March 22, 2013

Columbia J-School’s new dean greeted by new scandal


Sylvia Nasar and the Columbia School of Journalism

Earlier this week, the Columbia University School of Journalism announced a new dean: The distinguished investigative reporter Steve Coll.

But the school’s outgoing dean, Nicholas Lemann, is curiously also in the news.

Earlier this week, A Beautiful Mind author Sylvia Nasar, who holds a tenured position at Columbia’s J-School, sued the university, claiming that the school had mishandled millions in grant funds intended for her Knight Foundation-funded position.

According to Nasar’s complaint, the terms of the Knight grant that funds her position call for Columbia to pay her salary directly and use the Knight funds only to fund her research.

According to a New York Times report on the lawsuit:

In 2000, the university hired Ms. Nasar, who is a former reporter for The New York Times. According to the lawsuit she was given a base salary, which the university paid for out of Knight Foundation funds, and was asked to pay most of her additional expenses out of her own pocket.

Ms. Nasar said in the suit that over time she spent $174,000 of her own money for research and other expenses. She is asking for punitive damages.

Ms. Nasar said in an interview that in September 2010 she had received an e-mail from the university listing more than $70,000 in what she described as “phantom I.T. charges” — expenses attributed to her that she says she never incurred.

The dispute has already been the subject of a Knight Foundation audit, initiated at Nasar’s request, which found that “Columbia’s ‘misappropriations and defaults’ added up to as much as $4.5 million…. The university and the foundation reached an agreement to forgive Columbia the $4.5 million and release it from its obligation to match the grant. ”

Nasar’s investigation of the Knight grant isn’t surprising—she’s an investigative reporter after all—but the lawsuit also alleges that Dean Nicholas Lemann “intimidated and harassed” Nasar after she started nosing around, going so far as to suggest the Knight Foundation “was dissatisfied with her performance as Knight chair because Knight objected to her work on books,” an accusation that hardly seems credible in that Nasar was already a prize-winning writer of books when she joined Columbia.

News of the forthcoming lawsuit was originally reported by Capital New York in January.



Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.