Alan Brinkley, Columbia's well-known American history professor, will be the University's next provost, University President Lee Bollinger announced in an e-mail to the Columbia community yesterday afternoon.
Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History and the chair of the History Department, is one of Columbia's best-known and best regarded faculty members. In addition to his award-winning scholarly work, Brinkley has written several books aimed at a broader audience, and is also a frequent commentator on current issues.
"I'm very pleased, a little daunted by the prospect, but very excited by it too," Brinkley said yesterday.
In his e-mail Bollinger called Brinkley "one of the most distinguished historians in the United States and a superb teacher," and praised him for his "unwavering commitment to academic excellence."
Brinkley, who has been at Columbia for 12 years, will take over as provost on July 1, succeeding current Provost and Dean of Faculties Jonathan Cole, who last spring announced his intention to step down at the end of this academic year. Cole, who has been provost since 1989, said he plans to return to teaching and research in the field of sociology.
Brinkley had not been widely discussed as a candidate for provost, but his prominence makes it unlikely that his selection will raise much controversy. Bollinger, who said he conducted a national search before settling on Brinkley, said Brinkley's academic strength was the most important factor in the decision, although Brinkley's experience as a department chair and his national reputation no doubt also played a role.
The announcement comes after an unexpectedly long search process, and it is widely believed that Brinkley was not Bollinger's first choice for the job. In December the search was widely rumored to be near completion, and sources familiar with the search said Bollinger offered the position to one or more likely two other candidates, both of them professors at other institutions.
Yesterday, Bollinger denied those claims, saying he "didn't offer [the position] to anyone" before Brinkley.
Earlier this year Bollinger said the search was on track, but he did not achieve the goal he set in September of concluding the search in time for the new provost to take over before the end of the academic year, and he missed by more than two weeks his estimate in mid-February that the search would be complete within a month.
Many professors will likely be pleased that the new provost will be chosen from the ranks of Columbia's faculty, especially because there are so many new faces in the administration, including Bollinger himself. Brinkley said he was sure there were qualified external candidates, but he also said he thought there is "some advantage to having a provost who is familiar with the University."
Bollinger himself said in February that he expected the new provost to come from within the University, but many professors believed Bollinger was in fact hoping to find an outside candidate, and sources close to Bollinger said he was dissatisfied with his internal options.
One factor that may have made the search process more difficult for Bollinger was his suggestion that the new provost will have less autonomy than Cole enjoyed under Bollinger's predecessor, George Rupp. Rupp was widely seen as leaving almost all academic decisions up to Cole, and Bollinger has made it clear from his first day in office that he does not intend to do the same.
He has said he will play an active role in the tenure review process and other academic decisions, and already areas formerly under Cole's control, such as online learning, have been taken over by Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin, widely seen as Bollinger's right-hand man.
Indeed, in the same e-mail that announced Brinkley's selection, Bollinger said he had decided that Vice President for Health Sciences Gerald Fischbach would answer to him instead of to Brinkley, a further reduction of the provost's area of control.
"I really want to have a very close involvement with the Health Sciences," Bollinger said yesterday. "Alan has had very little experience with that side."
Bollinger reaffirmed that he does not believe presidents should leave academic decisions to provosts, but he said he and Brinkley had discussed their roles and that they would work well together. And Bollinger stressed that the provost's role remains vital to the University, calling it "the second most important position" after his own.
In fact, Brinkley called Bollinger's involvement "one of the attractions of the job" and said he did not anticipate any power struggles.
"I think it's wonderful that we have a president who wants to be involved in the academic life of the University," Brinkley said.
Brinkley and Bollinger actually share several qualities. Both are prominent academics, although Bollinger has not been primarily a professor since 1987, and both are prominent beyond their fields.
Brinkley has written widely for non-academic audiences and has had essays and reviews published in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, among others. He is frequently quoted in newspapers on current issues and appears regularly on television.
Brinkley is also well-regarded as an author. His 1983 book Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression won a National Book Award, and he has received prominent fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center, among others.
Brinkley received his B.A. from Princeton in 1971 and his doctorate from Harvard in 1979, where he received the Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize in 1987. But in 1986, Brinkley was denied tenure at Harvard, sparking protests from students and faculty members. Brinkley came to Columbia in 1991, and has been chair of the History Department since 2000.
Brinkley is already popular among students on campus. Hundreds of students routinely enroll in his classes on America Since 1945 and America Between the Wars, and many consider him one of Columbia's best teachers.
Charles O'Byrne, CC '81, the president of the College Alumni Association and a former teaching assistant in Brinkley's America Since 1945 class, praised Brinkley's commitment to teaching.
"I think the world of Alan Brinkley," O'Byrne said. "I had the chance to see first hand the kind of care he takes ... [and] I really never came across a professor who cared so much."
Columbia College Student Body President Michael Novielli expressed similar approval of Brinkley's appointment. "Professor Brinkley has shown a commitment to undergraduates and to teaching throughout his time here," Novielli said. "What an exciting opportunity for Columbia."
Brinkley said he would miss teaching and research, though he said he hoped to teach at least occasionally while serving as provost and he said he planned to return to his professorial duties once he stepped down. Brinkley said he did not plan on staying on as long as Cole, whose 14-year term is far longer than average for University provosts.
Brinkley will become provost at a time of significant changes at Columbia. Much of the senior administration is new to the University, and Bollinger has identified several areas where he intends to make major changes.
"I think the big issues of the University are pretty clear to everyone," Brinkley said yesterday. Like Bollinger, Brinkley identified space as one of his chief concerns, and he said funding and academic excellence are also vital.
Brinkley will also be involved in the final stages of the search for a new vice president for Arts and Sciences to replace David Cohen, who will step down at the end of the year. Brinkley said he expected to be consulted by the search committee, but would leave the decision largely to them.