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From the Issue: From the Office of the President

We continue to respect our heritage/amorous affair with our mother-magazine, The Blue & White by posting each issue of the magazine online. The latest issue, available this week around campus, is a cornucopia of delights: an interview with Dean Peter Awnthe quixotic quest for a Quidditch teamand a reflection on Columbia’s recent media malaise. In this month’s cover story, the magazine staff seek to untangle the roots of the peculiar power of the Columbia presidency.

Soylent Prezbo is people!

Illustration by Angelique Chandy

By the time the typical Columbia undergraduate stands on Low Plaza in mid-May decked out in a light blue graduation gown, the number of times that he or she has been in Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger’s presence can likely be counted on one hand. Most students possess a fleeting memory of Bollinger giving his short speech during Convocation at the kickoff of NSOP week, after which he disappears into the depths of the hallowed Low rotunda. Perhaps they saw him once at the yearly Fun Run, in Dodge Fitness Center at a rowing machine, or at a fireside chat for the luckier members of the student body.

At the University of Michigan, students who attended college during Bollinger’s stint as the school’s president from 1996 until he took office at Columbia in 2002 knew a far different Bollinger. The Bollinger of Michigan seems a little more laid back than the man many Columbains know today—instead of political figures like then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who made a show at Bollinger’s Columbia inauguration, students at Michigan were graced with hot dogs and rock and roll when Bollinger stepped in. A story from The Michigan Daily in 1997 reported that he even opened his home to a group of roaring drunk students after a football victory. Barring behavioral differences, Bollinger’s interests at Michigan were much the same as they are at Columbia: affirmative action, free speech, global learning, and fundraising and expansion, to name a few. But despite his power as a virtual mayor of Ann Arbor and his success in taking an affirmative action case to the Supreme Court, his ambitions and personality never manifested so fully or freely as they have from within Columbia’s Presidential Manor.

It is obvious that the Bollinger of Michigan was substantially different from the Bollinger of Columbia. What is not so easy to observe is whether that is a function of Bollinger himself, or the office in which his desk resides. The answer to the riddle may lie buried in the graves of two successively moldering Columbia presidents of yore: Seth Low and Nicholas Murray Butler.

Low, who served as Columbia’s 11th President from 1890 to 1901, became known as the “Great Harmonizer” thanks to his flair for institutional politics and administration. Known best for moving the campus to Morningside, Low also laid the ground for future growth and power when he consolidated Columbia’s schools into one cohesive university and preempted movements towards professorial autonomy by creating a centrally-controlled University Council to channel and manage faculty input on university matters. Low’s political prowess as well (he was the Mayor of Brooklyn from 1881 to 1885 and served as the second mayor of the newly consolidated New York City after his presidency) served to establish shortand long-term ties between the university and the city that would benefit presidents to come. When Low departed his newly minted campus, he left the office of the president with great power and even greater potential for growth.

Butler, who stepped in after Low (from 1902 to 1945), clasped hold of that power and took it a step farther. Columbia under Low “was a small operation,” says Roberta and William Campbell Professor of the Humanities and Butler biographer Michael Rosenthal. Butler, “made it huge.” Much of this was self-serving—Butler was the first president to consciously and actively use the university as a springboard to larger political ambitions. While in office he conducted several bids for the Republican presidential nomination. To these ends, Barnard History Professor and avid Columbiana chronicler Robert McCaughey cautiously notes, Butler sought to gain wealth and power for the university by stacking “money people,” or rich outsiders, onto the board of trustees. It is not inconsequential in considering the growth of presidential power and centralization under Butler to remember that he was a fascist. An admirer of Benito Mussolini and early Adolf Hitler, Butler even brought a Nazi diplomat to the university in 1933 to defend Hitler’s policies. This unfortunate disposition no doubt influenced the way Butler addressed administrative change and power during his tenure. By the time Bulter left the university, it had been bolstered financially, gained prestige through its expansions, and power by its ever-growing ties to external institutions.

It is hard to argue with Rosenthal’s assertion that, in the early 20th century, Columbia presidents were titans. So were many presidents of prestigious universities at that time, but Butler went so far as to view the Columbia presidency as second only to the presidency of the United States. But expansions, organizational innovations, and the ever-present need to raise more and more money from further and further outside the gates have limited the ability of many subsequent presidents to match Low and Butler. The job becomes all-consuming and requires the delegation of tasks, fracturing the potential powers of the president among subordinate offices (George Eric Rupp, in power from 1993 to 2002, was notorious for this with his exceptionally strong provost position). Columbia, by virtue of its growth and prestige, it appears, has historically bucked the Low-Butler presidential image.

