Hours before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on the lawsuits facing the University of Michigan”s admissions policies last Thursday in Cincinnati, University President Lee Bollinger sat down with Rachel Green and Elizabeth Kassab of The Michigan Daily to share some of his final words with the University community. After serving five years as chief executive of the University, Bollinger is “jumping ship” as Chief Circuit Judge Boyce Martin joked at the hearing on Dec. 31 to become the 19th president of Columbia University, his alma mater, and make way for interim President B. Joseph White.
Excerpts from the interview:
The Michigan Daily: What do you see your role as in your lawsuits after you leave the University?
Lee C. Bollinger: “Basically, we have laid the foundation and more for both the legal and the public discussion of these lawsuits and these issues. So after today, it”s really just a matter of the Court of Appeals rendering its decision, and then, the case will, I predict, go to the Supreme Court. So, there”s not much more to do in that sense or in many senses, now the issue remains a matter of public discussion and debate and I will certainly continue to speak to this issue it looks like I will remain the defendant in the case.
TMD: How do you feel about Columbia”s admissions policies? Do they differ drastically from the University of Michigan”s?
LCB: No, I think they do not differ drastically and they are very committed to diversity of all kinds, but in particular racial and ethnic diversity. They are among, I think, the largest presence of African-Americans and Hispanics and Native Americans in the Ivy League. At the undergraduate level I think it”s 9 percent of the undergraduates are African Americans. This is a long-standing commitment of Columbia.
TMD: How do you feel about the University of Michigan”s cases, especially since Hopwood (the legal challenge to the University of Texas” admissions policies) is now gone? What does this mean for the University”s cases?
LCB: It doesn”t do anything. The case is what it is. It”s the 5th Circuit holding, I believe, mistakenly, that Bakke is no longer good law. We strongly believe that an error. The whole point of this is to make that case.
TMD: What does it do for the focus on the U of M case? Does it increase that?
LCB: Yes, because everyone looks to this case as the case that will make it to the Supreme Court, where ultimately the Constitution is defined. It is important to remember that while there is the 5th circuit case, saying that Bakke is no longer good law, there”s also the 9th circuit saying that Bakke is good law, so there is what is called a split in the circuits. It”s a classic case for the Supreme Court to intervene and resolve the issue.
TMD: Have you been working with interim President White closely? How have you been smoothing out this transition?
LCB: I try to let Joe know everything he should know, and I try not to make any major decisions that he is unaware of, or giving him every opportunity to express his views. I very much want to take care of issues that I feel responsible for during my watch so that he”s not stuck with anything that I should have cared for. So we talk frequently and other people are helping a lot. It”s a very smooth change, and I expect (it) to be uneventful.
TMD: In regard to the Undergraduate Experience Report which was released last month, as well as the Information Technology Commission, released this summer, how do you feel about leaving so soon after these findings have come out?
LCB: One has to remember there are all kinds of things that I”ve started. The Ford School of Public Policy, not many people mention that. We”re about to present plans for an architect. The location of the building should be at the corner of Hill and State streets right at the entrance to the University. This should be a building that really speaks architecturally and academically to the character of the University. There”s the Ford School and the Life Sciences buildings there”s the Frost House, the Miller Theater.
Even if I had stayed for 10 years, very few of these projects would be completed in that time. These things extend over decades, and I”m very pleased and proud of what we have launched and the ideas that we have presented to the University community and to the alums. But it”s just part of the nature of things that the term of a president will not coincide with the projects undertaken. So that is also true of the commission reports. These are now blueprints for things that can be done. As you probably know, I really promoted and very much believed that the University needs to build more residence halls for students. And there has to be a program over a decade of renovating the existing residence halls. I would like to see more upperclass students have opportunities to live on campus. We have approval for one new residence facility that”s under very preliminary planning. That”s part of the Undergraduate Experience Commission idea, how to integrate residence halls more into the intellectual life.
The information revolution, similarly, we needed a blueprint. We”ve started several things, one is the involvement with Fathom, which is the Internet educational venture with Columbia, University of Chicago, British Museum, British Library all these cultural institutions. We”ve upgraded the backbone of the University. We”re putting in fiber optics in every new building and existing facilities, but these things will go on and on and on, so I”m pleased with what we”ve done in a very preliminary way and I”m also pleased that there is now a very carefully considered blueprint for the next president and the presidents after that to think about.
TMD: The Detroit Free Press editorial board asked you what the University could have done to keep you, and you mentioned that you had been here for most of your adult life. Was there really anything specifically the University could have done to keep you at the University of Michigan?
