Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Lee Bollinger, Columbia University’s Invisible Man

The man who presided over the growth, enrichment, and intellectual and moral decline of New York’s greatest university embodied the workings of 21st-century power through a masterful two-decade-long disappearing act

by
Armin Rosen
January 24, 2023
Barbara Alper/Getty Images
Over decades of trial and error, Bollinger developed into one of the great managerial geniuses of 21st-century New YorkBarbara Alper/Getty Images
Barbara Alper/Getty Images
Over decades of trial and error, Bollinger developed into one of the great managerial geniuses of 21st-century New YorkBarbara Alper/Getty Images
collection
This article is part of Tablet Profiles.
See the full collection →︎

There is often an inverse relationship between how frequently a person is profiled in the media and how important they really are. For over two decades Lee Bollinger’s home and office have been a measly three miles uptown from the New York Times building and the rest of the Manhattan-based national media. They all tended to forget the Columbia University president was even up there. Anonymity was one of Bollinger’s great accomplishments during his 21-year run as leader of the Ivy League’s NYC outpost, which will end with his retirement this coming July. Last week, the university announced that Minouche Shafik, an Egyptian-born economist and director of the London School of Economics, will succeed Bollinger, filling an office that Dwight D. Eisenhower held between 1948 and 1953.

Bollinger was the man in charge of Manhattan’s largest landowner, as well as principal shaper of the political and moral priorities of a national elite he helped lead. Few people consciously thought of him in these grandiose terms, but the occlusion of power is built into the architecture at Columbia. The university’s campus is designed as a miniature acropolis walled off from Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, with a colonnaded classical temple crowning a vast symmetrical plaza of terraces and stairways. Until 1934, Low Library was the institute’s center of learning, towering somewhere near the geographic midpoint and elevational apex of campus. Then it became the university’s central administration building. The students on College Walk now look up at where the tuition checks go, rather than at a monument to truth and learning, although the word “library” is still in the structure’s official name. Low is Columbia in miniature: the great academic center, situated at the loftiest point in all of Manhattan, which quietly morphed into a corporate and political behemoth.

Bollinger’s success was built on his recognition that Columbia is a “university” in the same sense that Low is a “library.” He understood Columbia wasn’t just an educational institution but a key New York-based pillar of a much larger edifice of world-spanning power. Protecting and deepening this status required inflicting the university’s interests and values on others, something that could only happen alongside a public image of institutional stability, even conservatism.

It seems impossible that a major Manhattan business leader and nationally prominent public intellectual should have his success reflected through the world’s ability to ignore him, but power becomes a banality if it is wielded deftly enough. Over decades of trial and error, Bollinger developed into one of the great managerial geniuses of 21st-century New York, and America more generally—someone who knew that power can be measured in how seldom people notice you’re even there.

Lee Bollinger, an even-toned, mop-headed First Amendment theorist-turned administrator-turned University of Michigan president with an elusive sense of humor and a passion for running laps around the Central Park reservoir at early hours of the morning, became Columbia’s 19th president in 2002, at a time of civic and national crisis. His first decade in office was not seamless, although nothing was in those days. In the mid-2000s Columbia became engulfed in a bitter dispute over the treatment of Jewish students by star professors in its Middle East languages and culture department, which attracted national attention and divided students and faculty. Both sides claimed the other was suppressing their academic freedom with the administration’s help. Bollinger, drawing on his experience as one of the nation’s top academic authorities on free speech, helped draw up a Solomonically difference-splitting solution. He made no decisive statements as the university convened an investigative panel, which issued a report critical of a single professor, the Palestinian political scientist Joseph Massad. No one was satisfied.

Bollinger understood Columbia wasn’t just an educational institution but a key New York-based pillar of a much larger edifice of world-spanning power.

Bollinger would commit a much more serious blunder the next time he tried to chart a sensible middle path through a high-profile campus Middle East controversy. In September of 2007, Bollinger gave an uncharacteristically vituperative introduction to the Holocaust-denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a guest of the World Leaders Forum. The WLF was a Bollinger-era initiative in which the university offered a more or less open speaking invitation to the heads of state and government in town for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. Live on every cable news network, Bollinger came off as hectoring and ungracious—nothing wrong with that, given the awfulness of the man he was introducing. What wasn’t fine is how very obviously freaked out Bollinger looked at having to star in this nightmare inversion of his own cherished idea of Columbia’s global role. Bollinger apparently believed he’d get credit both for allowing the event to take place and for eloquently denouncing its horrific headliner. Instead he discovered, practically in real time, that free speech and institutional image (not to mention basic decency) were in naked conflict with one another.