In part because the office of the president has been quite and its substantial power remained divvied for some time, and in part due to the mostly unexceptional records of the presidents from 1754 to 1889, many Columbia historians have a hard time acknowledging the idea that there is something special about the Columbia presidency. McCaughey stresses that other universities have had strong presidents who rose from their posts to do great things. This leads McCaughey to call Bollinger’s move from Michigan to Columbia “a lateral move”—there is little he can achieve here that his ambition couldn’t have built for him there. While McCaughey’s explanation, and his assertion that we have simply gotten lucky during the past 40 years with four active and effective presidents, is temptingly simple, it remains unsatisfying.

The power of our presidents is not solely a function of their personal ambition that could have manifested elsewhere. By comparing Bollinger to his contemporaries at other large schools in the spotlight, it becomes apparent that, while much of his power and national visibility come from his own personality, much of it was gifted to him when he passed through the 116th gates as well.

John Sexton, the President of New York University, took his post the same year as Bollinger. Both NYU and Columbia share a geographically advantageous location for those interested in making national headlines (as Claire Sabel’s article in this issue of the magazine suggests). Rosenthal believes the move to Columbia and New York offered Bollinger something he wanted: “a larger forum for [his] ambitions.” In addition to their shared location, Sexton is of comparable age and accomplishment to Bollinger. The two even face similar controversies. Sexton’s NYU 2031: NYU in NYC plan, a rough foil to Bollinger’s Manhattanville project, envisions a 6,000,000 sq ft expansion of the NYU campus, which will swallow up Governor’s Island and, to the chagrin of many, alter the character of Greenwich Village. Sexton has been a prolific fundraiser, and Rosenthal and others credit him with turning NYU into a powerhouse, even creeping up on Columbia in reputation. Like Bollinger, Sexton has a strong personality and lofty ambitions—Rosenthal sees him as a good potential candidate in New York politics in the future. But a search of the archives at The New York Times reveals that he has received half the amount of coverage as Bollinger since taking office. The Times ran an article on Bollinger’s selection and inauguration. Sexton’s inauguration did not receive nearly equal treatment despite being nearly equidistant from the media’s headquarters in Midtown.

All the boyz (seriously ... gender imbalance much?).

Illustration by Angelique Chandy

The unequal media attention is intuitively attributable to Columbia’s Ivy League status. The title lends weight, no matter how unfounded, to the actions of a president. But even at Harvard, a university with equal pull, the experience of the presidency is different. In early January 2005, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers made an unfortunate remark at a public event about his belief in an innate difference between men and women responsible for lack of the latter in high-level science and math careers. Over the next year, Summers received threats from donors ready to tie off their purse strings and substantial ridicule from the national press. But it was a vote of no confidence launched by the Harvard faculty that pushed him into penance for a year, and the threat of a second such vote that moved Summers to resign in early 2006.

The same year as Summers’s debacle, Bollinger was facing severe criticism from 50 faculty members over his involvement in Manhattanville expansion. In addition, Jewish students who felt he had allowed anti-Jewish intimidation in courses were petitioning for his resignation. Then, a year after Summers’s resignation, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited campus with Bollinger’s approval. The criticism from over a hundred faculty members and a mixture of prolonged national coverage, controversy, and student-led initiatives (far more than had been faced by Summers) now threatened Columbia’s reputation, donor network, and faith in its leadership. Bollinger, however, did not flinch.

Up front, the two situations are not directly analogous. Bollinger’s stance on Manhattanville and Ahmadinejad was more nuanced than Summers’s analysis of the female brain. Yet the fact remains that Bollinger weathered the unrest far better than Summers. Despite pressures from larger-scale interest groups over a longer period of time, Bollinger charged forward instead of stepping back.

Part of that is, again, personality. Former campus reporters who have followed Bollinger from the beginning of his Columbia career until the present day agree that he is a man who knows how to choose his battles. He speaks only when he has control of the issue and the venue. And the office of Columbia’s presidency is a platform over which Bollinger’s control has never wavered for a second. This is partly due to Bollinger’s micromanaging tendencies, but he has also benefited from the comparatively centralized powers granted to Columbia’s president by the school’s bylaws.

