Columbia University President Lee Bollinger keeps finding himself in the middle of campus turmoil.
He enrolled at Columbia’s law school in 1968, when the campus was convulsed by anti-war protests. He was a dean at the University of Michigan during a struggle over the school’s speech code. Later, as the university’s president, he defended its affirmative action policies all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, as president of Columbia University, he is on the hot seat again — both for allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus and for insulting him when he arrived.
Even Bollinger has wondered lately whether he could have done without all the grief over hosting a man who has said that Israel should be wiped off the map and questioned the existence of the Holocaust — especially in a heavily Jewish city.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Wouldn’t it have been nicer if this didn’t happen?’ And I have to say, ‘Yes,”’ he said in a telephone interview from Paris, where he was attending an international alumnae event. “It would have been a nicer September.”
But, he added: “I regard this as a playing out of ideas that I’ve thought about for my entire professional career.”
The son of a newspaper publisher in Oregon, Bollinger gravitated toward higher education after earning his law degree at Columbia. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Warren E. Burger, then taught at the University of Michigan Law School, where he became known as an expert on free speech.
As dean of Michigan’s law school, he testified before the U.S. Congress against the nomination of conservative legal scholar Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and angered conservatives for banning FBI recruiters at the law school.
Later, as president of the University of Michigan, he rose to national prominence as a lead defendant in a lawsuit that challenged college affirmative action programs.
The case resulted in a Supreme Court ruling upholding the legality of racial and ethnic background as a criteria in college admissions, and Bollinger’s role in the fight cemented his reputation as a supporter of liberal causes.
So it seemed like a perfect fit when he left Michigan for Columbia, long a hotbed of liberal activism.
But from nearly the start of his tenure — he was appointed just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — he found himself in the midst of controversy.
Bollinger had been on the job for a little more than a year when an anthropology professor, Nicholas De Genova, caused an uproar by telling an anti-war crowd that he hoped the U.S. invasion of Iraq would lead to “a million Mogadishus,” a reference to the city in Somalia where 18 American soldiers were killed in 1993.
A year later, the university had to respond to a documentary, produced by a pro-Israel group, that accused a group of professors in the Middle East studies department of being anti-Semitic. Columbia has a large number of Jewish students and alumni.
Last fall, Columbia was in the spotlight again when a group of students stormed a stage to silence a speech by Jim Gilchrist, the founder of a group opposed to illegal immigration.
Through it all, Bollinger staked out a middle ground, of sorts.
He chastised De Genova publicly, but did not try to fire him. He launched a committee to investigate the claims of anti-Semitism, but it exonerated the professors of misconduct. Several students were warned or censured over the
Gilchrist incident, but the discipline was mild.
Over the years, the incidents have led to a drumbeat of conservative criticism that Columbia has coddled anti-American academics.
Some liberal academics had complaints of their own, charging that Bollinger’s failure to fiercely defend his professors amounted to a failure to stand up for academic freedom.
All of this led up to this week’s extraordinary campus visit by Ahmadinejad, which had New York’s tabloids practically demanding Bollinger’s head, and ended with the spectacle of Bollinger calling Ahmadinejad a “petty and cruel dictator” to his face.
Some critics said that by giving Ahmadinejad a prestigious platform like Columbia, Bollinger strengthened the Iranian’s position at home. Others said Bollinger’s harsh words for Ahmadinejad may have hurt future U.S. diplomatic efforts.
In the midst of the furor, some state and federal lawmakers even threatened to cut off funding.
Bollinger does not see these disputes as anything unusual for an intellectually robust college campus.
“Every single year I’ve been a faculty member, a dean, a president, there have been very significant free speech and academic issues. It’s just the nature of institutional life,” he said.
Bollinger said he is not worried that the uproar could invite a backlash causing some alumni to withhold money or the New York City Council to withhold its needed approval of Columbia’s controversial plan to expand into a Harlem neighborhood.
“All we can do is say, ‘We are committed to a principle of wide open discussion about issues,” he said.
— Associated Press
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