FEATURE

Walking the Walk

As Lee C. Bollinger begins his second decade as University president, he discusses some of his favorite topics: the new Manhattanville campus, Columbia’s Global Centers, and a Supreme Court case at the intersection of his work in law and higher education.

Published Fall 2012
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Photograph by Eson Chan

Columbia Magazine: How has Columbia changed in your decade as president — and in the four decades since you earned your law degree here in 1971?
Lee Bollinger: This is a fundamentally different institution from what it was. Not because of me, but because of an enormous number of people who put in heroic efforts to build a sense of community and to work together toward achieving the greatness that’s the potential of this institution. Fundraising is a good indication. In the last campaign, which ran through the 1990s, Columbia raised about $2.5 billion over thirteen years. This summer we reached $5 billion in the current campaign. That’s twice the total in roughly two-thirds the time.

Columbia really did struggle from the late ’60s through the ’90s, and a lot of people put a lot of effort into trying to bring the University back. But in 2002 Columbia still had not been successful in bringing itself together as one institution instead of as a group of decentralized units. It simply wasn’t organized that way, and attitudes were not such that it could thrive as an institution. Individual parts might, but only for a fixed period, because it takes a whole institution to make a university successful.


CM:
It also takes a nuanced understanding of how a university needs to fit into its neighborhood.

Bollinger: There had been efforts to repair relations with the communities in Harlem, which were still incredibly stressed then and even hostile in the 1990s. That tension meant enormous things, including that Columbia couldn’t expand. It did not have space in which to grow to build academic programs, to find new ways in which to educate students, to bring in more students, to enlarge our intellectual reach. Without new space, universities wither. They don’t die, but they do become less than what they could be.

Over the past decade we’ve focused on our relationship with Harlem and on both managing the resources we have and bringing in new resources. We’ve worked on space, and the principal achievement there has been Manhattanville, a once-in-a-century opportunity to create an entire new campus that is equal in scale and potential to what the original Morningside Heights campus was to the University a hundred years ago. Almost eighteen acres, nearly seven million square feet, being developed over the next half century with a master plan by Renzo Piano. This fall you’ll see the first actual sign of our new physical presence as the steel for the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative begins to emerge from the ground.
 

Read Columbia Magazine’s 2010 interview with Lee Bollinger on free speech, an independent press, and an unregulated Internet.

CM: Please complete this sentence: “To be an educated person in the twenty-first century, you need . . .”
Bollinger: You need what you’ve always needed: a deep exposure to the great thinking, writing, art, and music of the centuries. Today, you also need to have a feel for the great issues that confront the world.
 

CM: One of those issues is one with which you are closely identified. The US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin on October 10. That case will look at the claim of a white applicant to the University of Texas who argued that she would have been admitted had the school not considered race as part of the application evaluation. If the court rules in her favor, Columbia and other colleges and universities across the country will lose one of their basic tools in ensuring a diverse student body. Are there still ways to make this work?
Bollinger: The answer is no. There is no other way to have the levels of diversity that we have come to value so much in American higher education and that have been so important to American society. If the court were to rule against the University of Texas, it might be on very narrow grounds. For example, some justices might think that the Texas diversity plan [which grants admission to all Texas high-school students graduating in the top 10 percent of their class] is not sufficiently attentive to characteristics of individual applicants to satisfy Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 case that upheld the use of affirmative action in the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. Or some might wish to hold that a Grutter process cannot be added to the 10-percent program, as it was here, because it is not needed to supplement the diversity already achieved. You could imagine a majority of the court deciding that such a ruling would not impair the fundamental principle that the Supreme Court set down in Grutter.

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