A popular shirt on campus sports a phrase that many members of the University community probably hope Lee Bollinger takes to heart. It”s not that students and faculty as well as the Board of Regents and many alumni throughout the state want the president to get a good laugh. No, considering recent events, many of Bollinger”s best friends and deepest admirers hope that the president has seen the shirt, and that he believes its message.
“Harvard, the Michigan of the East” the shirt simply states.
But with the president”s recent jet-set lifestyle between Ann Arbor and wherever the Harvard presidential search committee wants to meet next, it appears Lee C. may have a different take on the Harvard-Michigan relationship.
As everyone knows by now, Bollinger is widely believed to be the top candidate to assume the presidency at the country”s oldest and most prestigious university. From Cambridge to Ann Arbor, what was once a question of “Will he go?” now seems to be more a question of “When will he go?” Bollinger”s silence on the matter only adds to the mystery, especially when he remained silent when confronted by reporters from The Harvard Crimson outside a Manhattan hotel after completing a lengthy interview his third with the search committee. He says he”s “flattered” to be considered but that he”s happy here.
And while University of Michigan regents have said they hope the president doesn”t leave, many appear resigned to the fact that they need to add an agenda item to next month”s meeting: Find a chair for Michigan”s new search committee and appoint an interim president.
Bollinger would receive anything but a perfect score from students grading his performance in recent months the handling of the Michigamua office takeover and the signing of the new Nike contract come to mind but overall, Bollinger is well respected. And most members of the University community would agree, even those most annoyed by his recent behavior, that losing him would strike a huge blow to this university.
So the easy question is why is Bollinger pursuing this job? Why didn”t he give a polite thanks but no thanks when the interviews started heating up?
When Lee C. Bollinger accepted the job as Michigan”s 12th president in late 1996, he stopped short of calling it his dream job.
Now we know why. He said that this university was “his first love” and that “Ann Arbor is my home,” but he never pledged to stay for any period of time.
Many people have speculated about Bollinger”s long-term goals. Could the First Amendment scholar be aiming for a seat on the Supreme Court? Harvard would help there. Does Bollinger want to run for public office? A liberal like Bollinger would be embraced in Kennedy-land. Or does he want to simply stay in academia and preach to the masses about his pet issues: Maintenance of diversity in education, progression in science and improvement of undergraduate and graduate education? Toward that end, Harvard”s pulpit is unmatched in prestige.
It seems like a no-brainer if those are his goals.
Lee Bollinger, a man who has spearheaded the defense of affirmative action, facilitated the building of what will become the leading life sciences research center in the country and begun countless projects to enrich Michigan”s ties to history including the Arthur Miller Theater and Robert Frost House may up and leave for what many people say are greener pastures.
But are they greener?
Sure, the endowment is bigger. Sure, the history is longer. Sure, the tuition is higher. But what makes a presidency fulfilling? What makes a presidency challenging? What makes a presidency the best possible job in the country?
Isn”t it the possibility of changing perception, building character and growing your institution into the best it can possibly be?
The University of Michigan, if you ask John Q. Citizen, is not “better” than Harvard. But the last four years under Bollinger have shown that great advances are possible with the vast resources provided by a rich history, a huge research base, a loyal alumni network, and a dedicated leader.
It would be great to be the president of Harvard University. But it would be better to be the president of the University of Michigan who changed perceptions, built character and grew the school into the best university in the nation.
Maybe 10 years now, with Michigan firmly atop the academic community, Lee Bollinger will retire, and Harvard”s president will be flattered to be considered for Michigan”s presidency.
Only then will that t-shirt be taken seriously. Saying no to Harvard this time around would be a huge step in that direction.
Mike Spahn can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.