Columbia’s Lee Bollinger: minister without portfolio

By Laurie Bennett

October 19, 2009 at 11:38am

In seven years as president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger has quietly - and sometimes not so quietly - taken on a broader role as ambassador.

Bollinger sparked controversy in 2007 with his invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the New York City campus. His blunt introduction of Ahmadinejad brought more ripples.

In March, he traveled to China and to Jordan, where he met with Queen Rania Al Abdullah. The university has opened global centers in both countries and plans new centers in France and India.

Lee Bollinger
Lee Bollinger

Like many major universities, Columbia’s impact extends well beyond U.S. borders, not only with the new centers, but with its School of International and Public Affairs, its school of public health and its many language programs.

Two years ago, the university established a global health research center in Kazakhstan. In Ghana, it has collaborated with the Ministry of Agriculture and government health centers.

Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs launched a Global Fellows Program earlier this year, with the first group of fellows including former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

While many American college presidents have opened overseas satellites and started international programs, Bollinger’s non-academic duties are more numerous and high-powered than most.

He is vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a director of the Washington Post Co. and a trustee of the Committee for Economic Development. He also serves as a member of the Pulitzer Prize board and the Royal Shakespeare Company of Great Britain.

Before moving to the top job at Columbia in 2002, Bollinger was president of the University of Michigan and dean of the U-M Law School. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger and has written extensively about the First Amendment.

During this year’s commencement ceremony, he called for free speech across the globe. Here’s the video:

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