Bollinger Wins Harlem Renaissance With Columbia Chasing Harvard

Lee Bollinger
Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, in New York. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Lee Bollinger had yet to take over as president of Columbia University in 2002 when he toured a largely industrial area about 10 blocks north of the historic campus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Columbia, the fifth-oldest U.S. college, was scouting new sites to expand as it outgrew its century-old, Beaux-Arts home in Morningside Heights. Traveling past faded warehouses, auto shops and scattered apartments above 125th Street in West Harlem, Bollinger could see the ideal location for a modern urban campus, stretching from the elevated subway line on Broadway with its monumental steel trestles to the West Side Highway next to the Hudson River.

“It was an area that I think was beautiful but nobody else thought it was beautiful,” Bollinger, 65, said in an interview last month. “Lots and lots of people said to me why would you move there? It’s ugly.”

Bollinger, who will complete 10 years in office this June, has elevated Columbia, spearheading a $5 billion fundraising campaign, installing a new endowment team that produced the Ivy League’s best returns, and poaching faculty that have drawn record numbers of applicants and further opened the spigot of federal research dollars. Underlining these advances has been his single-minded determination to expand the campus even in the face of neighborhood and some faculty dissent.

Laying the Foundation

After buying almost all the land it wants in the neighborhood known as Manhattanville, Columbia is clearing the site for a nine-story science center with 70 labs scheduled to open in 2016, the first of 16 new buildings set for the area. The progress contrasts with New York University, where Bollinger’s contemporary John Sexton has seen an ambitious growth plan in Manhattan’s historic Greenwich Village bogged down by community opposition and Harvard University where President Drew Faust suspended an expansion in Boston after suffering steep investment losses in 2008.

“The fact that he has such a clear vision and such a sharp focus is critical,” said William Bowen, former president of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. The Manhattanville campus “couldn’t have happened if he had not understood the importance of it.”

Yet the focus on growth, including setting up seven Columbia centers in major cities from Beijing to Istanbul, has opened Bollinger to criticism that he is shortchanging undergraduate studies on the existing campus. While the university envisions constructing 6.8 million square feet of space in Harlem over several decades at a cost of more than $6 billion, the occupants will almost entirely be professional schools -- such as the business school and engineering and sciences, which will move to the site.

Columbia College

The tension erupted last year at Columbia College, the original institution founded in 1754, where undergraduates are still required to complete core classes in literature, art and other classic studies. As Bollinger sought to restructure the university’s administration and contain costs, Michele Moody-Adams, the college’s first black dean, resigned in protest, saying she had lost authority over “crucial policy, fundraising and budgetary matters”, according to an e-mail she distributed.

With the student population up 24 percent to 28,000 in the past decade, including almost 5,400 undergraduates, and the expansion fueling much of the fundraising drive, the university was accused of neglecting Columbia College and the core curriculum, which “is arguably the most important contributor to the prestige of the general Columbia brand,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes, a trustee, wrote in a column in the student newspaper on March 6.

Undergraduate Funding

“No one begrudges his vision,” said Paul Anderer, a professor of Japanese literature at Columbia, referring to Bollinger. In 2007, Anderer left his post as the university’s vice provost for international relations. “It’s the time spent on campus. He’s not out there. He’s not engaged.”

Bollinger, who teaches a class one semester a year on freedom of the press, has given some authority back to Columbia College’s dean and committed to starting an endowment to support the core curriculum. The fundraising would come in addition to the $5 billion capital campaign started in 2006 that has exceeded expectations, raising about $1.5 billion to support faculty and financial aid for students, including a $400 million pledge in 2007 from John Kluge, the founder of Metromedia Inc., and a 1937 graduate of the Columbia College.

“I feel very proud of what’s been accomplished in these 10 years,” Bollinger said in a follow-up interview earlier this month. “There have been very big things to take on and solve in order for the institution to thrive and reach its potential.”

Public Jeers

Bollinger has shown a deft touch with New York City and academic politics. While the Harlem community opposed the expansion and residents jeered him at a public meeting, Bollinger enlisted David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor who has taught at Columbia since 1993, to help lobby for the plan. He also promised the campus would be integrated into the community, with no gates and open space for residents, according to Maxine Griffith, a former New York City Planning Commission official who Columbia hired in 2005.

“Behind the scenes he kept his cool and was able to understand what the community was saying,” said Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, who supported the project.

Vincent Blasi, a Columbia Law School professor who has known Bollinger for decades, said “his style is to win people’s respect in a quiet way. He sort of sneaks up on you.”

Sticks to Priorities

What’s unusual about Bollinger “is he can form two or three top priorities and stick with them” said Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism. “The fundraising campaign, he gets credit for that, particularly Manhattanville and setting up the global campuses. Those I don’t think would have happened without him as president.”

When Bollinger was lured from the University of Michigan a decade ago, he was known as the legal scholar who as president beat back an attack on affirmative action in admissions, a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court will hear a new challenge on the subject this year. A finalist in 2001 to lead Harvard -- which instead hired former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers -- Bollinger was named less than a year later as president of Columbia, where he graduated from law school in 1971.

A broad-shouldered, dedicated distance runner, Bollinger still leads a 5-kilometer race he organizes for undergraduates every year. He and his wife, the artist Jean Magnano Bollinger, live at the President’s House, a stone and brick mansion renovated at a cost of $23 million and reopened in 2003. The home, on the Columbia campus, is across the street from Morningside Park.

Wood-Paneled Library

Sitting in a room near the wood-paneled library on the first floor and clad in a blue suit with white shirt and dark tie, the president is soft spoken and polite yet resolute about reestablishing the stature the university had before student protests in 1968 led to a steep decline. Bollinger agreed two years ago to a new contract that extends his term until 2016.

