High-Profile Resignations Shake Up Columbia University

Some question President Lee C. Bollinger's ability to retain diverse leaders.

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Provost Claude M. Steele resigned from Columbia recently. (Google)

Alan Schwarz of the New York Times is reporting that 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 and 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 also 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."

June Cross, an associate professor at the university's Graduate School of Journalism, 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?"

President Bollinger, who built a national reputation on defendng affirmative action cases at the University of Michigan and has brought more minority students and faculty members to Columbia's campus in Morningside Heights, disagrees. "While some may perceive an issue of diversity involved here in both resignations, I'm confident that that's not ... the explanation; nor is it in any way a reflection of the institution's commitment to diversity," he said. "It's certainly not mine, in any event."

Moody-Adams declined to discuss her resignation or her colleagues' responses. Steele said that the questions about racial implications were a "rational reaction" but, at least in his particular case, misplaced.

Bollinger's national reputation for acting on behalf of diversity is well-earned but does not necessarily mean he hasn't erred in these matters. Some would argue that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck, then it must be a duck.

Whatever the case, perception is sometimes reality, and Bollinger will have to address the fact that some are questioning his ability to retain diverse leaders in his administration. Another high-profile resignation or tiff will not reflect too well on him or the university.

Read more at the New York Times.

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