Low Plaza

Provost Cole to Return to Research and Teaching; Effort to Recruit Brightest Minds Dominated His 13-Year Tenure

By Suzanne Trimel

Dr. Jonathan R. Cole

Dr. Jonathan R. Cole, a social scientist who has been Provost of Columbia University since 1989, announced on May 9 his intention to step down from the post to return to research and teaching. He will continue as the University's chief academic officer through the next academic year to allow a smooth transition in the new administration of President-elect Lee C. Bollinger, who takes office on June 1.

"Although Lee Bollinger and David Stern, Chairman of the University Trustees, have asked me to remain as Provost and Dean of Faculties, I have decided that after 13 years it is time for me to return to teaching and research, to new projects and to the many that have remained in limbo since 1989," Cole wrote in a letter to the Columbia faculty and administrative staff. "Lee has asked me and I have agreed to stay on for up to a year to help him during this period of transition."

Cole, who was a key player in Columbia's academic transformation during the 1990s, will have served three presidents as second in command of his alma mater and will have served longer than any other Provost except William H. Carpenter, whose tenure lasted 15 years, from 1912 to 1927. Columbia has been his academic home for 42 years, since he entered Columbia College as an undergraduate. As a sociologist of science on the Columbia faculty, he explored the nature of quality in scientific research and discovery. As a Columbia administrator, he has been devoted to improving the quality of the University's faculty, students, scholarship and programs in its 15 schools.

"Columbia's position among the small number of preeminent private universities must be a source of pride and pleasure for all of us," said Cole. "It has great quality and a heightened sense of its excellence. Yet, Columbia has potential for far more growth, excellence and true distinction than any other of the great research universities. Having gotten to know Lee Bollinger over the past few months, I have no doubt that he will lead Columbia to those still more elevated heights."

Cole's achievements were praised by Columbia trustees, presidents and faculty and by academic leaders at other top universities.

David Stern, Chairman of the Trustees, said: "Jonathan has been a central figure in Columbia's continuing growth in scholarship and teaching, as well as its renaissance in the Health Sciences. His intellectual drive, strategic thinking and implementation skills have kept Columbia at the forefront of cutting-edge research as well as superior undergraduate and graduate education. Columbia is greatly indebted to Jonathan for all he has contributed and fortunate to retain both his academic energies and his enduring commitment to the institution."

Bollinger, who will become the nineteenth President of Columbia on June 1, said in a letter to faculty and administrative staff that he had hoped that Cole would continue to serve as Provost in his administration but he added, "I understand and respect his personal decision to step down after 13 years of distinguished service. I am also deeply appreciative of his willingness to stay on and help me through a transitional period. For all the time I have been in academic administration, I have been aware of what Jonathan was accomplishing at Columbia. It is, by any measure, a stellar record of achievement and devotion to the University. We are all fortunate that he is committed to remaining at Columbia."

George Rupp, who is serving the final weeks of his nine-year tenure as president of Columbia, said: "Jonathan Cole has served his alma mater extremely effectively and loyally as a faculty member and academic leader for more than 30 years. I personally am enormously thankful for his impressive creativity and remarkable productivity over the past nine years. On behalf of the University as a whole, I also express the deepest gratitude for all that he has given to Columbia and I look forward to the prospect of his further contributions in the years ahead."

Michael I. Sovern, who preceeded Rupp as president, said: "Jon Cole is one of the best things to have happened to Columbia. A distinguished scholar and teacher, he selflessly put aside his own work to serve the University. As Provost, he was a major contributor to Columbia's great renaissance -- first during my time as president and then during George Rupp's. He has earned the grateful thanks of all Columbians."

University Professor Emeritus Robert K. Merton, the distinguished social scientist who was a mentor to Cole when he was a doctoral student and colleague on the faculty, said: "Jonathan Cole has been a truly indispensable Provost these past 13 years, seeing to it that Columbia's faculties, students and academic programs have gotten consistently better and better in both hard times and good. Would that he could have stayed on indefinitely but he has more than paid his dues to the institution he has cherished ever since his student days in Columbia College."

Edward Said, the literary theorist and University Professor, said: "Jonathan Cole's tenure as Provost has rendered our university an immense service. His high academic standards, his unfailing dedication to the principles of excellence, academic freedom and to the University's best interests have been exemplary in every sense. His departure greatly saddens me."

Simon Schama, the historian and University Professor, said: "Ever since I've been at Columbia for nearly 10 years I've known that we've had a hero in the Provost's office, both supportive of the faculty's core duties in scholarship and teaching and exhilaratingly open to the new possibilities of instruction in the digital age. Never one to sit on the laurels of a great university, Jonathan has always endeavored to give ever more energy and relevance to Columbia as a powerhouse of ideas in the new century."

Higher education leaders outside Columbia praised Cole's leadership and dedication to the values and ideals of academia. Judith Rodin, President of the University of Pennsylvania, described Cole as a "wise and experienced" administrator, saying "I have valued his advice and wisdom over the years."

