Resignations shake faith in Columbia Pres. Bollinger

Provost and undergraduate dean departures make faculty question leadership’s commitment to diversity

NEW YORK — Several Columbia University professors said this week that the recent resignations of two high-ranking black administrators have shaken their confidence in the institution’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, and reignited concerns among their colleagues about other aspects of his leadership.

Fredrick C. Harris, a professor of political science and director of Columbia’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, said in an interview that the resignation of the university’s provost, Claude M. Steele, in June, followed by the more acrimonious departure last week of the undergraduate dean, Michele M. Moody-Adams, were significant not just because the officials were the first African-Americans to hold those key positions, but because their authority appeared to wither during their tenures.

Harris said that he wrote to Bollinger this week to explain how the departures “have shaken my confidence — as well as the confidence of many others at Columbia — in the ability of Columbia to maintain diverse leadership at the top.”

Another African-American professor, June Cross of the journalism school, said in an interview on Wednesday, “I’m not saying race is the issue, but it is the subtext.”

She added, “Michele Moody-Adams was advertised as, “Here’s our commitment to diversity.’ If you’re not going to stand behind what you say you hired her to do, what does that say about your commitment?”

Such criticisms are unusual for Bollinger, who built a national reputation defending affirmative action cases at the University of Michigan, and has brought more minority students and faculty members to Columbia’s campus in Morningside Heights. In an interview Thursday, he acknowledged the criticism but said it was off-base.

“While some may perceive an issue of diversity involved here in both resignations, I’m confident that that’s not either the explanation, nor is it in any way a reflection of the institution’s commitment to diversity,” Bollinger said. “It’s certainly not mine, in any event.”

Moody-Adams, who is remaining at Columbia as a tenured professor in the philosophy department, declined to discuss her resignation or her colleagues’ response to it. Steele, now the dean of Stanford University’s School of Education, said that the questions about racial implications were a “rational reaction,” but, at least in his particular case, misplaced.

“If I were in the shoes of the faculty member I would have the same concern,” Steele said. “You have to take events like this seriously. But this had nothing to do with my identity or the provost’s office; it had to do with this opportunity at Stanford at this time of my life. I have the strongest feelings for Columbia.”

Bollinger has met and even courted his share of controversy since arriving at Columbia in 2002, particularly with his defense of a speaking invitation to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who has called the Holocaust a myth, and his handling of allegations that Jewish students were being harassed by pro-Palestinian faculty members.

Interviews with more than a dozen Columbia faculty members over the past week indicated that, any racial concerns aside, the resignations had come at a time of growing dissatisfaction with some of Bollinger’s policies — particularly those regarding employment benefits and the undergraduate college’s role in the larger research university.

A frank email Moody-Adams sent to trustees and alumni claimed that her voice had not been “taken seriously” regarding policies that would “ultimately compromise the colleges academic quality and financial health.”

Moody-Adams did not mention race in the email, focusing instead on what she and others have perceived as the undergraduate college’s shrinking role within the ever-sprawling research university. That discussion has been going on at Columbia for many years, as have faculty complaints about pensions and other benefits, which were the focus of a heated meeting with Bollinger in April.