Standing just to the right of the podium yesterday in the Clements Library before the ceremony honoring President Lee Bollinger, I imagined that the whole event would feel like something I had seen before.
I figured, only half jokingly, that as friends and colleagues stepped to the microphone during the University”s official send-off for its 12th chief, they would shower Bollinger and his wife Jean with gifts and praise the way pro sports teams do the same when an aged hero announces his retirement. If you can conjure up images of the farewell tour of Laker-great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a little over a decade ago, and if you can imagine old Kareem clutching his framed jersey or gushing over his new Rolls-Royce while grinning for the flashbulbs, then you”re not too far off from what I expected to see except without the jersey or the Rolls.
As the event began it became clear to me that this was more than a ceremonial send-off. The more I watched and the more I listened the more I came to realize that the Kareem comparisons started and ended with the gifts and warm words. With apologies to Abdul-Jabbar, the University did not assemble last night to pay tribute to a hobbled veteran before they put him out to pasture, nor did they memorialize a man whose greatest work is behind him. Last night members of the University community simply gathered to say thanks to a leader who”ll leave later this month at the height of his game, with his star shining brighter than ever.
Yesterday”s event made me wonder in the vain of the familiar phrase, if we had realized what we had before we lost it. What did we really think last December when The New Yorker said, “If you were called upon to invent a perfect university president, you couldn”t do better than Lee Bollinger.”
The trustees at Columbia University certainly wouldn”t dispute that claim and neither would anyone who gathered yesterday to pay tribute a man whose impacts at Michigan are difficult to judge just yet amidst the glare of his achievement.
Later last night, after Bollinger had shaken the last hand and smiled for the last farewell photo, I strolled through the first floor of the Union along the corridor where the ghosts of presidential past are immortalized in black and white photographs. Just below the portrait hung yesterday of Bollinger, a plaque rests in which his four years as president are summed up in a few sentences that describe a series of big initiatives that were begun under his watch. His time is marked by his projects and his tenure is etched in a metal plate as if his work has been completed already. His brief bio speaks of tasks just barely conceived from which his legacy will be completed some day.
But where does that leave us now as we struggle to add meaning to what Bollinger”s loss signals?
As I considered Bollinger”s plaque and the seeming need to have it completed before he ends his tenure here on Dec. 31, I wondered what it might say if I wrote it. I doubt that it would mention just the enormity of the Life Science Institute currently being constructed, or only the importance of the forthcoming Arthur Miller Theatre project. Rather, I”m sure I would talk about the morning last week when I watched Bollinger nearly drive off Thompson Street while waving at grounds workers who shook their heads as they waved back. Or I”d discuss the professionalism with which he treated the Daily, or the giddy stories passed like legend from students who were on South University on a chilly night in 1997 when the new president opened his house to a throng of frenzied Wolverines whose football team had just clinched a No. 1 ranking. I”d also describe the way he opened his home and talked with my friends and me on a sad Sunday in September.
My version of the plaque probably wouldn”t capture the grandiose scope of Bollinger”s term or the vision and fortitude that made him memorable. But my plaque would capture what makes him unforgettable his charisma, sincerity and passion.
Years from now when a clearer picture of his impact emerges in the shape of buildings and programs and successful projects, that plaque will mean more and history will treat Bollinger with the same type of warmth and fondness he”s shown the University.
Geoffrey Gagnon can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.