinger, reminisces in an email. “I never thought of him at the time as a serious academic, but he sure went on to prove that he was.”
Other people saw the fecund mind underneath it all. Blasi, who has remained a friend and colleague of Bollinger’s since their time at Michigan, recalls one day when he was struggling with a romantic poem that he wanted to send to a crush. He consulted with Bollinger, expecting a moment of pop-literary analysis. Instead, Blasi says, “I get back overnight two pages of interpretation that could have been published in a journal of literary criticism.”
The scholarly side comes out at the beginning of decision-making processes, when Bollinger seeks out many opinions. “I do think there is a connection between his personal style, which is deliberate,” and his leadership style, Blasi adds.
Likewise, Kasdin says Bollinger’s trademark is starting all discussions by asking, “What is the right thing to do?”
“It’s not about politics,” Kasdin says. “It’s not about what makes people look better. It’s about the University.”
In the sense of being an academic leader, Bollinger delivers over and over again, from book releases to speeches at various venues around the globe, where Columbia’s name benefits in tandem with his own. He also teaches a class to undergraduates.
The traits that make a good academic—thoughtful, contemplative, open to other ideas and perspectives—run almost entirely counter to those that make a strong CEO, and Bollinger hardly lets them get in the way of how he runs Columbia. How does he toe that line?
A prominent example of this tension surfaced in fall 2008, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited campus for the World Leaders Forum. Bollinger OKed the School of International and Public Affairs’ invitation of this extremely controversial figure in the name of academic freedom. Despite criticism from many parties and threats from alumni to withdraw funding, he refused to cancel the event, but he delivered a sharp introduction that laid to rest any questions about where his political sentiments lay, and redirected the surrounding controversy from the issue of Iran to the strong statement the usually soft-spoken president was making.
SIPA Dean John Coatsworth, who moderated the event, remembers the engagement and the media circus that followed. According to Coatsworth, it was written into the terms of the invitation and subsequent announcement that Bollinger would deliver a substantive introduction evaluating Ahmadinejad’s policies. But Coatsworth now says he and everyone else were surprised by the harshness of the rebuke. No one had expected to see a “cruel and petty dictator” be called that to his face. Never at Columbia.
Bollinger has defended this decision as promoting dialogue, saying he wanted to make sure he could air what he saw as the truth before Ahmadinejad skipped out of Morningside Heights. As he told CNN in an interview after the event, “I think it’s better to confront your adversaries and openly state your views.” But students and professors have criticized his handling of the event, accusing him of stifling debate and putting the political interests of the University before academic freedom.
These two elements, scholar and CEO, are apparent in his leadership style across the board, his colleagues say. “He is very contemplative and will think out loud about the pros and cons sometimes, like a lawyer will articulate what the different views and positions might be,” says Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, who struck up a friendship with Bollinger while at Michigan. Bollinger will be consultative until he decides what to do. “You’ll see his legal training and background. At some point he’ll just make a decision and be very clear about how and why it needs to be made—and he takes responsibility for it,” Dirks says.
Bollinger knows when to embody each side. For example, at the University of Michigan—a huge football school—Bollinger would frequently speak to those present at the pregame tailgates about new academic initiatives and hires. At Columbia, a school with a strong academic tradition but weaker athletics, Bollinger has made a priority of developing the latter, with the athletic department reporting directly to him.
Another example: One of the first things Bollinger did at Columbia was to triage the Graduate School of Journalism. He scratched an ongoing dean search and assembled a national task force—including professor and then-history department chair Alan Brinkley and reporter Nicholas Lemann, who encountered Bollinger as a reporter for the New Yorker—to assess the school’s future.
Some J-School faculty members criticized Bollinger for troubleshooting an issue they felt he knew less thoroughly than they did, but Lemann says he enjoyed seeing his field receive attention from the University’s new head.
The members of the task force met six times over the 2002-2003 academic year and settled on a new degree program based on coverage areas rather than general reporting skills. Bollinger chose Lemann, a strong proponent of the new approach, as dean.
