Article Image
Jasper L. Clyatt / Senior staff photographer

One hundred and fifteen years after Columbia's eleventh president Seth Low lay down the first cornerstone for Low Library, University President Lee Bollinger is putting the final touches on the Morningside Heights campus. And as Columbia prepares to open the Northwest Corner Building, the latest addition to Columbia's Morningside plot, Bollinger is staying on board to see the seedlings of his Manhattanville expansion finally take root. At the request of the Board of Trustees, Bollinger agreed last week to extend his tenure for at least five more years. It's clear that the board continues to throw its support behind him: Chair William Campbell said in a statement on behalf of the board that the trustees "have every reason to maintain the continuity of Lee's principled leadership." For the powers that be, Bollinger has streamlined the University while allowing for its expansion—though his dogged efficiency has earned him as many foes as admirers. To others, he is a polarizing figure, who ignites each issue he touches, whether affirmative action at University of Michigan, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the World Leaders Forum, or debates in the University Senate. Bollinger has weathered legal tribulations and community relation debacles while at the same time building relationships with key alumni and donors through Columbia's historic capital campaign. As the focus of the University shifts, to some it appears that Bollinger is able to shift alongside it with ease. FIVE-YEAR LITMUS TEST When asked about presidential tenures at universities, several refer to the "five-year benchmark." The life cycle of a university president is sometimes looked at in five-year chunks, and the lengths of contracts are often set along those lines. "That seems to be the point that 'X' will be accomplished and then it becomes an interesting place where someone can say, 'I've done this, this is a good time for me to leave,'" Barnard history professor and "Stand, Columbia" author Robert McCaughey said. "Or the trustee could say, 'You've done that, now we want something else done.'" These five-year benchmarks give trustees natural opportunities to stop and change an institution's course. "My own sense is that completing the legal job of clearing the way for this development project was a task that has been met. Whether you then take on or assign the next task that comes to the same person is up for grabs," McCaughey said, but noted that Bollinger had proven adept at clearing legal hurdles and raising resources. While Bollinger will, if he stays for another five years, be the longest-serving Columbia president since Grayson Kirk, from 1953 to 1968, some recent presidents have stuck around longer than at other universities, history professor and former provost Alan Brinkley said. George Rupp was president from 1993-2002, and Michael Sovern, who is currently a Columbia Law School professor, served for 13 years. With more time in office, presidents can build relationships with donors, and trust becomes key, Sovern, who advocates longer presidencies, said. "I've often thought there's nothing magical about fundraising. You have to have something worth raising funds for," he said. "It's usually the case at a university that a new president takes at least two to three years to settle into a vision of a major fundraising campaign," School of International and Public Affairs Dean John Coatsworth said. Bollinger, he said, has shown "prudence and vision that has deeply impressed the trustees." FROM VISION TO CONSTRUCTION IN MANHATTANVILLE This June, the New York State Court of Appeals cleared the way for the West Harlem campus expansion, overturning a lower court ruling that had barred the state from using eminent domain to seize "blighted" land on Columbia's behalf. Despite an attempt to bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the question to many is no longer whether the new campus will move forward, but when and how. Bollinger, onlookers say, has led Columbia through the land use process without a complete public relations meltdown. The politics of breaking ground in Harlem has played out in community board meetings, petitions, and small-scale protests—not, as McCaughey pointed out, in building occupations ending in mass arrests, police beatings, and a University president's resignation, as was with Columbia's efforts to build a gym in Morningside Park in 1968. "Given the likelihood of real conflict it seems to have played out with a minimum of controversy," McCaughey said. Introducing the project in 2003, Bollinger presented plans multiple times to Columbia's neighbors, and notoriously stood through a Community Board 9 meeting in 2007 at which the audience attempted to boo him out of the room. "I don't think very many people believed eight years ago that we could afford or manage such an ambitious project," Brinkley said. "It was a very turbulent time at Columbia and a somewhat bruising time for the president. I think he's bounced back with great energy and commitment." How best to meld with the community is still something that's on Bollinger's mind. "We cannot just replicate Morningside Heights [in Manhattanville], as beautiful and as magnificent as that is," he said in a recent interview. "And it can't be that kind of architecture that hearkens back to that sort of earlier sensibility. It has to be modern. But how do you create that and really make a campus, and really make it integrated into the community? That has a lot of stresses in it." FINDING FUNDS With Manhattanville may be in the clear, the next frontier seems to be fundraising. "It does feel like a continuation and a shift," Bollinger said. "It's both things at once. I've been working on this since my inaugural address, in which I said this [expansion] is really what we have to do. But now the difference is that it's real. We have to build these buildings. We have to create a campus." Several big-name donors have announced major gifts to Columbia in recent weeks—billionaire Henry Kravis donated $100 million to the Business School, and Roy and Diana Vagelos pledged $50 million to the Columbia University Medical Center—and Bollinger predicts that the University will be seeing a lot more large-scale contributions in the near future. Brinkley too said the Kravis donation will build momentum for other large-scale gifts. "My view has always been that big gifts follow big ideas, or big gifts are attracted to big ideas," Bollinger said. "I've just seen it work over and over and over again." PUSHING FORWARD Bollinger said he did briefly consider returning to his scholarship instead of carrying on as president, but the decision wasn't agonizing. "It would just not have felt right at this stage to say, 'It's been wonderful, I'm not helping anymore,'" he said. As he moves forward with Manhattanville, Bollinger is also thinking back to his predecessor who laid the first brick. "I look back in 1895—Seth Low had a little ceremony to put the cornerstone down for Low Library. This was the beginning of a 17-acre expansion for the University," he said. "115 years later, we are about to open the last building that began with the cornerstone." McCaughey thinks the imagery is apt. "What can happen within the next four or five years in terms of commitments the only parallel at Columbia would be the 1890s and moving to this [Morningside] campus," he said. "No one since Low has been a really building president." Bollinger, he said, "could be the Seth Low of the 21st century." alix.pianin@columbiaspectator.com

tenure seth low Manhattanville fundraising Bollinger
ADVERTISEMENT
Newsletter