Bollinger explained in his now-infamous introduction that providing a platform to someone did not mean signaling approval of what that person did or said. He argued that someone he’d just called a “cruel and petty dictator” wasn’t being hosted in order to legitimize or benefit the speaker, but instead to reinforce or perhaps even strengthen the university’s culture of intellectual openness—an echo of the “tolerance theory” of free speech that Bollinger had developed in his academic work in the early 1990s.

Bollinger spoke these words like a man who barely believed them, like it was dawning on him that this particular lesson in Columbia’s institutional virtue hadn’t been worth it, and was maybe proving the opposite of what he hoped it would prove. As a sophomore in the joint program between the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia’s School of General Studies, I was in Roone Arledge Auditorium for the Ahmadinejad mess, and could sense that the university’s president was terrified to discover he’d cornered himself in front of millions of live TV viewers. A smiling Ahmadinejad replied, in effect, that in Iran, we don’t treat guests this way. How do you lose a public faceoff with Ayatollah Khamenei’s top henchman? Bollinger found a way.

Except the Ahmadinejad incident didn’t discredit anything. Bollinger ensured that any potentially troubling contradictions in his view of himself or the university he led would never again be subject to such dramatic public exposure. During the next 15 years of his presidency, the big higher education controversies all happened at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oberlin, Bard, Stanford—but not in Morningside Heights. Meanwhile Columbia’s physical footprint practically doubled with the construction of its Manhattanville campus. The endowment more than doubled, growing from around $5 billion in 2005 to $13.3 billion today.

In some ways, a president of Columbia set on subtle reinvention gets an automatic assist from the university’s muted public image and its alumni community’s remarkable degree of indifference to the place. Yale is a cult; Harvard grads are exhibitionist in their swings between pride and shame. Stanfordians believe they run everything, while a shared experience of remoteness, darkness, and suicidal alcoholism bind Cornell and Dartmouth students to their schools and to each other.

Columbia is exhilarating for some, and alienating for others, because it seems so much smaller than everything else in sight. True to the city that surrounds it, Columbia is largely treated as a means to an end, a way to access extracurricular networks of cultural and financial power at a young age. Columbia becomes a status vector almost by force of gravity, regardless of individual intentions: I wasn’t one of the undergraduates making tens of thousands of dollars working in finance each summer, but I did successfully wheedle my way into the once-fascinating lower rungs of the city’s cultural journalism scene (RIP L Magazine, Impose, and New York Press) and had a habit of venturing deep into Bushwick on weeknights. At the time I thought this made me cool, but it really made me a product of Morningside Heights, where everyone harbors dreams of trading up.

The university has little psychic or spiritual significance beyond itself. It has no Skull and Bones-type secret societies, no final clubs, no recent history of high-profile athletic success. Nobody has time for that crap in New York. Career and student services in general were notably thin 15 years ago, as if the institution wanted you to leave the neighborhood and make your own way as quickly as you possibly could, or else decamp for some other environment you could actually handle. The greatest fictional Columbian of the 21st century, Meadow Soprano, got stuck with a mentally ill roommate, dated an unbearably pretentious film student, and quickly moved off-campus, proof that the show’s producers knew a little something about life there. The greatest non-Alexander Hamilton, real-life alumnus in the school’s history, Barack Obama, almost never talks about the place.

On the other hand, it is very hard to hide the existence of an Ivy League institution in New York City, however quickly its students and alumni move on from it. It’s even harder to acquire and then raze 17 acres of Manhattan, especially when it’s part of an impoverished, historically Black and Hispanic neighborhood where several of the incumbent landowners don’t want to sell to you. Bollinger’s masterpiece as Columbia president, clinched in the years after the Ahmadinejad fiasco, was the construction of a second campus in the Manhattanville section of west Harlem, a dour enclave of Renzo Piano-designed monstrosities built through hardball negotiating tactics and the threat of eminent domain. The estimated price tag for the eventually 6.8 million-square-foot campus was $6.5 billion as of 2019, much of it raised on Bollinger’s watch. Purchase of the land started in 2004, early in Bollinger’s reign. In 1968, the construction of a gym in Morningside Park was enough to set off riots on campus.

Bollinger’s vision was unyielding: There was never any question Manhattanville would get built. Today it’s like the second campus has always been there, as if Hamilton himself had walked the halls of a martially featureless concrete pile called The Forum at Columbia University.

