Loretta Ucelli will resign from her position as Columbia's executive vice president for Communications and External Relations after only sixteen months on the job and take a position as Senior Vice President for Corporate Communications at Pfizer.
Her responsibilities involving the University's proposed expansion into Manhattanville in West Harlem will be assumed by Maxine Griffith, who was appointed vice president for Government and Community Affairs in mid-July. Griffith's post has been vacant since Emily Lloyd, the Columbia's former primary spokesperson for community relations and a major player in the expansion efforts resigned last summer amid rumors that she no longer had significant decision-making power within the administration.
"She has just an outstanding background and is a remarkable person," Columbia President Bollinger said of Griffith. "I will be very involved working with Maxine because what she will be doing is crucial to the future of the university."
The administrative changes continue a trend of quick turnover in the office of public affairs and follow a semester of major public relations setbacks in terms of both the Manhattanville expansion and the MEALAC controversy. In April, many West Harlem residents were dismayed by what they saw as Columbia's failure to foster communication with the public after it was revealed that Columbia had paid state officials $300,000 to begin a preliminary investigation into the condemnation of Manhattanville properties, a necessary precursor for the use of eminent domain to obtain property that owners are unwilling to sell.
Bollinger denied that these public relations blips were related to any administrative changes. He said that the shifts in expansion responsibilities between the two administrative posts were related to adjustments in the organization of the public affairs office and that Ucelli's departure was not part of a larger shake-up of the office.
"[I am] very sorry to see her go," Bollinger said, noting that he understood she could not pass up "this amazing opportunity with Pfizer."
Bollinger said that Ucelli had impacted the public affairs office even during her relatively short tenure there and praised her communication skills. "Loretta has brought an extraordinary professionalism to the office," he said. "She has a deep intuitive sense of how to explain things and how to learn from exchanges."
State Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell (D-Morningside Heights) agreed that Ucelli was "a very effective communicator" and hoped that Griffith would be able to fill the void left by her departure.
Griffith said her first goals are staff development and increasing communication within the University community as well as with its neighbors, which may involve hiring an administrator to work with her specifically on facilitating discussions with students and keeping the student body informed of administrative actions. Both Griffith and Bollinger stressed the importance of building personal relationships with local community leaders and residents.
"We all have missions and agendas and objectives and sometimes, you know, being able to look somebody in the eye and say, you know, you've been straight with me in the past and you'll probably be straight with me now I think is a good thing," Griffith said. Bollinger added that he expected Griffith to be able to draw on the extensive personal relationships she has built from her previous work in Harlem.
Prior to coming to Columbia, Griffith was the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission and worked as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Regional Representative for New York and New Jersey under the Clinton administration. She also served on the New York City Planning Commission and worked on the design of the West Harlem Waterfront for her private planning firm.
Griffith was optimistic about Columbia's potential to work with and help the surrounding neighborhood and her ability to facilitate this. "Knowing what I think, why would they hire me if they really-if the leadership here didn't really want to engage in a partnership?" Griffith said.
"The community is many communities and so is the University, and so that's going to take time, it's going to take effort, it's going to take skill, it's going to take building relationships, a certain amount of trust, but there's nothing that-no one I've talked to, nothing that I've seen since I've been here, even the private conversations, that makes me believe it's not going to happen."
But Lloyd's legacy has left some questions about the power Columbia's representative to the surrounding community will have within the administration.
"In the end, how effective the person in that position is is mostly a reflection of how much power the university gives them," O'Donnell said. "I think the greatest thing that she or someone in her position can do is to get the University to take positions that may not be in the University's interest but are in the community's interest."
Griffith stressed her direct access to Bollinger and her inclusion in upper-level administrative meetings. In addition, both Griffith and Bollinger said that West Harlem residents could expect to see Griffith at more community meetings in the coming year, a significant shift from the past year, in which representatives from Columbia were a relatively rare sight at Community Board 9 meetings.