HEAD OF THE CLASS

Lee Bollinger has been a law-school professor, a dean and the head of one of the largest universities in the country. But right now, he's essentially a man without a campus. The 55-year-old First Amendment scholar is "in transition," no longer in residence at the President's House at the University of Michigan, but not yet moved into his new digs--a McKim, Mead & White mansion at Columbia University, where he will take over the top job this summer. As he sat for an interview last week in a wood-paneled room in Columbia's Low Library, Bollinger was surrounded by imposing portraits of prominent trustees. But he did not seem intimidated. Instead, he was thinking about his first encounter with the university.

It was the fall of 1968, and Bollinger had just married Jean Magnano, his University of Oregon classmate, and moved east for law school. Columbia was still reeling from antiwar protests that spring, when students had drawn international headlines for taking over the president's office in Low Library, just down the hall from the room where he now sat so many years later. "We came here very naive and with very little money and lived under terrible conditions," Bollinger recalls. But, he says, what he remembers most is the excitement he felt in the classroom--"the seriousness of intellectual and professional purpose that so powerfully affected me."

Thirty-three years later, in his second incarnation at Columbia, Bollinger has the task of making sure that all the university's students feel similarly transformed no matter what the distractions. It's a job that's never been more difficult--and not just at Columbia. "There are very few people in this country who are capable of running a major university," says Henry L. King, a former chairman of Columbia's Board of Trustees who led the search committee that picked Bollinger. In addition to being a recognized scholar (to win support from the faculty), a president has to be an academic visionary who is also able to win over politicians, potential donors, alumni and even students--all without alienating important members of these very diverse constituencies. The president must also oversee a huge annual budget (at Michigan, for example, it was $3.5 billion), making sure that there's enough money to keep the university on the leading edge of research while still providing scholarships and loans for disadvantaged students. On top of it all, King says, "the person has to have health and energy and stamina. No president in the course of his or her tenure is going to win them all. But they've got to come back the next day, raring to go."

Bollinger--who regularly runs four or five miles a day--convinced Columbia he was up for the job because of his career at Michigan, where he became nationally known for spearheading a legal defense of the university's affirmative- action policies. The case is expected to end up in the Supreme Court and could determine the fate of race-based admission around the country. Bollinger's outspoken advocacy of affirmative action has made him the role model for those who would like to see more college presidents speak out on social issues in the tradition of such august educators as James Bryant Conant, who ran Harvard University from 1933 to 1953 and then went on to help reform American high schools.

Although it's too soon to tell whether Bollinger will have the same impact at Columbia that he has had at Michigan, it is clear that he and other recently installed presidents could represent a new breed of visionary leaders who are more willing and able to take risky stands on issues they believe in than their predecessors were. Speaking out was difficult for much of the 1980s, when many in the academic world seemed engaged in the "culture wars" and alienated from the mainstream. The boom years of the 1990s were a period of rapid expansion for many institutions, and many presidents had to become more like CEOs than traditional academic leaders.

But there are signs that the mood could be changing again--especially at the most elite schools. When Bollinger takes office this summer, Columbia will become the fourth Ivy League school to name a new chief executive in the last year. Former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers is plowing through a confrontational first year at Harvard, where he has taken on grade inflation but has also had an embarrassingly public run-in with members of the university's African-American studies department. At the same time, Brown's Ruth Simmons, the first African-American to head an Ivy League school, has already made her mark by pushing for more students from low-income backgrounds. And Princeton's new president, Shirley Tilghman, stands out because she's not only the university's first woman president but also a respected molecular biologist at a time when many educators are looking for ways to get more female students interested in science.

As they all settle into their jobs, two other highly visible presidents have already begun shaping the national debate over one of higher education's thorniest issues: the increasingly frenzied admissions game. The timing is no accident. The nation's colleges are poring through millions of applications from the children of the "baby boomlet" of the mid-1980s--who have now grown up to form a record number of high-school students. University of California president Richard Atkinson ignited a national debate by proposing to replace the SAT I, which is supposed to measure "reasoning skills," with standardized exams like the SAT IIs, which are designed to test a student's knowledge of a specific subject. Then Yale president Richard Levin called for the curtailment of early-decision policies, which lock students in to one school in return for what many students believe are slightly better chances of getting in.

As he gets ready to take over Columbia, Bollinger sees a connection between the debates over affirmative action, the SATs and early decision. What all these issues revolve around, he says, is access to higher education at a time when a college degree has become more critical than ever. "There are more people trying to get in," he says, "more sectors of society trying to get in, more women, more underrepresented minorities. It is more democratic in that sense, but it also means there is more pressure." The race to get into the most selective schools, like Columbia, has become particularly intense in recent years. A degree from a top school, Bollinger says, "becomes a kind of status, a commodity. You can buy a lot of things that will help your status, but one of the things you can't buy is the college you attend. It matters in that world of status for the rest of your life." Bollinger says top colleges need to play a role in defusing some of that pressure by changing "the tone of how we talk about the ad-missions process"--making it less about numbers and rankings and more about the real quality of education. "I think the debate about the SATs is healthy," he says, "because it forces us to come to terms with what is happening."

Affirmative action is an equally important prism for evaluating the state of higher education, Bollinger says. In the early '90s, courts and state legislatures seemed to be moving rapidly to eliminate any mention of race. "This was like a tidal wave sweeping the country," Bollinger says. "To the surprise and shock of most people in higher education, it looked like this was going to succeed. They had captured the language of civil rights."

But when Michigan faced its own legal challenges from unsuccessful white applicants, Bollinger believed the time had come to make a stand. A diverse campus is a critical element of a quality education, he says, because college is most students' first opportunity to interact with people from different races and ethnic backgrounds. Bollinger said he worked hard to get the support of everyone on Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, the higher-education community in general and even business leaders. He also enlisted the aid of former president Gerald Ford (a Michigan alum) and Colin Powell. The case is moving on even without Bollinger's leadership; after an appeals-court ruling expected sometime in the next few weeks, it could get to the Supreme Court next fall. Bollinger "deserves the credit for fighting the good fight," says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, the membership organization of college presidents. "He had the combination of his own legal wisdom and a case which in my view was the best case at the time to defend affirmative action."

Bollinger says he hasn't picked any issues yet for his agenda at Columbia, but he says that the university's location in the nation's cultural capital could be a source of inspiration. His wife, Jean, is an artist who helped found a museum in Ann Arbor, and both Bollingers are avid museumgoers. Lee Bollinger is also on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company and helped bring the group to Ann Arbor as artists-in-residence. He's currently working on a book about the role of public cultural institutions like museums and universities. He's also been thinking a lot about how academic disciplines are defined and whether new boundaries need to be drawn, especially in areas that represent the cutting edge of science, like genetics. At the same time, he remains a firm believer in Columbia's famous "core curriculum," which requires all students to take a required set of courses in such areas as the humanities and sciences.

But while he tries to find his way around the campus that has changed so much in the last 33 years, Bollinger knows one place where he'll definitely still feel right at home: in the classroom. Just as he did at Michigan, he'll teach an undergraduate course on freedom of speech and the press. "It's extremely important for a university president to be connected in a meaningful way to the youngest people on your campus," he says. "I love teaching, and I love students." Opening minds is still his most important mission--even if it's only one at a time.

Changing of the Guard