“He seemed capable, interested, and politically canny,” Lemann reflects. “He knew where he wanted to guide a conversation without making it seem like he was doing that.”
Likewise, Steiger, the editor in chief of ProPublica and former chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, notes that Bollinger, an ex officio board member, “is a guy who is deeply knowledgeable about journalism.” But even as a legal scholar among a group of journalist judges, “He expresses himself vigorously and has been known to sway the opinion of the group—who’s not shy to begin with.”
Susan Feagin, who heads alumni affairs and development at Columbia, says that a lot of Bollinger’s power rests under a cool exterior. “He seems very laid-back, seems to be low-key in a meeting, lets everybody talk,” says Feagin, whom Bollinger recruited from Harvard to Michigan to Columbia. She was his first Columbia hire and reports directly to him. “And yet clearly, [he is] an individual who has a very strong vision … and a willingness to be a leader and put himself on the line to make those things happen, but in this deceptively low-key way.”
Bollinger’s background: How he got here
Bollinger’s upbringing does not seem on its face to fit the profile of Columbia, which has long been the university of choice for New York City’s blue-blood elite. Bollinger, who will turn 64 this Friday, grew up in rural Baker City, Ore., the son of a local newspaperman. He attended the University of Oregon, where he met his wife of 40 years, the artist Jean Magnano. But he showed an early curiosity about the world, spending a semester in Brazil during high school.
“I’m this young kid in a small town in a fairly isolating part of the country, eastern Oregon,” Bollinger reflects. “I loved that environment I’d always loved. Mountains and hiking and backpacking and fishing—that was a big part of my childhood. But I really wanted to get out and see the world.” Bollinger has restated this theme during several fireside chats, encouraging undergraduates to spend their precious college years exploring.
Upon graduating from Columbia Law School in 1971, he secured a coveted clerkship with Wilfred Feinberg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit thanks to the intervention of his professor, Michael Sovern, who would also go on to become president of Columbia. He then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger before clinching a spot on the University of Michigan Law School faculty in 1973. While at Michigan, he quickly distinguished himself for his First Amendment scholarship—one expert describes him as one of the top five scholars in the field today.
Another theme that runs through Bollinger’s career is his hobby of running, the one that almost got him knocked out in the park. He credits his sanity to his daily run, which he religiously builds into his schedule. “I think one of the least understood things about thinking is the relationship between movement and ideas,” Bollinger told Runner’s World magazine.
One year, according to Blasi, the two of them and two other law professors decided to train for and run a four-minute one-mile relay. They succeeded, with the help of Bollinger’s sub-60-second quarter. Another former Michigan student, Robert Goodsell, remembers the good-natured teasing Bollinger received from his students after failing to complete the Detroit Marathon. “When Professor Bollinger came into class, a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti was sitting on the podium,” Goodsell says. “Lee, who had not been able to finish the 26.2 miles, took the joke in stride, acknowledging that next time he had to carbo-load more before the race.”
Though Blasi describes himself as a friend of Bollinger’s during those years, he and his colleagues still found him enigmatic. The word that comes up most frequently in conversations with Bollinger’s contemporaries is still “thoughtful.”
Bollinger was picked as dean of the University of Michigan Law School in 1987, around the time that his most heralded book, The Tolerant Society, was published. Though Bollinger maintains that he didn’t seek out an administrative job, the role suited him.
“That worked and I decided, well, maybe I’d like to be the head of a university,” Bollinger says.
First, he had to take what he calls the obligatory step of becoming a provost. In 1994, he moved to Dartmouth, where he served an undistinguished two years in that position before winning his dream job: the Michigan presidency.
As Michigan’s president, Bollinger returned to an institution that he loved—and that loved him back, according to Marvin Krislov, who was vice president and general counsel at Michigan from 1998 until 2002 and is now the president of Oberlin College. Bollinger’s most significant move at Michigan was to carry a defense of the university’s undergraduate and law school admissions affirmative action policies all the way to the Supreme Court in the cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger.