Under Bollinger, Columbia has been a venue for the same Kulturkampf that’s gripped the rest of American higher ed this century. But how often have you heard about any of it? The few political positions Bollinger has publicly taken—defense of racial affirmative action in college admissions, support for government funding of the private sector media, opposition to “disinformation”—haven’t been risky or novel, at least not within elite higher education or the broader American establishment it both produces and serves.

The Harvard administration has a masochistic enjoyment of national uproars over awarded or withdrawn “academic” fellowships for flashy mediocrities like Ken Roth or Sean Spicer, a kink that Bollinger-era Columbia did not share. Labor relations haven’t been any better at Columbia than they have been at Harvard; both schools have experienced strikes by grad students, adjuncts, and support staff in recent years. Elizabeth Warren joined the picket line at Harvard in 2016, but at Columbia the unrest was always dealt with before it leaked into national or even local politics. Columbia has not gotten sued over racial discrimination against Asian Americans, unlike its rival in Boston.

At Columbia the woke wars were over and done with before the word “woke” was even in casual usage: Fifteen years ago, the campus was already an archipelago of affinity groups, literary societies, cultural houses, food co-ops, and fraternities that lived and died by the university’s willingness to give them a brownstone. A fortuitous NYPD cocaine raid more or less solved the administration’s frat problem in 2010.

On academic freedom, Bollinger’s Columbia mulled over its share of difficult tenure cases but never did anything as outrageous as Princeton’s firing of Joshua Katz. The apparent tenuring of Joseph Massad—the kind of fanatic who believes that Zionists are the real antisemites and that the gay rights movement is an Orientalist cat’s-paw for Western imperialism, and also the focus of a federal Title VI investigation in 2011—happened sometime in the late 2000s without any public announcement, celebration, or condemnation from much of anyone.

As best I could tell as a student journalist at the time, there was protracted behind-the-scenes oscillation on the Massad question, with the administration moving toward denying him tenure before arriving at the sensible conclusion that a public end to his Columbia career wouldn’t be worth the outcry. I argued in a Columbia Spectator column that tenuring Massad would disgrace the university. Bollinger was right not to listen to me. Columbia is bigger and richer than ever, and nobody cares about Joseph Massad.

The few speech incidents that have cropped up on Bollinger’s watch were met with merciless efficiency. My favorite of these was over Orgo Night, one of Columbia’s few actual traditions, during which the marching band—the Columbia University Marching Band, the incomparably named CUMB—would commandeer the Butler Library Reading Room the night before the high-stakes organic chemistry final exam and launch into a musically backed comedy routine that was, against all odds, actually pretty funny, and very often on the bluer side. Orgo Night briefly shattered the campus’s icy atmosphere of relentless self-seeking and also tended to be unsparingly critical of the administration. Alas, this annual outburst of parrhesia was too funny, too obscene, and perhaps too critical. Low Library waged a brilliantly subtle pincer maneuver against CUMB, banning Orgo Night from the Butler grounds in 2016 and cutting the organization’s stipend. Conveniently enough for Low Library, the band doesn’t even exist anymore, having self-deported from reality during the racial reckoning of 2020.

As best I can tell, Bollinger had the sense not to make any public comment on the CUMB situation. Neither has he commented on the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression naming Columbia the least free of the 203 campuses it surveyed in 2021, finding the university to have an “abysmal” speech climate, a restrictive campus speech code, a culture of “disruptive conduct” against people with opposing points of view, and little meaningful due process for students accused of wrongdoing.

Bollinger showed that the elite university could still be a locus of competent managerial liberalism, a creed that emanated from the windswept cliffs of upper Manhattan to reach the most benighted corners of the planet.

Bollinger did, however, write an essay in The Atlantic in 2019 arguing that there is no crisis of free speech on the nation’s college campuses. Contrary to what he characterized as Trumpist calumnies against higher ed, Bollinger argued that American universities are in fact the site of a rich, ongoing debate over the limits of acceptable speech that mirrored a broader national conversation. “From flag burning to Holocaust denial, Americans of all ages have been grappling with basic questions about offensive speech for decades and will continue to do so for as long as the country strives for this ideal of openness and freedom of expression,” he wrote. “Exchanges over the boundaries of campus speech should therefore be welcomed rather than reviled when they take place.”

This passive-voice rejection of excessive speech tolerance on college campuses is one of the few interesting lines in the piece, which is a masterpiece of Bollingerian subtlety. The article reads like a blandly stated defense of open discourse—who could hate open discourse?—but is in fact an apologia for an industry in peril, namely the elite higher education industry. “In light of the long evolution of free expression in the United States,” he writes, “we should be careful drawing conclusions based on a handful of sensationalist incidents on campus—incidents sometimes manufactured for their propaganda value. They shed no light on the current reality of university culture.”

