Did Lee Bollinger Abandon Commitment To Columbia’s Culture?

When Lee C. Bollinger took over the helm of Columbia University in 2002, he promised to be a patron of the arts, insisting that culture must be a fundamental element in university life—even in a city already brimming with it.

He hired Tony Award winner Gregory Mosher to run a program called University Arts Initiatives, which has staged large-scale theatrical productions and recently launched a Web site designed to inform students about the city’s arts scene. Meanwhile, the university’s Miller Theater has emerged as a leading venue for contemporary music, and just last week Mr. Bollinger named a former Museum of Modern Art executive, Jamie Bennett, as his chief of staff.

If that sounds as though Mr. Bollinger is living up to his commitment, critics beg to differ. They are upset over his absence from a conference on campus last May dealing with the role of art and arts research in the city’s development plans. The conference ­attracted an assortment of the city’s cultural overlords, including Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate D. Levin, Wallace Foundation president Christine DeVita, and Americans for the Arts director Robert Lynch. Mr. Bollinger’s absence was duly noted.

“Anybody involved in policy research about arts and culture was there that day,” said Douglas McLennan, founder of the Web site ArtsJournal.com and a board member of the university’s National Arts Journalism Program (NAJP), which organized the conference.

On its face, NAJP is an esoteric program for mid-career art reviewers on fellowship. But in a market where some say (without irony) that an M.F.A. is the new M.B.A., and where a growing number of universities, including Mr. Bollinger’s direct competitors like Yale and Princeton, are enticing prospective students with expanded arts programs, NAJP took on an importance far beyond its core programming. It became a major arts-policy think tank for the city’s cultural elites.

At the May conference, Dana Gioia, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, joined foundation presidents, culture-policy wonks and Mr. Mosher to gush over the program’s work.

Mr. McLennan accepted their thanks with unexpected dismay.

“Yeah, it’s really great, but this is in fact the NAJP’s last act,” he said.

Just days before the conference, Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, where the NAJP resided, pulled the plug on the program. He cited a lack of funding after the Pew Charitable Trusts pulled its $4.5 million grant a year before.

Angry board members counter that they had raised enough money to keep the program afloat, and that Mr. Lemann axed it to make room for his own master’s program focusing on the arts.

And what did Mr. Bollinger have to say about the dispute?

“As far as I know, Bollinger was unaware that it was being closed down until the deed had been done,” said Mr. McLennan, echoing the sentiment of other board members who asked to remain anonymous. “He was a nonentity.”

Mr. Bollinger declined to comment, but Mr. Lemann said the decision was made without the president’s input.

“I never had the conversation with Bollinger,” Mr. Lemann said, explaining that he and the university’s provost, Alan Brinkley, made the decision to pull the plug on NAJP.

The abrupt closure of the program not only seemed to contradict Mr. Bollinger’s professed commitment to the arts, but, critics said, it was simply bad business.

Creative, artsy types in advertising, media and fashion have become ever more important to the city’s economy as it tries to end its traditional dependence on finance, insurance and real estate. An increasing number of tuition-paying students, eager to break into those sectors, are seeking arts credentials bestowed by top institutions like Columbia.

But then, Mr. Bollinger hasn’t had an easy time of it since taking over at Columbia.

A noted First Amendment scholar, Mr. Bollinger was brought in from the University of Michigan partly for his managerial skills. Since his installation, he has grappled with charges of anti-Semitism against his Middle Eastern studies department, negotiated with striking graduate students, and faced the taxing and vastly ambitious expansion into a new campus in Morningside Heights. That “Manhattanville” project is expected to cost $4.6 billion, take 25 years to complete and transform the Harlem landscape into an extension of the Columbia campus.

The hiring of Mr. Bollinger, whose high-profile defense of affirmative action at Ann Arbor made him a liberal hero and a conservative pariah, was seen as an attempt to install a sort of anti–Grayson Kirk, the embattled president who had strained relations with the surrounding neighborhood and students in the 1960’s. Instead, supporters believed that Mr. Bollinger would help improve relations with local black leaders, who have historically bristled at Columbia’s attempts to expand.

But Columbia and the community have different visions for what the future should look like.

On Oct. 17, the staff at the Department of City Planning reviewed differences between the community’s wishes and Columbia’s expansion plan. “We urged the parties to enter into a good-faith dialogue to find common ground,” said Rachaele Raynoff, a spokeswoman for the department.