“He was very engaged and supportive,” Krislov says. “He really helped shape the University of Michigan’s response in that he and his colleagues and the board decided to mount a very full defense.”
Bollinger the scholar was extremely involved in the initial phases, Krislov says, though as time went on, he handed the defense over to the legal team, becoming the outside face of the operation instead.
That aggressive and gutsy legal argument—which would be affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2003—put Bollinger on the national academic radar. In 2001, he was narrowly passed over in favor of Lawrence Summers in a Harvard presidential search. The next year, Columbia came calling.
At Columbia, Bollinger has made a name for himself as a particularly active president who spearheads both academic and external issues. He is closely associated with initiatives ranging from broader programs—such as the Manhattanville expansion, the World Leaders Forum, heavy fundraising for the University’s capital campaign, and the Global Centers—to more concentrated bursts of energy, such as revamping the J-School curriculum early on, starting the Arts Initiative, boosting select academic departments, and chipping away at historical bureaucratic tensions. Most of the current Columbia deans were hired by Bollinger, and so bear his seal of approval.
“He’s a very quiet and reserved person, and yet he has very big ideas of what Columbia should be,” says Brinkley, the U.S. historian and former provost. “He’s a very bold president.”
Aside from these milestone initiatives, the bulk of Bollinger’s tenure has been marked by public relations crises, not the least of which crystallized around the department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures, more commonly known as MEALAC. At times, he has sought out platforms to showcase the implementation of his free-speech scholarship in a concrete manner, as with Ahmadinejad’s engagement here in 2008. He dealt with the economic crisis and steered an institution that suffered much smaller losses than its peers while also serving on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Outside the gates, he is on the board of the Washington Post.
Columbia before Bollinger
The Columbia Bollinger inherited was messy. The structure was fractious, the endowment was never as bountiful as those of its peers, employees felt starved for space, and there was distrust among its neighbors. The bureaucracy was unwieldy and disorganized. But even so, Columbia in 2002 was much more stable than the University of his immediate predecessors, which paved the way for Bollinger to move beyond mere foundation-building.
McCaughey, the Columbia historian, says that the University’s financial unraveling swiftly followed the 1968 student protests, which generated negative publicity for the school and sent it into a tailspin. A couple of moves made to fix the finances concentrated power under the president while creating strife among Columbia’s disparate affiliates. First, under William McGill—who served as president from 1970 to 1980—Columbia, in a Robin Hood-like move, centralized tuition billing so that the proceeds of rich schools such as the Business School could be spread among poorer counterparts. Second, also in the 1970s, the bulk of budgeting power shifted from the board of trustees to the president. In that way, the president took on a more central role in budgeting than ever before, a position that placed him (or, in theory, her) in the crosshairs of any factional strife within the University.
“I ... served a kind of cheerleader function—we were demoralized,” Sovern says.
When Sovern took the helm in 1980, he saw his primary job as rebuilding the University to its previous standing. He had seen the disorder up close as chairman of the faculty executive committee that aimed to ease tensions from the 1968 protests. After that, he became dean of the Law School and also served as provost.
Looking back, Sovern says that in those years, Columbia was a “wounded giant.” In addition to low morale and prestige, Columbia suffered from the financial dissolution of the surrounding city as it faced the debit crisis of the 1970s.
Under Sovern and Provost Jonathan Cole—who had a hyperactive 14-year run under Sovern and his presidential successor, George Rupp—the University enhanced its facilities and developed a more coherent identity. They built a new building for the engineering school, established relationships with major donors such as Jerome Greene and Gerry Lenfest, and sold Rockefeller Center, the University’s former home, for $400 million—a chunk of change that revitalized the endowment, which quadrupled during the Sovern years. And in 1983, Columbia went coed.
One problem that seemed intractable was space. “You couldn’t get anyone to even go to Manhattanville in those days,” Sovern says, adding that Columbia looked at space in Tuckahoe, N.Y., and farther up the Hudson for the medical school. “At that point, there was no contiguous space that made any sense,” he says.
