There is suddenly a long Help Wanted list for university presidents. In the last two days, the leaders of Columbia, Howard and New York universities have announced that they are stepping down.
Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University for the past 21 years, will depart at the end of the next academic year.
Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, a surgeon trained at Howard who began as interim president in 2013, will leave in 2024.
The president of New York University, Andrew Hamilton, will step down next year in his eighth year on the job. Dr. Hamilton boasted that in his tenure, N.Y.U.’s medical school had become the first in the nation to be tuition free.
But he also hinted at how hard the last two years have been. “The challenges presented by Covid-19 were the most difficult I have seen in my 40-year career in higher education and, I suspect, the worst faced by N.Y.U. since its financial crisis of the 1970s,” Dr. Hamilton, 70, said in the announcement.
At yet another highly ranked university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the president, L. Rafael Reif, announced in February that he plans to step down at the end of this year, after more than a decade at the helm of the science-oriented school.
Dr. Frederick, 50, took over Howard as the university and the hospital, both located in Washington, were operating with deficits.
Recent Issues on America’s College Campuses
- Admissions: The Supreme Court will decide whether two race-conscious admissions programs are lawful, raising serious doubts about the future of affirmative action.
- Hiring: Outrage ensued after U.C.L.A. posted an adjunct position that offered no pay. Turns out, the school is not unique.
- Tuition: After a plan for free community college failed to gain traction in Congress, New Mexico is taking the lead in the tuition-free movement.
- Rankings: A professor challenged Columbia’s No. 2 spot in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, renewing the debate over the value and accuracy of such lists.
Dr. Frederick oversaw the university as its retention and graduation rates rose. It increased financial aid to first-time students and improved its rankings. The university’s endowment reached more than a billion dollars. But he also endured votes of no confidence by the faculty, and a financial aid scandal. Student protests over financial aid, tuition costs and conditions in student housing also continue.
In recent years, the historically Black university attracted prominent thinkers and scholars to lead its programs, including Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times reporter behind the 1619 project; Ta-Nehisi Coates, the novelist and journalist known for his coverage of race; and the actress Phylicia Rashad, who is the dean of the fine arts school.
Mr. Bollinger, who will turn 76 this month, led Columbia to a 17-acre expansion north of 125th Street in Harlem, an area known as Manhattanville. It is now the site of towering new glass buildings housing centers for science, the arts and business.
In the announcement of Mr. Bollinger’s pending departure, Columbia said it had worked with communities surrounding the new campus “to support priorities like housing and education and to build alliances that are creating vital bonds with our neighbors and defining a new era of collaboration and progress.”
However, those sentiments hide a more contentious reality. At first, the expansion threatened to become a new chapter in Columbia’s long history of friction with the surrounding Harlem neighborhood in a town and gown conflict between the privileged world of academia and the often forgotten world of the poorer neighborhood around it.
A spokeswoman for Columbia, Victoria Benitez, said the university had tried to address community concerns by helping businesses to relocate or preserving them, stepping up resources for local youth and building affordable housing for residents in the affected area.
Keith Wright, a state assemblyman from Harlem for 44 years, was intimately involved in negotiating with Columbia over the expansion, which Harlem residents feared would displace them and local businesses. Mr. Wright, now a consultant, recalled that negotiators had spent almost 24 hours locked in a room before they came out with an agreement over the project.
The goal of community leaders, Mr. Wright said on Thursday, was “to create a pipeline so Columbia University can be accessible to folks down in the valley.”
“I think we got a lot of community giveback,” he added.
Mr. Bollinger also attracted attention in 2007 by inviting the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to speak at Columbia and then attacking Mr. Ahmadinejad’s record as he sat nearby. At least one professor at Columbia accused Mr. Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, of inappropriately dabbling in politics.
Mr. Bollinger was a prominent figure in two pivotal affirmative action admissions cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, as president of the University of Michigan before he arrived at Columbia.
In Grutter, the 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found that the law school’s process passed constitutional muster because it was highly individualized to achieve a diverse student body. But in Gratz, the Supreme Court found that a points system used in undergraduate admissions was too formulaic.
The principles enunciated in Grutter are now under review in two cases the Supreme Court has agreed to hear, at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, in which an anti-affirmative action activist group, Students for Fair Admissions, is challenging race-conscious admissions.
After the Grutter decision, Mr. Bollinger continued to be an ardent defender of the principles of affirmative action and was often quoted as an expert on the subject.
In a letter to the campus community announcing that he would step down on June 30, 2023, Mr. Bollinger called the presidency of Columbia, “a defining experience of my life.” He said he was “thrilled” to return to being a law professor full-time.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.