Columbia Professor of Sociology Emeritus Allan Silver recently stood at an event showcasing faculty perspectives on the ROTC debate at which he, with the backing of Astronomy Department Chair David Helfand, asserted that, “the [University] Senate isn’t the sovereign body of the university; the faculty is the sovereign body of the university.” At many American universities he would be correct. Summers faced at Harvard a university that had slowly devolved power over budgets and administrative decisions to semiautonomous faculty organizations. That dispersal of power gives the faculty considerable lobbying power in university-wide matters, especially against the president, who grows weaker as professorial bodies grow stronger.

But as per the 2001 amendment to the “Bylaws, Statutes, and Rules of the Columbia University Senate” Section 25, policymaking power is vested in the Senate, unless the matter directly concerns the University Trustees. All other interest parties are more or less restricted in their power and funneled into a policy body whose reaction time is akin to an Entmoot and whose practices, as the criticisms of ROTC revealed, are far from transparent or decisive. Even then, Section 25 contains a sub-clause allowing the president of the university to “convene a special meeting of the University Senate within fifteen class days of any University Senate action, and [during that meeting, he/she] may request it to reconsider such action.”

Bollinger’s interactions with the Senate during the ROTC debate are a useful exhibit of both the powers afforded to him and his knack for using them effectively and intelligently. Professor McCaughey describes these interactions in a way that (unintentionally) echoes the powers of the presidency conferred by Section 25 of the “Bylaws.” By allowing the Senate to make its vague, provisional statements over a long time, says McCaughey, Bollinger let the Senate look and feel effective when it needed to. Still, as McCaughey implies (and student reporters who cover the Senate agree), Bollinger’s words tend to carry the day, and could have carried the debate forward much faster— once more, partly due to his skill as an administrator and politician, but also due to the powers afforded to him by his unique office.

The existence of these concentrated and well-organized power structures provide an outlet for a strong president to act more unilaterally than perhaps he could at Harvard or Michigan. Ties to the city and happy accidents of geography and history force Columbia’s leader into a near-blinding spotlight as well. In the case of Bollinger, he uses his position to its utmost. As Nathan J. Miller Professor of History Michael Stanislawski notes, growth of the university has increased the pressure on the president to raise funds, often from donors far beyond the 116th gates, potentially at the expense of local involvements. Bollinger, rather than shirking the spotlight as he attempts to manage such endeavours, seems to use this exposure to his advantage, fundraising while growing his reputation as a popular academic.

By leveraging the legacies of presidents past and the University’s status as one of the city’s largest employers and landowners, Bollinger has put a rather large foot in the door of New York City politics for future Columbia presidents. According to Bloomberg mayoral office spokesman Andrew Brent, Bollinger and the mayor “interact regularly” and Bloomberg has seen fit to include Bollinger in several large initiatives, including giving him great autonomy over the MediaNYC 2020 program, intended to maintain and enhance NYC’s position as a global media capital. And this is to say nothing of Bollinger’s positions as Chair of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a director of the Washington Post Company.

In the future, Bollinger may yet bring even more power to the presidency. His focus on the university’s position in a global era and his efforts to bring world leaders to the campus suggest, as McCaughey put it in a 2010 article by Jake Schneider, CC’10, and Joy Resmovits, BC’10, in The Eye, “a return to a presidential style that fell out of favor in the preceding three presidencies: showcasing Columbia as the gateway to America.” Bollinger has the ambition to make Columbia a global forum, and as an individual he appears apt enough at managing criticism and marshaling the resources of his post to realize this goal. It does not hurt that he and his office would benefit in the process of bringing that prestige to the rest of us.

Upon a seat that has been blessed in ways which allow it to stand apart from those who would at first be thought of as peers, Bollinger tightly manages a presidency at the head of a global platform, intertwined in the politics of the Capital of the Universe. To say that the Columbia presidency under Bollinger realizes Butler’s vision of the Columbia presidency as the second most important position in the world would be gross hyperbole. But given the presidency’s trajectory and history, perhaps in the future it will not be a totally unfounded notion.

Compiled by Mark Hay, Sylvie Krekow, and Brian Wagner.

Anna Bahr, Helen Bao, Chris Brennan, Claire Heyison, Conor Skelding, and Mike Young contributed reporting.

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  • i wanted to comment earlier says:

    @i wanted to comment earlier But I fell asleep before I could finish reading.


  • LOL says:

    @LOL at copying stuff from Spec. Really, Bwog? Can’t you do any serious investigative journalism yourself?

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