Rupp took over in 1993, coming from the Rice University presidency after a stint as dean of the Harvard Divinity School. His tenure is credited with solidifying the standing of Columbia College as the center of the University, a move seen as an important effort to maximize undergraduate alumni donations.
Blasi describes Rupp—whose office did not return calls for comment—as a cold, effective, and tough decision-maker. He was a functional president who bridged Columbia from one era to the next, perhaps a victim of history’s pendulum.
By the time Rupp left, Columbia was beginning to look like it once had, a place where its motto “in lumine Tuo videbimus lumen”—“in Thy light shall we see light”—no longer sounded like a joke.
Where does Bollinger fit in among past presidents? “I didn’t think in those terms. I knew Butler had been this unusual figure, but he’s always seen to be somewhat pompous and a pig,” Bollinger responds, never wanting to pigeonhole himself. “[Seth] Low was apparently a really fine president. But Mike Sovern really saved the institution in many ways.”
Though the Columbia Bollinger received was finally on stable financial footing, he still had his work cut out for him. Before he could project his ambitious plans outward, he saw the need to streamline and consolidate reporting lines internally.
A tale of three provosts
Talking about reporting lines makes many Low administrators uncomfortable, perhaps because it touches on power struggles and dynamics that have historically been at the heart of factional strife at Columbia, as well as at other universities.
At the beginning of his presidency, Bollinger was hailed for making changes to the Columbia bureaucracy in a slow, deliberate manner. Eight years later, it’s clear that his reforms have had a dramatic influence.
By far the most significant reform had to do with an administrative office largely invisible to students, but one that can have a tremendous impact on the academic life of the University: the provost. The provost officially serves as the chief academic officer. He or she is the perceived gatekeeper of academic quality, the administrator to whom junior faculty petition for tenure, and through whom departments secure funding for faculty recruitment and research projects.
At different times in Columbia’s history, the provost has served a variety of roles. According to McCaughey, the traditional relationship between a president and a provost is for the president to serve as the “outside face” of the university and the provost to handle internal matters.
Sovern took a new approach: Since he didn’t have a satisfactory candidate for the position, he tried a three-headed provost, known as “the triumvirate,” but they dropped off one by one. This left Sovern provost-less, so he appointed Jonathan Cole, a sociologist who had previously served as vice president for arts and sciences.
But the job seemed unwieldy. After splitting the position in two proved fruitless, Sovern reassembled its pieces, consolidating them under one man, Cole.
“All budgeting went through the provost,” Sovern says. “I think it’s important that the provost be involved in the budgeting process.”
The outside-inside distinction McCaughey outlines seems to have been more or less the relationship between Cole and Sovern/Rupp. In his 14 years as provost, Cole presided over more than 700 tenure ad hoc committee meetings and was viewed as having tremendous—some say excessive—influence in all areas of University life, including, significantly, budgeting during a pivotal time in Columbia’s rebirth.
Bollinger envisioned a much more limited role for his provost, preferring to reserve more discretionary power for his own office.
“The relationship between a president and a provost is an individual one,” Bollinger said in 2003. “I intend to be very much involved and engaged in the academic side of the University. I just don’t agree with the sometimes-described relationship of the president being the outside face of the institution and the provost being the inside. I think the president has to do both.”
Why is the provost’s role important? Because he or she serves as a crucial representative of the faculty in the higher reaches of the administration.
Bucking the findings of an advisory search committee, Bollinger found his ideal provost in Brinkley, a respected, down-to-earth historian and longtime faculty member with few administrative ambitions of his own. Bollinger asked him to take the job over Chinese dinner near Lincoln Center. Brinkley was surprised, although he says his wife saw it coming. And he was content to be the provost that Bollinger wanted.
“There are provosts who run the university while the president goes out and interacts with the world,” Brinkley, fresh off the release of his Henry Luce biography, says in a recent interview in Barnard’s Diana Center. “I didn’t want to be that kind of provost under that kind of president.”
