President Lee Bollinger called the University his “first love” when he was hired.
These days though, its no secret that despite his love for the University, different challenges may be in Bollinger”s future as speculation surrounding his candidacy for the Columbia University presidency has been renewed.
A report that surfaced in the Columbia Spectator tells of sources close to the search process confirming that the sought-after president has met twice with Columbia”s presidential search committee. The meetings are reported to have occurred in one instance on a date when Bollinger was confirmed to have been in New York and in another case on a day when his whereabouts were unconfirmed.
The speculation is poised to start a guessing game rife with unnamed sources, secret conversations and blurry black and white photos, a drama complete with old Ivy prestige and academic ambition the type of thing that”s not been seen since last spring.
When Harvard whittled its list of the powerful and elite from a collection of names that included Al Gore to a select group of potential presidents last winter, followers here in Ann Arbor were delighted to see Bollinger included among the roster. But as the search proceeded behind closed doors, speculation and anticipation boiled over in an orgy of rumors and stories that played out in the media and the classroom alike.
With the Harvard search in progress, ordinarily big news in Ann Arbor was met with a somewhat dulled sense of importance. Despite a basketball coach on the chopping block, the multi-million dollar Life Science Initiative beginning to take shape and the admissions lawsuits barreling to the front of public consciousness, the campus found itself wrapped up in the whispers that came from Cambridge boardrooms. With new challenges and initiatives here in Ann Arbor, we watched reporters track our president from secret meetings in New York.
It was tough not to feel in some way like the guy who watches his prom date scan the room for a better dance partner. But it was also easy to understand that this was Harvard we were talking about here. Harvard the Michigan of the East after all, as John F. Kennedy put it during his address from the Union steps in 1960.
And so when Bollinger was passed over, the campus breathed a sigh of relief not only for the news that we were keeping Bollinger, but for finally being through with the rumors and questions. But even as Bollinger reaffirmed his commitment to Michigan, keen observers with an eye on Columbia prepped us for the moment we meet now.
And it”s no surprise that those observers tell us what we already know: That the thing Bollinger couldn”t bring to Harvard namely a crimson credential he more than supplies in this situation as he and his wife are both alums and their daughter is currently attending law school there. It”s no secret that Bollinger would be a great fit at Columbia we knew these things even before Bollinger arrived here. In seemingly prophetic tones, Regent Laurence Dietch told The Michigan Daily what he thought of Bollinger in 1996: “If we do not hire him, he will eventually be the president of Berkeley or Dartmouth or Harvard.”
What”s clear is that Bollinger is not scouring the want ads looking for a jobs and a ticket out of Ann Arbor. So in some ways it”s unfortunate that of the handful of bona fide contenders that could draw Bollinger from Ann Arbor, the two biggest in everybody”s mind Harvard and Columbia come knocking virtually at once.
If we learned anything from the spectator event that developed last spring, we know that this process must be quick, it mustn”t distract from the work being done at either school and it must be as public in nature as possible.
The Columbia Spectator hinted in yesterday”s issue that the search committee may have accelerated its process or has already made a decision and is waiting to announce it. In either case, the committee and Bollinger should look to last spring”s very public, very prolonged search that did little more for Michigan than cast a cloud of questions over a campus very weary of a possible leadership void.
These days the stakes may be even higher. The admissions lawsuits head to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a few weeks and the vacancy left by departed Provost Nancy Cantor at the University”s number two position both serve as ominous reminders that we now need leadership and resolution not questions, rumors and a lingering debate.
Geoffrey Gagnon can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.