LCB: This is a very hard question. The answer is yes. But I”m not prepared really to give a further explanation.
What I did in that interview was to speak about how I think the government structure of the University altered or changed over time, and I believe two things are critically important. One is to have more active faculty elements, and the second is to find a way to provide a role for the very distinguished alums and I believe eventually, other than alums who want to commit themselves to the University in the way that every great university has groups like this who over time are part of the stewardship of the University of a great university. This is my conception this might be a board of visitors or a board of overseers. The regents have by the constitution of the state of Michigan final power, ultimate power. Realistically, in any large organization and especially at a university, that power invested in the regents must be, if the university is to be a viable university and certainly if it”s going to be a great university must be limited to preserving and looking out for the long-term interest in the institution. Nevertheless, that power resides in the regents by the constitution of the state of Michigan.
I said I wanted to stay and intended to stay and meant it. But I”m just not prepared to say (what happened).
I would just add that the reason for leaving did not include financial interests, not that those are insignificant, but those were not in my mind when I made the decision.
TMD: Are there any major problems or major obstacles that you think the University has that the next president will have to deal with?
LCB: The University is in outstanding shape. There are many projects underway and those can provide a course for many years to come, and any institution needs to have means underway for improvement. That”s the way a great institution functions.
Financially, the institution is sound, and projects have funds set aside to support them. This is not a case of just launching into projects without having the resources. Now some projects, they clearly have been conceived of in relation to fund-raising goals, so I”m not saying there”s money for every single thing that has been undertaken. For example, the Ford School, we”re very consciously making this a program or project that will be dependent upon raising funds externally, not using internal University resources. I have no doubt that this can be achieved. There are some other projects that as we look at them they come in over-budget, and we need to step back, so I will be talking about these as I leave. But that”s all part of the normal course of trying to do certain things and then figuring out that there is a better way to do it. But on the whole and across the board the institution is in great shape both in terms of exciting projects to pursue and reasonable provisions for those projects.
We”ve also reserved funds for a period where the economy is not as strong as it has been, so that should be helpful to cushion the University from an economic downturn, but if there is a long-term economic downturn the institution will have to address that and a new president and a new administration, that will be a major challenge, there is no question about it. So the issue is, is this a one- or two-year withdrawal from the economic good times or a four- or five-year downturn?
I think the other things that I would say the University is facing is how intellectually powerful it can be and whether we can reasonably expect it to be one of the greatest research universities of the world. The greatest challenge that a public university like Michigan faces is how do you convince people that being one of the top 10 research universities in the world is worth aspiring to. Believe it or not, there are many people, some very close to the institution, who do not accept that premise. They”re perfectly happy with the University of Michigan being in the top 25 or the top 30. It”s not worth putting the resources into the institution for that purpose. So it”s not as easy as you might think, and I would say that”s the greatest challenge for the future administration, the future president. And I made that an absolute cornerstone of my time.
TMD: What are the other cornerstones?
LCB: I think a sense of decency and humanity in the institution. I don”t know how many cornerstones I have, using the metaphor I think a sense of preserving a kind of friendliness in the institution carried to all people from staff and throughout the institution, maintaining financial stability, soundness.
But the critical thing has been realizing that academic excellence is easy to say, hard to identify, and even harder to do. And not all institutions stay great. Berkeley and Stanford were not among the very top universities in the country 30 or 40 years ago. Today they”re stellar. They have worked very hard. Many people, including committed alums and friends of the institution devoted themselves to improving and making them worldclass institutions. We have that too. We need to enhance it and preserve it. I won”t name other institutions, but there are some other institutions that were among the very, very greatest and they”re not today. So we have no guarantee that 10, 20 years from now the University of Michigan will be known as one of the two greatest public universities in the country and among the top 10 research universities.
TMD: Is there anything else you would like to add?
LCB: I have really enjoyed the students, and I love teaching my class, and I have enjoyed just about every interaction with students. The student body at Michigan is through and through just lovable. There is something about the nature of the student at Michigan that I find unique and special. It”s reflected in the reciprocal loyalty the students have with the place. I”ve commented on it in the many speeches. I talked about it in my commencement speech last May. So I”m very, very thankful to have been part of that. The student body over the past five years, I hope is a reflection of student bodies to come.
TMD: I have one last question to ask you. What does the “C” stand for in your middle name?
LCB: Yeah, Carroll.
TMD: I”ve been wanting to ask you that for the past three years.
LCB: Oh, really? There it is. Yeah.
TMD: You made my day.