Brinkley’s job turned out to be much more circumscribed than the one that Cole had occupied. According to Brinkley, responsibility for the Columbia University Medical Center and control over budgetary decisions were shifted from the provost to the president and the newly created position of senior executive vice president. Brinkley says the vice president of finance—who used to report to the provost—now reports to the president.
“This was fine with me,” Brinkley says, noting that Cole had a more autonomous role. “The provost’s office is a small office.”
Shortly after coming to Columbia, Bollinger brought in Kasdin, his close confidant, whom he had recruited from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the University of Michigan, for the key new administrative position. Kasdin was put in charge of all traditionally non-academic roles and of the budget at large. (The provost still handles individual school budgets, a process from which Kasdin keeps his distance.) Among Kasdin’s key charges has been the Manhattanville expansion. Although Low Library sources are incredibly tight-lipped about his role, perhaps due to his perceived closeness to Bollinger, Kasdin is believed to be a very powerful administrator with Bollinger’s ear.
It’s a perception that Kasdin pushes against. “I think people assume because ... I have worked with Lee Bollinger for so long ... they don’t see the boundaries around my job that I am happily living within,” Kasdin says. He states clearly, several times, that he stays away from academic allocative decisions.
Bollinger, too, says that the power dynamic between Brinkley and Kasdin has been misjudged from the outside. “Alan was much stronger than people think,” he says. “And Robert was only doing what I wanted him to do. So you need in these kinds of roles—and we went through many, many big issues and controversies—you need someone who will be a tough person, who will be able to fight through things. And Robert has been that for me in many ways. But he was respectful in those dealings.”
Last May, Brinkley stepped down as provost after six years in the post. Bollinger turned to social psychologist Claude Steele, an outsider whose style as provost is still in its formative stages.
Asked to describe his job, Steele says, “To sustain and enhance the academic quality of the institution. Anything related to it—any budgetary matter, how much money do we have to hire the best faculty in the world—and really, budgets are such that everything is interrelated.”
Notably, Steele was recruited from Stanford University, a school with a tradition of a strong provost and a clear division of labor between president and provost. In recent interviews, Steele has suggested that he would like to take a more active role in budgeting.
“A provost has to be right square in the middle of the budget,” Steele says. “That’s how I define my job, is having this academic-excellence mission and managing budgetary decisions and helping to manage them in a way that fosters that.”
But after a few moments of reflection, he backtracks in a later interview. He says, “It’s easy to confuse power with money.”
Manhattanville or bust
All dollars point to Manhattanville, Bollinger’s huge expansion project funded by grants, debt, cash, and donor gifts.
Bollinger came to Columbia for the first time in the summer of 1968 to begin law school, arriving on the heels of the tumultuous student protests that had brought the University to a standstill that spring. To hear Bollinger explain it, his controversial campus expansion plans were envisioned as an effort to exorcise the demons of the 1968 student protests—which were partially catalyzed by the University’s plan to build a segregated gym in Morningside Park—while simultaneously solving Columbia’s perennial space crunch.
Executive Bollinger emerges most clearly in the context of the acquisition of the Manhattanville campus, his headline initiative.
At a fireside chat with students in March, Bollinger emphasized the connection between Columbia and Harlem and pointed out that, while he at one point had an opportunity to open up Columbia buildings in Midtown, he passed because “that’s turning back on our home.”
According to Brinkley, the decision to look uptown for land rather than make a deal with Donald Trump to build in the West 50s had more to do with money than sentiment. “The School of the Arts wanted Manhattanville. It was close, not flourishing, and residential,” Brinkley says. “We looked at a piece of land by Trump buildings. ... That never happened because it was too far away and too expensive.”
Bollinger’s explanation of “home” exemplifies the CEO, the business tycoon who justifies decisions on all terms.