With Mr. Bollinger focusing on all of those tasks and ambitions—even while he meets with the likes of Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama and Kofi Annan—it’s easy to see how the NAJP controversy may have slipped below the radar. Still, critics note that there is a disconnect between killing the NAJP and the university’s plans to build new facilities for the arts as part of its expansion. Some buildings will contain studio and rehearsal spaces to relieve the stately but suffering Dodge Building, the current home of the School of the Arts.

Part of the NAJP’s work was in cultural policy, providing research to public and private institutions to help them plan for arts-development projects.

“An important connection between the university and that aspect of the country’s cultural life was cut,” said Randall Bourscheidt, president of Alliance for the Arts. “It also meant the loss of a partner in convening these forums.”

“It is a significant absence, and one that doesn’t help the city in understanding and supporting cultural activity. No one’s doing it now,” said D. Carroll Joynes, the executive director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago. “The university didn’t step up to the plate.”

Or, as the defunct program’s board members have it, Mr. Lemann took advantage of the confusion to get rid of a rival.

The professorial and bespectacled magazine writer wrote a highly positive story about Mr. Bollinger in The New Yorker in 2000. “If you were called upon to invent a perfect university president, you couldn’t do better than Lee Bollinger,” Mr. Lemann wrote. After the piece appeared, Mr. Lemann was brought on board and granted a broad mandate to overhaul the J-school. He set a spring 2005 deadline for NAJP members to come up with the approximately $600,000 needed to keep the program going.

According to Mr. McLennan, about 90 percent of the program’s alumni responded to a letter asking for help and assuring them that their money would be refunded if the rescue effort failed. Those donations totaled about $25,000. An aggressive fund-raising campaign lead by the program’s director, András Szántó, found another $500,000 from private foundations, about $100,000 short of the goal. Board members say Mr. Lemann responded by reprimanding them for raising money, reminding them that they were an advisory, not fiduciary, body. He then noted that the members hadn’t raised enough money to cover administrative costs, so he closed the program.

“There was disappointment and a little bit of anger. The total was close to a million dollars from additional grants that we heard about later,” said Mr. McLennan. “Lemann has ever since claimed that the program was closed for money. The fact is that there was enough money without having Columbia need to put the money up.”

The university sent a letter to the alumni donors months later, thanking them for their donations, which, they were told, went toward the costs of closing the NAJP.

Mr. Lemann counters that he never discouraged the board from raising money and actually went to extraordinary measures to keep the 11-year-old program alive, including lengthy discussions with the board and the Pew and even using money from his discretionary fund.

“What I wanted was to take the money that we had in hand and just size the program down to the amount of money we have available,” said Mr. Lemann, adding that the program’s director refused, despite the fact that it was highly unlikely they could have raised the money in perpetuity. “I feel somewhat annoyed that my reward was them saying I shut the program down.”

Mr. Lemann said that his new master’s program shows that the university is advancing, not retreating, from the arts.

“If we can have, on the side, a policy think tank—it’s nice, but it’s not our core mission,” he said. “If you can’t raise the money, I’ll shut you down.”

Is There a Need?

Some people question whether programs like the NAJP are necessary in a city like New York, where the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, holds dinners with wealthy friends to convince them to give to struggling cultural organizations.

Frédéric Martel, a French expert on culture policy, said that to a certain extent, private philanthropy in the United States performs the role of Europe’s ministries of culture, because, in part, private foundations decide what gets built.

“The great advantage of the United States is that you can have hundreds of cultural policies,” said Mr. Martel.

But other experts said that research is still necessary to allow decision makers—whether in the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs or at the Ford Foundation—to come to informed conclusions.

“What the NAJP was able to do was put the dialogue on the public radar,” said Robin Keegan, the deputy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank. “Now there is no group that is really facilitating that type of dialogue, bringing the arts community together. There is definitely a void by that group not being around.”

Other institutions are trying to pick up the slack. About 30 students and teachers holding wet umbrellas sat in a New York University auditorium on Oct. 14, listening to Randy Martin, an associate dean and professor of art and public policy at N.Y.U., discuss how “creativity is now the insignia of entrepreneurialism.”

He said that the lack of coordination in cultural policy at all levels of government means that “it falls to institutions, in particular universities, to set cultural policy.”

“Once we had N.Y.U. president John Sexton and Lee Bollinger from Columbia here, and the hope was they would duke it out to see who could put the most cash on the table for the arts,” Mr. Martin told the crowd. “But they didn’t do that. They are a little bit wiser than that.”

One Columbia student understood that money was always going to be tight for the arts, but wondered how Mr. Bollinger could claim to be its champion.

“If he was the arts president, he’d be coming to the arts events,” said Julian Robinson, a 25-year-old graduate student in film. “I’ve never really known him to come around here.”