New York City’s first and only Black mayor and School of International and Public Affairs professor David Norman Dinkins passed away from natural causes in his home on Monday evening. He was 93 years old.
Affectionately known as “SIPA’s mayor,” Dinkins’ 26-year teaching career began as “a way to pay the rent.” His professorship marked the continuation of his involvement in campus life after picketing the University in protest of racial inequities in the 1960s.
He also penned a controversial endorsement of the Manhattanville expansion—University President Lee Bollinger’s initiative to build a supplementary campus in West Harlem—which has been opposed by many local residents and community organizations.
As a professor in the practice of public policy at SIPA and a senior research scholar at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Dinkins’ mayoral appointment featured an agenda aimed at achieving racial and political unity. A dedicated public servant and teacher, he frequently referred to New York City as “a beautiful mosaic,” and said that “like a mighty engine, urban America pulls all of America into the future.”
“We feel with his passing the end of an era. We knew David as the rest of New York did, as a person of wisdom, empathy, uncompromising integrity, and homespun humor, all qualities regrettably becoming vanishingly rare in public life,” Bollinger said in a statement. “David was a steadfast leader for social justice, in detail and as a symbol. And, for me, he was a trusted and endlessly supportive advisor and friend.”
Dinkins was born and raised in the greater New York City area. He joined the Marines after graduating high school and before attending Howard University and Brooklyn Law School. After running a private law practice for several years, he began his career in public service in 1966 where he represented the Morningside Heights Area in the New York State Assembly. He also served as New York City Clerk and Manhattan Borough President before he taught at Columbia and before he became the 106th mayor of the city in 1989.
His historic election marked the defeat of three-term incumbent Mayor Ed Koch, from whom he inherited a significant and growing budget deficit, high crime rates as a result of racialized policing and mass incarceration, and racial strife. While he faced criticism for his handling of the Crown Heights riots, he reversed a 30-year trend of growing crime rates to achieve three successive years of decline, a trend often mistakenly attributed solely to his successor Rudy Giuliani.
Despite narrowly losing his reelection campaign to Giuliani in 1993, Dinkins overwhelmingly won majority support within the 69th assembly district, an area that includes Columbia’s campus.
As a professor at SIPA, Dinkins was able to use his political connections to bring high-profile New York policymakers and journalists as guest speakers to his classes, which left a lasting impression on his students and fellow faculty members.
Julie Menin, an adjunct professor at SIPA and a member of the Columbia board of trustees, first encountered Dinkins while she was working with Community Board 1 following the 9/11 attacks and recalls his encouragement as she sought to build an Islamic Cultural Center.
“He just had a measured and calm way of dealing with incredibly divisive and difficult issues, and always seeing the best in people, too,” Menin said.
She noted that his positive and optimistic demeanor also applied to the way he approached politics.
“I think in politics there are some who really focused on the negative side of politics, whether it be negative campaigning or some of the more difficult aspects of being in the political arena,” Menin said. “And he always brought out the positive.”
As an educator and public servant, Dinkins always sought to encourage people, Menin said. She noted that he will be remembered for his role in uplifting and unifying people in divisive times.
“I think that he is going to be remembered for many reasons, but really his love of the city, his love of public service, and his focus on trying to bring out the grace in people among very difficult and divisive issues,” Menin said.
Jon Margolick, SIPA ’13, is one of those students. Margolick was pursuing his master’s degree when he first took Dinkins’ class on urban policy. He thought of him as an empathetic professor.
“Professor Dinkins—Mayor Dinkins—was the most easygoing and unhurried and generous educator I ever had the pleasure of being in the room with,” Margolick said.
Margolick described Dinkins’ class as a “guided tour of cities and policy led by the people who had been there and who had done it,” which he attributes to the respect and connection these guests had with the former mayor.
“Because he had known these people so well,” Margolick said. “We were able to be in the room really for conversations that we would just never have heard otherwise.”
Margolick said Dinkins’ history in the U.S. Marine Corps was at the forefront of his mind when he decided to enlist while pursuing his master’s degree.
“He and I never talked about it,” Margolick said. “But my first thought when I made the decision was that he would probably be proud.”
Brittany N. Fox-Williams, SIPA ’12 and Dinkins’ graduate assistant, came to the University in 2010 and took Critical Issues and Urban Public Policy with Dinkins. She enjoyed the structure of his classes, noting the way he began with a large lecture, which was followed by a panel of important figures in New York who were involved in both policy and philanthropic work.
Fox-Williams attested to his empathy and passion for his work, as well as his commitment to ensuring that his students were engaged and successful.
“He wanted to know how you were doing and how he could help,” Fox-Williams said. “He was phenomenal.”
As a Black woman, Fox-Williams was inspired by his commitment to the diverse communities that make up New York City.
“He loved New York City so much, and he loved the diversity of the city,” Fox-Williams said. “It was clear he cared very much about marginalized folks who lived in the city. As the first Black mayor of the city, that was so inspiring to me.”
Blair Matthews, SIPA ’13, was a student of Dinkins and a member of the Howard University chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, of which Dinkins was also a member. Matthews notes the way Dinkins inspired him to effect change in the community through urban planning.
“He inspired me to stay with it in terms of solving problems in the community,” Matthews said. “If you want to run for public office or be a public servant, start with your community and with actually helping people and solving an issue right there at home. He was very impactful. He was very kind as well; he liked to listen to students.”
Matthews also noted the way that Dinkins’ time as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha encapsulated his “dapper” manner of dress as well as his commitment to his community.
“He was an Alpha man, and that’s what we pride ourselves on: being professional, being of service,” Matthews said. “This is a lifelong commitment. You take a pledge to serve your community. He really embodied that.”
Matthews said that Dinkins’ time as the first Black mayor of New York City inspired the next generation of Black policymakers, referencing Mondaire Jones, the U.S. representative-elect who will be the second Black, openly gay man elected to Congress.
“If it wasn’t for people like him, we wouldn’t be the country we are where we envision progress,” Matthews said. “Would Mondaire Jones be Mondaire Jones if it wasn’t for those who came before us? We need to all recognize these individuals. He was somebody who not only made it to that place but remained humble as well. He was so open to mentoring and encouraging the next generation of leaders.”
Most of all, Matthews remembered Dinkins’ unwavering encouragement to his students. “He was the first person to tell people that they had done a good job, to tell people that they were making a difference in civic life in the city.”
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