Practically speaking, gaining a contiguous space was important for the University. But he has deflected his analytical lawyerly gaze when discussing Manhattanville. Some might call it a fuzzy spot for his intellectual rigor. “I really believe going into this that this is, on balance, good for everyone,” Bollinger told Spectator in late 2006 about the city’s approval process, expressing a claim that’s more contested than he makes it sound. “I can’t think of any major mistakes that we have made in dealing with the surrounding communities.”
Motivation aside, it is clear, according to former president Sovern, that “Columbia has to grow, and Bollinger is doing the very heavy lifting to make that possible.”
It has been heavy lifting. The plan to build a new campus above 125th Street and west of Broadway to serve as a new home for several graduate schools and science centers has been met with community opposition at nearly every turn, despite Columbia’s attempts to present the new site as an opportunity to revitalize the neighborhood with intellectual strength and new jobs. When Bollinger appeared before Harlem’s Community Board 9 in 2007 in one of many attempts to present the plan, he was met with boos and shouts of “Liar!” He stood through the ordeal, smirking as he mentioned the need for “serious debate” on the issue.
Bollinger has essentially staked his legacy as president on the new campus by making it his key initiative from the start. “Lee’s administration has been dominated by Manhattanville, and what you think of him probably turns on what you think of Manhattanville,” Blasi says.
Columbia and the world: Importing the globe, exporting Morningside
On a recent Friday afternoon in Bollinger’s house, a delegation of eight Chinese academics stopped by for lunch. The President’s House is the palatial mansion located at 60 Morningside Drive—replete with a monastic courtyard—from which former University President Dwight Eisenhower ran his U.S. presidential campaign. It doubles as a diplomatic hub, where crisply dressed staff carefully drop capon and South African mushrooms onto pristine white plates. The delegation from Tsinghua University nibbled on the delicacies as its members vaguely discussed opening academic channels with Columbia.
On the table—in addition to the elaborately choreographed meal, of course—was a new exchange program proposal from Tsinghua, whose representatives were in America to celebrate their school’s centennial. Around the table were various Columbia deans, including architecture school dean Mark Wigley and engineering school dean Feniosky Peña-Mora, as well as the Tsinghua representatives.
The conversation among Bollinger, the deans, and Tsinghua President Gu Binglin was understandably strained due to the language barrier—some kinks in being a global university haven’t quite been worked out yet—but the event as a whole had the feel of a diplomatic interaction, indicative of the success of Bollinger’s recent efforts to reassert Columbia’s international presence.
This international focus—Bollinger has punctuated many sentences with the phrase “global university”—hearkens back to a tradition from Columbia’s former glory days. “They [Columbia presidents] didn’t do it in the ’70s and ’80s because presidents were preoccupied with cleaning up the mess,” McCaughey says.
In fact, Columbia was once seen as a gateway to the world. Close to a steamboat dock, international leaders would hop off, stop by, find a forum in which to air their views, bathe, bed, and snap publicity photos in an erudite setting. Former University Presidents Grayson Kirk and Butler “could meet with less discomfort with the king and queen of England than with undergraduates,” McCaughey says.
Now, that cachet is coming back. Shortly after Bollinger stepped in, a task force led to the creation of the Committee on Global Thought, featuring luminaries such as economist and University Professor Joseph Stiglitz. The committee deliberated on how Columbia would both export to and import from the world.
The two-pronged solution? To bring the world home, Bollinger instituted the World Leaders Forum, a University-wide platform for hosting global players. “Bollinger reintroduced the notion of being a place that when [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy comes to America, he comes here,” McCaughey says. It gave him a platform to host Ahmadinejad. The committee decided to export Columbia through its Global Centers, low-costing international offices that could connect scholars throughout the world.
This initiative is yet another example in which Bollinger consults and listens to players until he feels he’s heard his piece. Then he sticks to his guns. “Only at the earliest stages, he began to develop the idea of the Global Center,” Dirks, a committee member, says. “It had to deal with the pressure for branch campuses after that. About four or five years ago, we started getting approaches from different people, ambassadors and governors, saying, why don’t we have Columbia in Qatar or Columbia in China? And he said at Columbia, we weren’t going to do it. And I’m sure the pressure increased when NYU decided to do the Abu Dhabi campus.”
