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

Its completion date has been pushed to roughly 2030, and in a speech last year Bollinger seemed to push it back again in his declaration that Manhattanville will, “over the course of this century, fulfill its aspirations to be a center of research ... unparalleled in the world.”

Most faculty members support expansion in some form, and recognize that the need for it is acute: Professors in the English department are forced to share offices (which they do not like, needless to say), and there are not enough beds to house the growing freshman classes each year.

But the fight for land to create Manhattanville, which has often cast Columbia as a behemoth trying to force out the West Harlem community, and the unprecedented expense of the project, estimated at $6.3 billion, have prompted public speculation by faculty members about whether the ambitious plan for expansion was entirely worth it. Bollinger’s Columbia might have, for example, followed N.Y.U.’s route and acquired pieces of land gradually, something the previous administration was already doing in West Harlem.

Still, Bollinger’s tenure has been a success by several ostensibly objective measures. Columbia leapfrogged from 8th place to 4th place in the U.S. News college rankings in 2010, ranking only under the “Big Three”: Harvard, Princeton and Yale. 

Bollinger has also raised an unprecedented amount of money for Columbia. Whatever faults the faculty may find with him, they all acknowledge that he is one hell of a fund-raiser. Bollinger started the Columbia Campaign in 2006 and has raised, as of the most recent reporting, $4.67 billion, or 93 percent of its goal of $5 billion by December 2013.

And Bollinger has, of course, won the land for the new campus. A new Mind, Brain and Behavior research center is now rising on 125th Street, and is scheduled to open by 2016.

In order for Bollinger to attempt to execute his grand plans for what is effectively a new school, he has moved, quietly, to centralize power in his office. Former administrators say that effort has involved eliminating most of the power of the provost, and instead installing Bollinger's longtime right-hand man, Robert Kasdin. Bollinger brought Kasdin from Michigan when he took office in 2002, and created an entirely new title for him: Senior Executive Vice President of Columbia University.

In terms of Bollinger's relations with faculty, the structural shake-up was highly problematic. So, later, was the efficiency report he commissioned.

IN THE BEGINNING OF 2010, AS BOLLINGER’S GRAND EXPERIMENT continued to take shape, McKinsey & Company was brought in to recommend ways to streamline Columbia’s 16 graduate schools and four undergraduate programs.

The results of that report were shown to a very few senior administrators: including dean of arts and sciences Nicholas Dirks, and Bollinger's man, Kasdin. The McKinsey report was also shared with then-provost Steele, the Board of Trustees, the nine faculty members on the policy and planning committee, which is an advisory branch of Arts and Sciences, and a collection of senior deans, including Moody-Adams and later, former chemistry department chair James Valentini. The existence of the report was not made public until after Moody-Adams’ resignation in August.

Steele left his post roughly a month after the report was released to become dean of Stanford’s School of Education, a step down, by all objective criteria. Several former administrators say that Steele wanted control of the university budget, which Kasdin had somewhat informal reign over.

“All budgetary control of the university has been taken out of the hands of academics,” Cole said.

Without the money, his position had little power. Steele quit. He did not respond to requests for an interview.

Steele’s stated reason for leaving was to unite his family back on the West Coast, where he had worked at Stanford for years. Bollinger sent out a short letter to students and faculty. “I completely understand this life choice,” he wrote. 

On Aug. 20, Moody-Adams sent a searing email announcing her resignation to the Board of Trustees, the Board of Visitors, and a select few alumni allies. The email made the rounds of Columbia’s extensive alumni network with dizzying speed.

“Columbia University has begun plans to transform the administrative structure in the Arts and Sciences,” she wrote.

“The planned changes will have the effect of diminishing and in some cases eliminating the authority of the Dean of the College over crucial policy, fundraising and budgetary matters … I have repeatedly voiced concern that changes of this kind will ultimately compromise the College’s academic quality and financial health.”

She wrote that it had been made clear to her a few days earlier that the unspecified changes in question “cannot be stopped.”