Research universities must grow, they have no other option, he said. Columbia is physically the smallest of the Ivy League institutions and trails schools such as Stanford University near Palo Alto, California, that have been adding about 1 million square feet a decade.

“We have some major catching up to do,” said Bollinger, who is also chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “For four decades we really were constrained. Those institutions were not constrained in that way.”

All of the top colleges in the U.S. are trying to add space for research, from Princeton to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, according to John Nelson, a managing director in public finance at Moody’s Investors Service in New York. Harvard said earlier this month it may begin a capital campaign in late 2013, the first since 1999, as it seeks to restart construction on a $1 billion science center.

Cleaning Newsroom

Born in Santa Rosa, California, in the farmlands north of San Francisco, Bollinger moved to Baker City, Oregon, in 1957 when his father bought a daily newspaper in the faded, gold-rush boomtown near the Idaho state line. Ten years later, his family would return to California while he stayed behind, attending the University of Oregon.

Bollinger recalls being asked to name his specialty as a law professor when he first arrived at Michigan in 1973. He says the only thing he really knew was newspapers because he spent his formative years developing photos, cleaning the newsroom, and watching his father agonize over writing editorials, so he picked freedom of the press and the First Amendment.

Fortuitous Timing

While Columbia considered other sites for expansion, including an area in midtown Manhattan controlled by Donald Trump, the new president chose West Harlem. Putting together a team led by Robert Kasdin, the senior executive vice president who came with him from Michigan, the team identified a 17-acre site, advertised its interest in the area and began buying the properties.

The timing was fortuitous, according to Ester Fuchs, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia. Michael Bloomberg, elected mayor of New York City in 2001, was starting a program to convert dozens of areas across the five boroughs that were zoned exclusively for industrial use to parks, industrial, commercial and residential redevelopment. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

“If you had to pick an area for the university to expand this was the best possible place,” said Fuchs, who worked as a special adviser to the mayor from 2001 to 2005. “It didn’t have many residents and the abandoned industrial space and storage facilities actually depressed the economic value of the area.”

Harlem Suspicion

Yet when Columbia formally unveiled its plan for Manhattanville in 2004, Bollinger found himself pitted against Harlem residents suspicious of the institution. While the 1968 protests were ultimately aimed at the university’s links to the Pentagon and the Vietnam War, they began when students tried to stop Columbia from constructing a gym off campus in a park it shared with the neighborhood. The facility was never completed.

In a video from Aug. 15, 2007, Bollinger is shown standing silently -- microphone in hand, waiting to speak. A crowd at a public hearing boos and jeers him, holding signs saying “West Harlem is not for sale,” and ‘Stop eminent domain abuse.’ He is met with screams of “liar” as he starts to make his case, telling residents that the “goal is really to do something that has not been done before.”

Kravis Donation

“They don’t like to use the word Harlem because it is essentially an Ivy League, elite institution that is encroaching on a black, working-class neighborhood,” Tom DeMott, a retired postal worker who lives near the construction site and helped organize Coalition to Preserve Community, said in a telephone interview. “They should all find a way to integrate into these communities instead of taking them over.”

While the local community board ultimately voted against the plan, the City Council approved the project in December 2007. Columbia pledged $150 million for local development as well as a share for residents of the 6,000 jobs the construction will create. New York courts said in 2010 that the state could use eminent domain to take some of the remaining parcels of land from owners who refused to sell.

Columbia last year began clearing the site that stretches from just below 129th Street to 133rd Street. A 2006 donation valued at more than $200 million from Dawn M. Greene and the Jerome L. Greene Foundation funded construction of the science center, and the business school has raised $100 million in a gift from Henry Kravis, the founder of private-equity pioneer KKR & Co. Kravis received an MBA degree from Columbia in 1969.

Engineering School

While Cornell University in December won a bid to build a New York City-sponsored applied-sciences campus, Bollinger has said Columbia will proceed with a competing proposal to construct an engineering school in Manhattanville.

Kasdin declined to say how much the university has spent buying the land.

“In 50 years we would no longer be in the top tier if we did not have this expansion,” said Eric Kandel, the 82-year-old Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychiatrist who will help lead the Mind Brain Behavior Institute to be housed at the science center.

Columbia’s endowment, which is overseen by a new management group Bollinger installed after he arrived, has helped the university stay on track, lifting the fund 19.4 percent last year to $7.8 billion. Columbia’s returns have been beating both Harvard and Yale, which have the world’s largest private university endowments of $31.7 billion and $19.4 billion, respectively.

Endowment Strategy

While Harvard, Yale and other wealthy universities were forced to borrow money and sell investments to fund operations amid the credit crisis, Columbia remained relatively unscathed because it had begun shifting into easy-to-sell assets, which has also boosted its performance as markets recovered, Kasdin said.

New York City’s revival has also helped the university, making it more attractive to students and faculty, according to Nicholas Dirks, vice president for arts and sciences. Applications for undergraduate admissions topped 31,000 this year after reaching a record 34,587 last year, second only to Harvard in the Ivy League. Columbia accepted just 7.4 percent of students who applied this year.

Columbia has also doubled its federal research funding to $883 million since 2002, according to annual reports.

“He’s taken it off the shelf of mediocrity,” Bill Campbell, the Intuit Inc. chairman who is head of Columbia’s board of trustees, said about the university’s rise in stature under Bollinger. “When you start to look at the ratings of our schools, the consistency of everything we’re doing right now, it’s all because he’s pushing.”

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