A distant president and a mysterious McKinsey report send Columbia’s liberal-arts faculty into an existential panic

Is Columbia University sacrificing Columbia College? (Trenton Duerksen)
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In late October, Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco took the podium at Columbia’s Casa Italiana, an imperious building best known for its rumored funding from Benito Mussolini, to tell an audience of donor-alumni and administrators that the school’s leadership was betraying them.

“I believe there is today a real threat to the Core,” said Delbanco, who is best known for his biography of Herman Melville and outspoken criticism of American higher education. “Not sudden abolition as much as slow attrition.”

Delbanco was referring to the most recent outbreak of the long-running tension between Columbia College, home of the liberal-arts-heavy Core Curriculum that has long defined the institution’s brand of education, and Columbia University, which, under the leadership of President Lee Bollinger, is creating a new campus in West Harlem for science laboratories and its professional schools.

Delbanco’s talk, advertised on an Alumni Events email listserv, came at a moment when some of Columbia's deep-pocketed alumni were already on edge. Almost exactly two months before Delbanco’s speech, the dean of Columbia College, Michele Moody-Adams, submitted her resignation after barely two years on the job by writing to the trustees and a few alumni and then letting the email make the rounds before Bollinger even saw it.

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Two months before that, then-provost Claude Steele left his post after a year in favor of a lesser position at Stanford University.

Both resignations were preceded, if not prompted, by a mysterious report from McKinsey & Company on how to trim the fat of Columbia’s centralizing administration.

That McKinsey report has been transformed into something of a MacGuffin for the administration. The document has taken on an aura of foreboding it may not deserve, but it is widely believed among current, tenured staff at Columbia to have been at the root of the recent unrest, particularly in Moody-Adams’ case.

The administration has not released the report or a summary of its findings, nor does it plan to, a university spokesman confirmed.

Fights over disposition of university resources are as old as the school itself. (It was a Columbia professor, Wallace Stanley Sayre, who declared that academic politics are so bitter because the the stakes are so low.) Yet interviews with over a dozen faculty members, including current and former deans and senior administrators, seem to indicate a level of rancor on the Morningside Heights campus born of a sense that something different is going on.

As the newly acquired Manhattanville campus slowly begins to take shape, top-tier professors, many of whom have guaranteed lifetime employment, fear that Columbia’s humanities faculty, long considered the soul of the college, will be left to moulder, with decreased resources and increased class sizes, as the new science and professional school campus glints in the distance.

Teodolinda Barolini, the chair of the Italian Department, said that the struggle for resources can leave the heavily advertised intellectual discoveries of the Core isolated when departments are already being squeezed thin.

“Do you want to have Dante taught in the Core without a Dante scholar?” she asked.

Barolini was the fifteenth president of the Dante Society of America. (She is also both current member of the Policy and Planning Committee, the advisory board to the faculty, and its former chair, and the wife of Columbia College’s new dean.)

Worse, from the professors' perspective, they feel as if they're in the dark as their future is placed at the mercy of non-academic professionals.

“There isn’t any full-throated faculty conversation about the Core,” said Paul Anderer, a professor of Japanese literature and former provost of international relations.

Another senior faculty member simply said, “Transparency is a big issue here on all fronts."

Jonathan Cole, Columbia’s provost from 1989 to 2003, who is widely understood to have effectively run the school’s internal affairs during that time, said he understands the concern.

“No one knows how Columbia works,” he said. “No one knows where money is and where it goes, and decisions are not being made by academics.”

LEE BOLLINGER HAS THE LOOK OF A TV NEWSCASTER—salt-and-pepper hair and a default smirk. He has not made any secret of what he wants Columbia to look like, and has shown himself willing to offend often-delicate academic sensibilities to transform it.

He came to Columbia in 2002 from his position as president of the University of Michigan with great acclaim. He was heralded as the man to propel Columbia into the future, and he has been the first Columbia president in decades who has had the opportunity to do more than put out fires. From the student revolts of 1968 to the economic downturn and crime of the 1970s and '80s, the school has not been known for its stability.

At Michigan, Bollinger was a champion of affirmative action, having taken two disputed cases to the Supreme Court, and a favorite of students, for whom he opened his home for an open discussion after Sept. 11, 2001. 

That was ten years ago.

Now, the primary complaint among faculty about Bollinger seems to be that he is aloof; some of them continue to refer to him as a hologram. On any given day, he may be checking in on Columbia’s new global center (something like a satellite campus) in Amman or riding around in a black Audi driven by his bodyguard and chauffeur, Danny. He has announced that he will remain Columbia’s president until he turns 70 in 2016. 

Bollinger did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.

Bollinger has had a clearly articulated, and truly grand, vision for Columbia since he arrived, but the current perception largely aligns with what one administrator said: “He is a visionary with bad process.”

If Bollinger’s plan succeeds, Columbia will be a top-tier research institution that will rival Harvard and Stanford, a goal that has been the justification for a costly and protracted battle for a new 17-acre campus in West Harlem. The Manhattanville campus will be a school apart from anything Columbia has ever been, and that’s the whole point: it will be shiny and new and focused on research and professional training.