NEW YORK — When Columbia University picked Lee Bollinger last month to be its new president, part of the appeal may have been that beneath his gentle voice and unassuming manner lies a powerful legal counterpuncher.
Mr. Bollinger is not a vociferous F. Lee Bailey-style defense attorney. The outgoing president of the University of Michigan is a First Amendment legal scholar.
Yet in choosing Bollinger, Columbia's trustees selected someone who not only cares deeply about undergraduate learning but has a track record of going to the mat to defend principles he believes undergird higher education, observers say.
During his four years leading the University of Michigan, Bollinger has fought an expensive and highly public court battle to defend affirmative action in college admissions, which is under attack by conservative legal advocates.
Now, as he prepares to take the helm at Columbia, his fight to keep from losing ethnic and racial diversity on campus is still a high priority - along with how universities allocate their resources and nurture undergraduate learning.
"This principle [of affirmative action] is a deep part of the educational philosophy of American higher education," Bollinger says in an interview in his Spartan transitional office at Columbia. "Without the diversity it provides, the character and the quality of our great public universities would decline."
Not all agree. White applicants cited Bollinger and the university as defendants in two reverse-discrimination lawsuits in 1997. Minorities who scored lower than they did on tests were admitted, the plaintiffs contend. Arguments will be heard by the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in December. If accepted for a hearing by the US Supreme Court, the Michigan cases would become the first such test of the issue since 1978.
"This is not just one university president's fight," Bollinger says. "All of higher education has something to lose." He points to big drops in minority admission at Boalt Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, where state laws prohibit race-based admission.
A one-time dean of the university's law school, and many years before that a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, Bollinger began building the school's defense months before the suits were filed. He has continued as the driving force behind what some say may be higher education's best shot to keep "race conscious" admissions.
In a sense, his move to Columbia is a return home: After getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon, he graduated from Columbia Law School. Moving back to New York "was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. It is also a chance to reconnect with a school where his family has many ties: his wife, Jean, has a master's degree from the school, and his daughter, Carey, is currently studying at the law school. (His son, Lee, is a graduate of University of Michigan Law School.)
Now, Bollinger's thoughts are moving on to a range of challenges facing higher education. What he will confront, he says, are subtle, corrosive problems that go directly to the substance of a university education. Drinking on campus, tuition increases, and other hot-button issues are not the central long-term threats.
Across the US, every major research university can point to hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the sciences. It's easy to get swept up in hiring top scientists and dumping dollars on equipment. Meanwhile, English departments and the rest of the humanities languish.
"What is happening to classics, to literary criticism, to poetry?" he asks. "Are we making the right choices in the allocation of resources?"
Even though Bollinger himself has spearheaded huge investments in life sciences at the University of Michigan, he is wary about the implications. His perspective is that of a self-styled Renaissance man. He rereads Shakespearian works like "Richard III" for new meaning, and was a competitive sprinter until five years ago.
"How will we succeed or fail in educating people both with our faculty and our students, in the various areas of knowledge? This goes right to the core of what we're supposed to be about - broadly understanding the world."
Bollinger worries that the "lack of integration of knowledge" is a pitfall for society.
"The fact that we educate people and they know little or nothing about astrophysics, or quantum mechanics, or have no basic ideas of biology - or that there are scientists who know very little about Virginia Woolf or Robert Frost - is a profound failure on our part," he says.
Opening the disciplines for a cross-fertilization of learning would help. Just deepening knowledge within a major doesn't necessarily broaden the minds of undergraduates - or of faculty. Strong core curricula that require learning across disciplines - something Columbia has but many have dropped - would give undergraduates the underpinnings they need, he suggests.
Perhaps his greatest concern, however, is that universities not become preoccupied with the research side of their mission to the detriment of undergraduate education. There is, he says, "a quality of caring about student learning, that cannot be feigned but which some are letting go.
"It's not just a matter of a university faculty and administration saying it is 'our responsibility' or 'our duty' to provide an education and all that goes with it," Bollinger says. "It must arise naturally from the desires of the place. Encouraging that and keeping that deep upwelling going is the next major challenge."