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A Degree of Transparency

A Degree of Transparency

Columbia’s Lee Bollinger has been central in healing tensions between the university and one of America’s most historic Black neighborhoods.

By Jamal Watson

When Lee C. Bollinger arrived in New York City in 2002 to take the helm of Columbia University, he was treated as a hero almost immediately by the city’s Black community.

Within days of his appointment, word spread across Harlem, just a few blocks to the north and west of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. The general feeling was that Bollinger — a noted legal scholar of the First Amendment and well-known defender of affirmative action — was someone who could be trusted.

“He’s a friend to the civil rights community,” a Black city councilman told a crowded room of activists at a meeting several years ago. “He’s a real decent man. Let’s give him a chance.” The meeting had been called to discuss the best way to curtail Columbia’s plans to expand into Harlem. And there were plenty of reasons for the neighborhood’s residents to be suspicious. 

Activists had spent years locked in a contentious battle with the Ivy League university over its expansion plans. Harlem residents complained that Columbia was quietly gobbling up land and forcing poorer residents to flee.

Today, Columbia is expanding farther into Harlem, but there seems to be a degree of transparency that was not present a decade ago. The shift in attitude among locals may represent the inevitable realities of gentrification, but many concede that Bollinger’s charisma has gone a long way toward healing whatever tensions still exist between the university and its neighbors.

He has courted political leaders like U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., and has created partnerships with many of the same grassroots community organizations that once protested the university. At times, those groups likened Columbia to an imperialist dictator intent on seizing land.

Since Bollinger’s tenure began, the university has been proactive in fixing its image. The school has invested thousands of dollars into luring new minority faculty members, some of whom have deep roots in the nearby community.

“I have been impressed with what I’ve seen so far,” says Woody Henderson, a long-time Harlem activist and resident who has been critical of Columbia in the past. “But as the old folks say, ‘I still got my eye on him.’”

Henderson and others say that Bollinger has distinguished himself from most White university presidents by taking on civil rights as a personal concern. His ardent defense of affirmative action while president of the University of Michigan made him a household name. Three White students sued after being denied admission to UM’s law school and its undergraduate program. His defense of the university’s affirmative action policies generated intense pressure from conservative groups, who wanted desperately to dismantle such programs. Some critics even called on him to resign.

“I don’t think that history will look back on Mr. Bollinger’s actions and judge him very kindly,” says Roger Clegg, the president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think thank that opposes affirmative action programs. “Mr. Bollinger should not be lauded for his role in defending a policy that most Americans disagree with.”

Legal scholars and academicians viewed the UM cases as the test for how the U.S. Supreme Court would rule on affirmative action lawsuits in the future. In a 5-4 ruling — with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor casting the deciding vote — affirmative action was preserved, at least for now.

But now, Bollinger cautions, is not the time to become complacent. 

 The 60-year-old is not the most eloquent public speaker. His voice is monotonous and his speeches are often filled with long words and sentences. But he becomes animated and passionate when discussing his views on affirmative action.

“I think we are locked in a titanic struggle over the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education,” he tells Diverse. “The people who want to end affirmative action are determined and committed to this in the long term, and unless we have a real, open debate it may well be that we wake up in 10 or 15 years having totally forgotten what Brown was supposed to teach us.”

Racial injustice, he says, still exists, and it is the responsibility of academia to offer remedies.

“I worry deeply that we are going to, mostly by neglect, let the legacy of Brown slip,” he says. “I genuinely feel that it is our duty to help improve individuals’ chances in life. If we take that away — the feeling that there is no mobility — it will be really tragic for those affected.”

For his part, Bollinger has ordered the university to become more visible in one of America’s most historic Black neighborhoods. Over the past five years, Columbia, which boasts an endowment in excess of $5 billion, has launched legal aid clinics and has provided needed medical services through its partnerships with Harlem Hospital. Bollinger has also initiated several job-training programs, and the school has offered financial incentives to faculty and staff who buy homes in the area.

“When I arrived, I was shocked to see how few members of the community were getting jobs at Columbia,” says Bollinger, who graduated from the university’s law school in 1971. The university has since relocated its job placement center from an obscure location to a bustling thoroughfare in the heart of Harlem.

When the university built a private K-8 school, Bollinger demanded that half the students come from Harlem. All of the students, who are chosen by lottery, receive full scholarships to offset the $25,500 annual tuition.

“It’s really impressive what we’re doing, but we can do more,” says Bollinger, who has convened several community advisory committees to discuss growth and construction plans in the area. He says he’s resisted opportunities to relocate parts of Columbia’s campus to the busiest section of mid-town Manhattan.

“I did not want Columbia to feel as if it was moving away from its community,” he says. 

Bollinger’s next task is to assist the New York City Department of Education with the construction of a public high school in Upper Manhattan that would focus on math, science and engineering. He wants to draw a significant number of the school’s students from Harlem.

Despite his accomplishments, he has been the subject of criticism, particularly from some faculty members, who claim that his leadership style is very much top-down. Bollinger also faced fierce resistance from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism after he suspended the search for a new dean in 2003. He instead formed a committee to re-evaluate the school’s core mission, which many had derided for being too centered on craft at the expense of theory. Following an uprising by students, alumni and faculty, an overhaul of the program was dropped and a new master of arts program was created. Nicholas Lehmann, a former writer for the New Yorker, was named dean in 2004.

Although his name has been floated as a candidate for the Harvard University presidency, Bollinger says he still has much work to do at Columbia and in the surrounding community.

“I love it here,” he says. “Columbia has to be an advocate for the surrounding area and an asset for the community.”

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