Bollinger showed that the elite university could still be a locus of competent managerial liberalism, a creed that emanated from the windswept cliffs of upper Manhattan to reach the most benighted corners of the planet. In the 2000s, Columbia was awash in rumors about how much the school had given the star development economist Jeffrey Sachs to pry him away from Harvard. In Morningside Heights, Sachs carved out a durable headquarters for his ideology of top-down, expert-affected transformation of the poor and stupid masses of the Global South. The trip from Columbia to the United Nations, Manhattan’s other campuslike redoubt of global power, comes out to 20 minutes when traffic cooperates, and Sachs became one of the ideological and spiritual architects of the U.N.’s quasi-authoritarian, globally influential, and more or less useless series of 21st-century development goals and 10-year plans.

Who cared if there was so little evidence that Sachs-style “sustainable” development through aggressive outside intervention actually worked, or if Sachs became an apologist for China, Russia, and seemingly every other dishonorable regime on Earth? His gospel of elite global stewardship and his diagnosis of the world’s problems, as expressed through Columbia’s Earth Institute and the Center for Sustainable Development, are now establishment commonplaces. Most of our elites really do live in a world where every big problem is downstream of climate change and other people’s overconsumption, and where the world’s leading free economies must pay for their mistakes by imposing social-scientific “solutions” on as much of humankind as possible. The Sachs worldview has the virtue of being both self-lacerating and self-flattering: Wealthy, educated Westerners are the cause of and answer to all the world’s problems, which can only be addressed through millions or even billions in government and nonprofit spending that they themselves will oversee.

Sachs’ activities epitomized what Columbia became in the 21st century, a place where “thought leadership” didn’t have to appear in scare quotes. Bollinger’s oft-stated objective was to turn Columbia into a “global university,” and Sachs represented one of many cases in which he made a smart investment in a world-spanning virtue grift so elegant that people stopped caring how cynical it all was.

Last week, Columbia announced that Minouche Shafik would be Bollinger’s successor. The 62-year-old economist, made Baroness Shafik in 2020, is probably qualified to run a leading university in New York. Moreover, she is a Bollingerian, which is to say she’s a senior participant and theorist in the broader industry of academic and policy elites telling vast numbers of people what’s best for them. Before leading the London School of Economics, she’d been the youngest vice president in the World Bank’s history and served as a top official in the British government’s international development agency. Shafik is the author of a recent book called What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract, a title that presupposes that the whipping-up of social contracts is the proper role of economists, baronesses, and college presidents.

But there is one thing Shafik lacks, and it is something that in all likelihood it is too late for her to attain. Bollinger got his undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon, a good but decidedly nonelite state school, and spent 20 years leading Dartmouth and the University of Michigan. He clerked for Chief Justice Warren Berger, oversaw the acquisition of 17 acres of Manhattan real estate, and had a stint as chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the early 2010s. Shafik has spent much of her career in the U.K., but Bollinger is someone with a canny and hard-earned grasp of how America works, something you can only really acquire after a few decades of close contact with the actual operations of national power.

The Ahmadinejad controversy wasn’t Bollinger’s first moment in the national spotlight. It certainly isn’t the thing he’s likeliest to be remembered for in 20 or 50 years. In the early 2000s, Bollinger was the defendant in two affirmative action-related cases that made it to the Supreme Court, each stemming from the University of Michigan’s admission policies during the time he served as that institution’s president and law school dean. In some sense the entire mission principle of post-1960s American higher education—the idea that the universities were central to an expert-guided project of liberal social improvement— hinged on whether the lawyers representing Bollinger could convince the court that diversity was a compelling enough interest in academic settings to justify the rejection or acceptance of applicants based partly on their race. Bollinger’s side was successful: The Columbia president boasted in a 2022 essay he co-authored in The Atlantic that Grutter v. Bollinger was the first time the court established that affirmative action was “constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment” and thus consistent with equal protection under the law.

The Bollinger precedent didn’t last long in Michigan, where voters opted to ban affirmative action in state institutions in 2006 by a 58%-42% margin. It might be coming to an end in the rest of the country, too.

Bollinger has a book out in early February arguing for the constitutionality of affirmative action. Perhaps he will submit an amicus brief when two affirmative action cases come before the Supreme Court later this year, one of them resulting from Harvard’s alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants. The same Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade seems likely to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger too, but by then the namesake of that now-endangered legal breakthrough will be just weeks away from retirement as Columbia’s president. In his final disappearing act as a master bureaucrat, he will have made the navigation of a post-Bollinger world someone else’s problem.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.