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 VOL. 23, NO. 20APRIL 10, 1998 

Roger Lehecka Takes on New Role at the College

Roger Lehecka, CC’67, before a statue of Alexander Hamilton, Columbia College Class of 1788. Record Photo by Amy Callahan.


A few years back, Roger Lehecka applied for the position of assistant dean of students at Columbia College and almost didn’t get the job. The man doing the hiring, former Dean of Students Harry Coleman CC’46, thought Lehecka would not stay, that he was just “passing through.”

  That was in 1975.

  For the next 23 years, the last 19 of which he has served as dean of students, Roger Lehecka has been a major contributor to some of Columbia College’s most important successes, including the improvement of the graduation rate from 75 to 90 per cent within the space of a few years, the transition to co-education and the creation of the National Opportunity Program to supplement HEOP (The Higher Education Opportunity Program).

  Beginning July 1, 1998, Lehecka will play another important role at Columbia College, that of director of alumni programs and special adviser to the dean.

  “On behalf of the entire College community, I want to congratulate Roger as he opens this exciting new chapter in his life and career at Columbia,” said Dean Austin E. Quigley in making the announcement.

  “Over the years, Roger has earned the admiration and respect of generations of Columbia College students,” said Quigley. “He has touched countless young lives. Columbia College is a much better place as a consequence of the many initiatives he has taken during his years as dean. We are grateful to him for all that he has done, and for all that still lies ahead.”

  Lehecka, CC ‘67, grew up in Queens and attended Stuyvesant High School, where he was co-captain of the math team. No one in his family had attended college, and therefore he had no special attachment to any college or university. But his math teacher and mentor, Rubin Atkin, CC ‘23, was a member of the first College class to study the Core Curriculum and persuaded young Lehecka to attend Columbia. Indeed, Atkin was so convinced that a Columbia College education was unmatched in quality that he expressed great disappointment when the other Stuyvesant math team co-captain made the “mistake” of enrolling at Harvard.

  As a student in the College, Lehecka became aware of his many interests beyond mathematics. After his graduation, Columbia eventually became both Lehecka’s career and his home, and his success here as dean of students can be measured both in the programs he has developed and the people he has touched.

  “Roger has been in place a long time,” said Henry Pinkham, chair of the mathematics department, “and has had a real vision of how Columbia should change. I found a memo he wrote in the early 1970s, and the things he advocated for Columbia College are the things that have come to pass—better links to the city, becoming fully residential, going co-educational.”

  In 1979, Lehecka investigated Columbia College’s low graduation rate, which was only 75 per cent, and as a result of what he learned, he had the College focus more attention on first-year students and minority students, two groups with high drop-out rates, and he proposed that it be more difficult for a student to get an incomplete.

  By 1985, the graduation rate had jumped 15 per cent. Lehecka also worked to integrate career advising into residential life and chaired the group that defined the program of the new student center.

  “Roger has been able to see the faculty point of view,” added Pinkham, “and among faculty, he is very highly respected.”

  That assessment was shared by Music Professor Elaine Sisman, who described Lehecka as a commanding, if gentle, presence, a man of great personal integrity, who, therefore, was good to deal with on questions of academic integrity.

  “He cares about the faculty, and so he can talk easily to both students and faculty,” said Sisman. “And if I add alumni into the mix, it is amazing to find one person who can speak with equal facility to faculty, students and alumni. He has been a great dean.”

  Sisman cited Lehecka’s work in developing the House System as an especially important contribution. “He has worked to make a harmonious whole out of a group of disparate deans and improved the living environment for students,” she said.

  Jeff Cohen, CC ‘98, has known Lehecka both in his capacity as president of the senior class and as a student who simply found Lehecka a great resource. “He is an incredible person to know, both professionally and personally,” said Cohen. “He is leaving the deanship with 19 years of alumni who know him as both dean and friend.”

  For Lehecka, the job has been as enjoyable as it has been challenging. “I have gotten incredible satisfaction out of helping students, working with them week by week and year after year,” he said. “It’s the most satisfying, most wonderful thing I could ever do.”

  But with each graduating class, Lehecka’s job got bigger. Two dozen classes of former students regularly contact him, to ask for advice, to learn what is happening at the College, to arrange for a college-age child to take a campus tour or just to chat.

  These duties added to those involving current students meant that he has been working 70 hours a week for the last 19 years.

  “The dean of students position at a university such as this is a very demanding job both in time and in emotional energy, and it has an unpredictable schedule,” said Lehecka. “When my daughter Vivian was born seven years ago, I told my wife, Ria, I’d be home more. But I wasn’t home more. Then, almost five years ago, Larissa was born. I didn’t keep my promise then either. After all these years, I had to find a way to keep my promises to them.”

  The creation of the new position of director of alumni programs is recognition that the dean of students job had grown into two jobs. In his new post, Lehecka will develop three projects with which he has been involved during his tenure as dean of students: the National Alumni Council, which will provide alumni with a significantly expanded role in admissions recruitment, residence life programs and career counseling and placement; the Alumni of Color Outreach Program, which has been in formation for two years; and the Alumni Partnership Program, which has enjoyed immediate success in bringing present and former students together.

  Phillip Satow, CC ‘63, incoming president of the Alumni Association, is particularly excited about Lehecka working with the National Alumni Council.

  “We have so many challenges,” said Satow. “I can’t think of a better person to work as an interface between the National Council and the Alumni Board. I think he is an outstanding professional, and he has helped guide me in many ways as to the workings of the College and the University. He knows so many alumni and has keen insights into the alumni mind. He has great sensitivity as to the kinds of programs that alumni would support.”

  Lehecka will also work closely with Vice President for University Development and Alumni Relations Richard Naum, added Dean Quigley.

  “Together, they will focus on strengthening individual alumni clubs around the country and around the world in addition to offering greater responsiveness to the needs of alumni in general,” he said.

  For Lehecka, the situation is ideal. “It means a lot for me to stay here because I love this place. To be able to bring some more balance to my life and still be here and to be able to work with people I knew as students—that’s pretty good,” he smiled. “That’s pretty good.”