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Sylvia Nasar, an esteemed and tenured professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is butting heads with the piggy bank on campus. She is the celebrated author of A Beautiful Mind, the best-selling biography about Economics genius John Nash, who is in fact a Nobel Laureate in Economics. Her book became the basis of the 2001 movie starring Academy Award winners Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, who won Oscar gold for her role in the film as Alicia Nash. Nasar is one of few professors to gain tenure at Columbia University who is actually a practicing writer and journalist. Her foundation in practical investigation has proven to be a thorn in the side of Columbia University School of Journalism.
Nasar is a former New York Times reporter, who has been the James L. Knight professor of business journalism at Columbia University since 2000. Clearly, she is now all too familiar with the old adage of the right hand (faculty) not being aware of what the left hand (upper-level executives/administration) is doing. Nasar claims that $4.5 million in endowment funds have been misdirected and misused by Columbia University. What happened to the nebulous millions in funding, which Columbia University promised to use in a very specific way but did not? Apparently, a portion of it was used to pay her salary, which was clearly a misstep in her opinion. The agreement between the university and primary grantor, The Knight Foundation, was that Columbia University would pay for her salary on its own, while their $1.5 million gift was to be used only for additional salary support, as well as her research in the field.
However, that was not the case, according to Nasar. She contends that Columbia University sapped the grant and fund to pay her annual salary, which was in direct violation of the agreement with the grantor. Those funds were not to be used to pay her salary, yet she was paid her base salary directly out of The Knight Foundation funds. She was then asked to pay all other additional research expenses on her own. This was a double violation of the original agreement between The Knight Foundation and Columbia University.
It might not have ever come to light if Professor Nasar had not received a telling little e-mail in September 2010. In that email, Columbia University listed over $70,000 in mysterious (however hard to prove) I.T. charges that were specifically attributed to Nasar. She contends that such charges were not incurred by her or her research team. In her opinion, the university pulled a number out of a hat and charged her as responsible for that amount, an amount she insists she did not incur.
There may be some tenured professors who would have demurely let that slide, especially at Columbia University. Yet, Nasar, whose foundation is in investigative journalism, dug deeper into the matter, only to discover sloppy misdirection and misuse of funds that engulfed the entire endowment amount given by The Knight Foundation.
According to Nasar, the malfeasance extends far beyond the mere I.T. charges to include the original $1.5 million gift. Moreover, the powers-that-be even reneged on Columbia University’s promise to match the original $1.5 million gift, as well as sapped the income earned on the original endowment since 2000. When Professor Nasar presented this information to The Knight Foundation, the endowment was promptly audited. According to court papers, the auditing firm hired to investigate, KPMG, determined that Columbia University’s malfeasance amounted to a whopping $4.5 million.
Despite the stunning discovery, powerful entities often decide to play nice together. The Knight Foundation found a way to forgive Columbia University its $4.5 million mishandling of funds and even released the university from its initial obligation to match the grant. The only concession involved was the university had to promise to spend future income generated by The Knight Foundation endowment in ways “consistent with the purpose of the chair.”
Normally, it would have ended right there. However, this is the land of lofty, pricey academia. Some other nasty stuff happened that plagued the entire Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. These events can only be categorized as academic soap opera melodrama. In Ivy League administrative offices, they call it “transition.”
What is it, really? Well, somebody has to be designated the scapegoat when $4.5 million evaporates into the ether, and that fall guy turned out to be Dean Nicholas Lemann.
Some insiders found it rather surprising they did not fire the administrative assistant who sent the thorny little email to Nasar back in 2010 that set everything in motion. That person could have played the role of sacrificial lamb, except for the fact that the person responsible did not know about the additional money that went missing.
Nicholas has announced that he will step down at the end of the academic year after a decade as dean. Where will he go on vacation? To which mansion will he step down to? He might not even retire at all. He might just slide into the background at Columbia, teach a few courses, wait out the dust storm, and reappear again as university president somewhere else, or perhaps, the Director of Something Important Elsewhere.
Before he made his subdued announcement of vacating the deanship, he informed Professor Sylvia Nasar that The Knight Foundation (which had funded her professorship with no complaint for the past 13 years) was suddenly greatly disappointed in her performance. He said they took issue with the books she wrote that drew so many students into Columbia University, where they might take classes especially from her, the seasoned journalist. However, these derogatory comments on Professor Nasar’s performance could not be verified by any spokesman from The Knight Foundation. Prof. Nasar chalked it up to intimidation and harassment from a dean who is exiting with his ego more or less intact. Harassment, perhaps? That is another kind of lawsuit and article altogether.
Opinion By Holly Hunt