Now, centers have opened in Jordan, India, France, and China. Offices in South America and Africa are in the works, too.
But the Global Center model, a new and experimental one, has left questions for faculty members. Will the new university-wide initiatives step on the toes of the leaders of on-campus area studies? Bollinger says funding has been solicited from donors who would only give to the cause of Global Centers. But could other Columbia sectors be losing out?
Faculty, student affairs
A few hours after the Tsinghua lunch, Wallace Broecker, an eminent environmental scientist, celebrates his 50th anniversary on Columbia’s faculty in an auditorium at the leafy Palisades, N.Y. campus of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The proceedings last for a few hours, including a video tribute from Al Gore and an original song by Broecker’s nephew, Tom Chapin. Bollinger sits in the audience throughout, quietly looking ahead, occasionally checking his BlackBerry, and altogether not drawing much attention to himself—although his mere presence on the upstate campus made waves when it was announced.
After an introduction by superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs—who says in an interview, “Every step with Lee is a yes”—Bollinger takes the stage. He reminisces about the opening of a Lamont building, when Broecker got up and said he felt should thank “Lee Bollinger … but for the life of me I can’t imagine why I should thank him. In fact, he almost wrecked the whole [building] project.”
Bollinger says that at the moment, he “didn’t feel the need” to point out that he had worked hard on the building. “One of my better qualities is, I just forget things like that,” he tells the audience before extolling Broecker’s scholarly eminence and outspokenness. He gives Broecker some First Amendment brownie points. The scientists guffaw.
The formal presentations end. Bollinger poses with Sachs, Broecker, donors, and Lamont bigwigs for a photo shoot. A faculty reception is occurring outside. Bollinger leaves the auditorium, schmoozes with Sachs, greets a few others, and hurries out of the building in short order. This is his big face time upstate.
Visibility on campus has been a question for Bollinger both upstate and uptown. He has a spotty attendance record at meetings of the University Senate—though McCaughey says it’s an uptick compared to Rupp—which was designed to serve as a conduit for communication between Low Library and faculty and students after the 1960s.
“He is a people person, but in a different way,” Blasi says. “I’ll bet that as many people have had long talks with him as his predecessors. But he’s not a glad-hander.”
Likewise, Coatsworth, who came to Columbia from Harvard, says he doesn’t know Bollinger too well—but he sure interacts with people better than Larry Summers ever could.
Bollinger concedes that the faculty voice is “crucial.” But after a certain period of consultation, Bollinger runs forward with a concrete idea, not letting stragglers’ complaints spoil the initiative. Looking ahead, Bollinger will have to negotiate with the faculty and the University Senate in order to untangle the sticky University calendar predicament and implement the proposed smoking ban, or not.
He rarely attends student functions, and nearly all interactions with undergraduates are highly choreographed and often subject to lottery. All this must be framed in context: Bollinger sees way more undergraduates than Rupp ever did, especially since he has long taught a class on “Freedom of Speech and Press.” And maybe the feeling is mutual: The book signing—his most recent open event on campus, heralded as a way to chat with PrezBo sans lottery—attracted a mere 50 students, about half of the Faculty House ballroom’s capacity.
Bollinger is rarely seen strolling around the neighborhood, but on one recent afternoon, a solitary figure strides down College Walk, stalked from a distance by an imposing man in a black suit with an earpiece. It’s Lee Bollinger, followed, as per the usual, by Danny, his bodyguard and chauffeur. In front of Alma Mater, Bollinger heads up the stairs toward the entrance to Low Library, parting a sea of oblivious studying and sunbathing students. No one remarks on the rare PrezBo sighting.
A few moments later, a visiting tourist turns to his companion with a quizzical look and says, “That’s Lee Bollinger.”
Erin Durkin contributed reporting.