Thursday, May 26, 2005

Columbia's Chief, Free Speech Expert, Gets Earful

New York Times

May 25, 2005

Columbia's Chief, Free Speech Expert, Gets Earful


Toward dusk of a dim day, the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University was dotted with chattering students in various states of decompression. White tents were rising on the groomed lawns for the commencement exercises, that ritual of release and beckoning promise.

Striding down the empty and echoing hallway of Low Library, Lee C. Bollinger, the university's president, said of his workaday routines: "This is how it is. You walk down the hallways, and people applaud."

He came upon a solitary woman waiting to guide arrivals for a cocktail reception. She beamed at him.

"See," he said, "not everyone hates me."

It was his wry way of addressing a divisive undercurrent that has pierced the university and raised doubts about his own promise. Three years into the job as the university's 19th president, Mr. Bollinger has taken a beating during a brutal academic year that included a cantankerous eruption in the Middle East studies department that consumed the campus.

Pro-Israel Jewish students complained that they were intimidated by pro-Palestinian professors, sentiments elaborated on in a short film financed by a pro-Israel group outside the university, and these narrow grievances were transformed into a bitter showdown over academic freedom and student rights.

Over the course of it, Mr. Bollinger has lost much of the dazzle he arrived with, and has been roundly criticized as detached, overly deliberative and inept at communicating his governing ideology.

In one of many telling moments, Ann Douglas, an English professor, described a recent book party attended by many faculty members, where "everyone was saying disparaging things about Bollinger and no one was rising to his defense."

For his part, the soft-spoken Mr. Bollinger insists that the disapproval is not that extensive, or worrisome. "I'm just not troubled by the level of disagreement and debate," he said recently, during an interview in his expansive office on the second floor of Low Library, adorned with bright geometric paintings by Josef Albers. "It's debate and it's healthy."

But he acknowledged the need for certain adjustments. "Do I need to build more and better relationships with the university, and deeper ones?" he asked. "No question about it. I've already reached the conclusion that I want to spend more time inside the institution. That's a balance that will shift."

Mr. Bollinger has his admirers. Eric R. Kandel, a university professor and winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, described him as a visionary. David Stern, the National Basketball Association commissioner, who is the head of Columbia's board, said he was quite pleased with Mr. Bollinger's performance, and several other trustees concurred. "I told him, there's nothing that he's experienced before that will be like this," Mr. Stern said. "I think, after three years on the job, he's willing to concede the point."

It is generally felt that animosity toward Mr. Bollinger would be more subdued were it not for the snowballing disputes that began with the charges by the pro-Israel students against the pro-Palestinian professors. Many at Columbia seemed piqued at what they felt was Mr. Bollinger's tardy and timid handling of the issue, which contributed to its becoming a protracted matter that saturated the university with sour publicity.

Even after an internal investigative committee ruled on the claims, finding a single credible incident of inappropriate professorial behavior, and after new procedures were developed to handle student complaints, distaste persisted. The whole matter has by no means subsided.

Mr. Bollinger, 58, a lean man who runs four or five miles most days ("At my age," he said, "every day I do it is a victory"), professed few misgivings about how he addressed the Middle East studies eruption.

"I tried to walk a very, very fine line," he said. "I have a problem because I like to see complexity."

"It would be nice if I was smarter, and in 48 hours could have grasped everything," added Mr. Bollinger, who was a clerk for Warren E. Burger, the chief justice of the United States. "But I'm not. And I still don't grasp everything."

Mr. Bollinger, who is paid $611,000 a year (and also receives housing and other perquisites) has embraced a grand - detractors say mushy and overreaching - vision. His ambition is for Columbia to be considered one of the three best universities in the country, on a level with the likes of Harvard and Yale, schools that are far richer and consistently ranked as better.

Such a transformation, Mr. Bollinger argues, depends on Columbia's expansion beyond its cramped 34-acre campus into 18 acres in Harlem. It is a combustible undertaking, for land in Manhattan is akin to birthright, never yielded without strident fanfare. Previous presidents have added space piecemeal, each time tackling the politically fraught bargaining with the adjacent community anew. Mr. Bollinger wants to assure the university's future in one bold swoop.

"I started with space because it unlocks not only the physical constraints but also the imaginative constraints," Mr. Bollinger said.

But the obstacles are immense. More than 50 faculty members recently sent a letter to Mr. Bollinger complaining that the expansion plan would have an adverse and unacceptable impact on Harlem.

The Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper, recently published an editorial skewering the Bollinger administration for what it characterized as dishonest dealings in its quest to acquire that land, as well as in addressing graduate students seeking to unionize. "In the not-too-distant future, Columbia might become the next Enron," the editorial charged. Mr. Bollinger, knowing where to pick his battles, would say only, "I think The Spectator is terrific."

Some of the ill will toward Mr. Bollinger is undoubtedly a result of his reputation as a president who is too often away from campus.

Although he teaches a popular course on freedom of speech and the press to about 130 students each year, many professors say they have not truly gotten to know him, and some depict him, not positively, as a hologram. One dean said he was embarrassed to admit how little contact he had had with Mr. Bollinger in his three years. How much? "Zero," he said.

In interactions, Mr. Bollinger is gracious, but also often matter-of-fact and fixated. Meeting with student leaders one morning, he spent virtually no time on personal greetings but swept into the issues at hand.

When he arrived at Columbia in the summer of 2002 after serving as president of the University of Michigan, Mr. Bollinger was known as a First Amendment scholar and a proponent of affirmative action. He had a buzz about him for being a finalist for the Harvard presidency, a job that went to Lawrence H. Summers.

Among his early actions, Mr. Bollinger shut down several costly enterprises, like Columbia's management of the Biosphere 2 ecology project in Arizona and its sponsorship of Fathom, an online learning business, and he has centralized some facets of the university, to economize. He has orchestrated change in the heralded journalism school and the athletic program. He has deployed a new administrative team that has itself had a mixed reception. Mr. Bollinger also itches to transform the university into a place that transcends pure theory and where scholars fight against poverty, AIDS and other world ills.

"We are now at a new period where universities are re-entering the world," he said. "If we don't understand issues like poverty, modern communications and how the world looks from Nairobi or Bombay, we will not serve the world."

But not everyone gets the relevance of what he is talking about. Some see him as misguided, especially when there are pressing day-to-day concerns. The science faculty is miffed that a long-promised new building never seems to be built. Students in the arts ask why Columbia has done things like spend $1.7 million to bring the theater director Peter Brook and his troupe to campus for a month rather than invest the money in their own work.

There have been continuing financial problems at the medical school. Graduate students want to unionize. For more than a year, PETA, the animal-rights group, has been tailing Mr. Bollinger around the world to disrupt his appearances over what it feels is cruel treatment of primates in Columbia's research labs.

And faculty detractors say that new grievance procedures prompted by the Middle East studies agitation could have chilling reverberations. "As I talk to faculty," said Walter M. Frisch, chairman of the executive committee of the faculty of arts and sciences, "people say, 'Maybe I shouldn't have made that joke in the classroom. Will someone take it the wrong way?' "

Some people think his goals are important and noble, Professor Frisch said, "but other people think there are other needs, like salaries, quality of life and classroom space, that are not being addressed while we are working on paradise up north."

Much of Mr. Bollinger's time has been devoted to pursuing alumni, a neglected body that could help pay for future projects. In the first nine months of the university's fiscal year, donations rose 27 percent over the same period in the previous year.

One thing that is clear is that the Bollinger vision cannot happen without a powerful infusion of money. As of last June, Columbia's endowment stood at less than $5 billion, compared with roughly $22 billion at Harvard and $13 billion at Yale.

He has replaced the head of development and increased the alumni and development staff by more than a third. Things like getting Columbia named in people's wills has taken on higher priority. Mr. Bollinger intends to start a capital drive soon with a hoped-for goal of $4 billion to $5 billion over seven or eight years. He has made more than nine major foreign trips since taking office - to China; India; Japan; Eastern and Western Europe; and several underdeveloped countries like Mozambique, Kenya and Ghana, trips he considers part of his "education."

In addition, Mr. Bollinger has told people that his lack of visibility on campus was partly a consequence of housing disruptions, an experience he has described as one of the most miserable times of his life. He has lived in several interim quarters while the president's house was undergoing a $23 million renovation. He moved into the official residence only in February of last year.

Now that the house is finished, Mr. Bollinger has begun holding receptions there. One recent day, local clergy members joined him for breakfast, and he entertained members of a black students' organization in the evening.

Time, of course, can be redemptive for a university president, and infusions of money even more so. If, decades from now, Columbia looms larger in both space and esteem, Mr. Bollinger could be retrospectively regarded as a singular president, all else forgiven. "The thing we're going to judge him on is the money and the real estate," said Bruce Berne, the chairman of the chemistry department.

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