William G. Bowen, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former President of Princeton University, said: "I am sure that I speak for many outside Columbia in expressing my admiration for the exceptional leadership Jonathan Cole has provided during his tenure as Provost. His breadth of perspective, his values and his steadiness have made him an exemplary colleague."

Alison Richard, Provost of Yale University, said: "In my book, Jonathan Cole is the Provost of Provosts. He has had a vision for collaboration with other universities and has shown extraordinary leadership at his own institution. His tenure at Columbia has been hugely important to the goals of higher education."

As second in command in the administrative hierarchy, Cole led many initiatives that have enhanced research and teaching in all of the University's 15 schools and built new programs and provided academic and other support that attracted new faculty at the cutting-edge of research.

His own early research that explored quality versus quantity in scientific recognition and research discoveries inspired him to focus as a university administrator on raising standards of excellence among faculty and students and enhancing the quality of research and campus life.

As Vice President for Arts and Sciences from 1987 to 1989 and then as Provost, Cole collaborated with other administrators and deans to reform the budget process, strengthen tenure review and make strategic investments in departments and multi-disciplinary programs that had competitive advantages because of Columbia's location in New York. These achievements were instrumental in raising the quality of Columbia's core faculty and programs. His goals were based on the recognition that improvements in the quality of life for faculty and students would lead to the recruitment and retention of the most talented minds to Columbia.

One of his most significant achievements has been his collaborations with the leaders of the health sciences to stimulate growth in research and the recruitment and retention of world-class faculty to the basic and clinical health sciences departments at the Washington Heights campus. He was instrumental in initiating the Audubon Research Park to advance basic research and biotechnology transfer at Columbia.

Cole noted that during his tenure as provost, he recommended final decisions on 600 tenure reviews, about half of the current tenured faculty. "Attempting to read everything I was capable of understanding (I fell a little short on string theory), constituted in itself a wonderful and unique post-doctoral education for me," he noted.

Cole earned both the B.A. in 1964 and the Ph.D. in 1969 at Columbia, and was a member of the faculty before he became Provost. He holds the John Mitchell Mason Professorship of the University. A sociologist, his scholarship has examined the social organization and structure of science, the growth of scientific knowledge, the treatment of women in science, issues of fairness and justice in the reward system of science, the peer review system for allocating scientific resources, and the relationship between uses and abuses of scientific evidence. In recent years he has written about aspects of higher education and the problems of scientific and technological literacy in the United States.

As provost, Cole led 100 faculty and administrators in the creation of a strategic plan in 1991 that fortuitously was consistent with the university goals adopted two years later when George Rupp became president. The plan has led to widely recognized improvements in the strength of Columbia's research, teaching and academic programs. Most notably, the quality of the undergraduate experience has been strengthened, raising the stature and selectivity of Columbia College, while support for graduate education and the professional schools, through the recruitment of first-rank scholars and the expansion of interdisciplinary programs, has been enhanced.

The recruitment of world-class scholars to Columbia's faculty and the rejuvenation of many academic departments have been hallmarks of Cole's tenure. Cole has been a leader nationwide in developing policies for research universities on the ownership of intellectual property; he created a structure at Columbia in this area that produced revenues of more than $150 million this year.

He recognized that unless Columbia improved the quality of faculty life and made New York -- increasingly attractive to talented scholars -- affordable in terms of both housing and the schooling of young children, the University would be at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting the most promising young scholars to the faculty. To address these challenges, Cole fulfilled his dream to create a Columbia laboratory school for children, which will open in the fall of 2003, and led an effort to expand Columbia's holdings of apartments for faculty. The goal of making the campus environs more welcoming to faculty led Cole to spearhead the opening of the Labyrinth Bookstore on Morningside Heights, the first major scholarly bookstore in New York in many years.

Among other initiatives, Cole led the effort to modernize the University libraries, including the complete renovation of Butler Library, expanded on-line services and the development of a remote storage facility shared with Princeton and the New York Public Library; develop a center for digital media intended to enhance interactive teaching by faculty, and, as part of the budget reform, create an Academic Quality Fund for innovative and interdisciplinary teaching programs.

Cole also sought to capitalize on Columbia's location in New York by creating new programs that take advantage of the great cultural institutions of the city, giving the University what he has called a "shadow endowment." These include the "Passport to New York Program" that allows students and faculty free access to major museums and the establishment of an exchange program with the Juilliard School.

On the international stage, Cole was instrumental in the development of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia, an intellectual and cultural exchange center, and in the renovation of the facilities and expansion of programs at Reid Hall, Columbia's French studies program in Paris. In addition, under Cole's leadership, Columbia became one of the first private universities to extend health and other benefits to gay and lesbian couples.

Cole, in his letter to faculty and staff, referred to the rarity in today's world of leading an academic career at a single institution. "I have never been willing or able to leave," he said. "Now I look forward to serving Columbia again as a member of its faculty -- taking in and producing some of the gritty energy that I associate with it and love."

Published: May 10, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

Search Columbia News    Advanced Search  Help

Phone: 212.854.5573    Office of Public Affairs