Friday, December 08, 2006

Bollinger's Balancing Act President Approaches Public Criticism As A Scholar And Executive

Columbia Spectator
Home > News

Bollinger's Balancing Act
President Approaches Public Criticism As A Scholar And Executive
By Josh Hirschland and Kate Linthicum
Issue date: 12/8/06 Section: News

Two days after a speech by Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist erupted into a chaotic brawl, University President Lee Bollinger issued his first public statement to the Columbia student body. Three hours later, two Columbia students squared off in an intense debate on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor. It was the zenith of a swelling media firestorm that prompted Mayor Michael Bloomberg to publicly call on Bollinger to "get his hands around" the situation and Bill O'Reilly to accuse Bollinger of "hiding under his desk as he always does."

Bollinger, as both the executive of one of the largest institutions in New York and as an academic scholar, embodies two different, and sometimes conflicting, personas.

"He's in such a unique position because he kind of has to balance and respond to things in a more thought-out way than maybe somebody else would because of his constituency," said Chris Riano, GS and a member of the University Senate's Executive Board. "He has to take into account a lot of sides and points of view."

This is especially true in times of crisis. When controversy swirled in 2005 over allegations of intimidation in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, Bollinger said that it took him one month longer than he would have liked to make a statement on academic freedom.

"I found his silence on the MEALAC thing sort of astounding," said Bari Weiss, CC '07, a former Spectator columnist and editor in chief of The Current, who was at the forefront of the MEALAC debate. "I saw him as a wussy and unwilling to ... stand up and take a position."

When asked recently about how he balances executive action with academic reserve, Bollinger said, "I'm tempted to respond to it like an academic." Indeed, when confronting crises Bollinger has tended toward his scholarly roots, staying on the sidelines to formulate a response while his press staff fields calls from the media.

But according to one crisis management consultant, it should be the leader of an institution that makes first contact with the media during a time of crisis. "That doesn't mean you have to have a prepared point of view," said Lonnie Soury of Soury Communications, a crisis management consultant group in New York. "All you are doing is putting out that consideration that you're there and aware of the issues, and that can be done immediately and should be."

Soury said this is necessary to stop an issue from spinning out of control in the media. "Unless they [leaders] act quickly, it leaves it to others to frame the issues and there's a tremendous possibility for misinformation to get out," he said. "I think there really needs to be a balance in leadership positions of understanding complex issues and acting quickly."

Some have said that Bollinger is at his best when he's considering long-term issues with deep complexity, as it keeps him out of the spotlight of controversy that former Harvard President Larry Summers garnered after making several off-the-cuff remarks in public about women in the sciences.

Outside of Columbia's gates, people on both sides of the debate over the proposed Manhattanville expansion have heralded Bollinger's cautious treatment of the subject."

This is a very complicated matter, and he has dealt with it as well as anyone else could have dealt with it," said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of Community Board 9. "He's a scholar, not a warrior."

Others have suggested that Bollinger's reserved demeanor is actually a strategy in times of crisis. According to Avi Zenilman, CC '07 and editor in chief of The Blue and White, Bollinger will "call everybody on the inside to see that everybody is okay and rely on support for his personal skills, support for his distant demeanor to get him through." This policy, according to Zenilman, is characterized by doing "the minimum that is necessary."

Chris Kulawik, CC '08, a Spectator columnist, and president of the Columbia University College Republicans, said he thought Bollinger adopted that strategy during the aftermath of the Minuteman brawl. "I can understand why President Bollinger wanted to disassociate himself from the controversy. ... That makes sense from a business sense," he said. "But you also have a man who is a free speech scholar ... who, when problems arise, ... throws administrators at you."

When there is less at stake, people say Bollinger is more candid. Weiss, who is a student in Bollinger's class Freedom of Speech and Press, has praised his sense of humor. Riano said that in Executive Committee meetings, "he is pretty quick." He continued, "He'll sit there, he'll digest a situation, and he will come up with something."

The repercussions of Bollinger's style remain to be seen. "I wonder if this crisis management strategy is going to come back to bite him," Zenilman said. "There is only so much that CU people can take of CU being in the news."

Bollinger said that his style in making decisions during crises is the right one. "My goal is to think through things well," he said. "I try to be as self-critical as I can in how I do things."And he said what matters in the end is the quality of the decision. "The more you think through issues, the more you can understand what's at stake and what should be the principles that you should work for ... [and] the better the decision will be."

No comments: