Past Features

July 11, 2007 (Vol. 5, No. 10)

Leonard Lief: 1924 - 2007
Founding President of Lehman College, Elizabethan Scholar and Champion of Academic Freedom

Dr. Leonard Lief
Dr. Leonard Lief
Dr. Leonard Lief, who served as president of Herbert H. Lehman College for 22 years — from its founding in 1968 as an independent college of The City University of New York until 1990 — died July 30 at Willow Towers in New Rochelle, following a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease. He was 83.

An Elizabethan scholar, Dr. Lief guided the new college, formed on what had been until then the Bronx campus of Hunter College, through the political and social upheavals of the 1970s. He expanded its facilities and programs despite recurring budget cutbacks, set a tone of intellectual and cultural exploration that led to the establishment of a campus in Japan in 1989, and championed academic freedom for students as well as faculty.

"Men and women, of all races and creeds," he said at his inauguration, "...can become educated only if they, too, have the chance to study and think and ask questions without worrying about what answers they will find." By the time of his retirement, Lehman had broadened its offerings to include 62 baccalaureate programs and 29 master's programs, in addition to the CUNY doctoral program in plant sciences.

"Among Dr. Leonard Lief's numerous academic legacies was his active oversight of the recruitment of an outstanding faculty for Lehman College, for which the University and successive generations of Lehman graduates remain profoundly grateful," said CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein.

"Lehman College today reflects the commitment, passions and interests of Leonard Lief," said Dr. Ricardo R. Fernández, who became president following Dr. Lief's retirement. "He recruited exceptional faculty, supported their research and scholarship, and made the College a beacon both for the families and communities of the Bronx and for those, of all nations, who devote their lives to teaching and learning."

In October 2003, in celebration of its 35th anniversary, the College dedicated a new main entrance featuring over 70 quotations, inscribed on stones, that were suggested by Lehman faculty and drawn from various cultures, disciplines and historical periods. One, from Dr. Lief, was taken from a lecture he gave on Shakespeare's King Lear — the play on which he based his doctoral dissertation: "What is significant is how we die, fulfilled or ignorant."

Among his achievements at Lehman was the creation of a tree-lined campus that has been praised by critics for its notable blending of traditional and Gothic architecture. Immersing himself in the aesthetic elements of architecture, Dr. Lief became involved in every aspect of the College's master plan, from acoustics to wood flooring to decorative exteriors. "We have to get it right," he often said.

During his tenure, the campus grew to include a Performing Arts Center that has been called "acoustically perfect," in addition to a new library, art gallery, classroom building, and speech and theatre building with two venues for theatrical performances. After winning approval for a major new sports and recreation center, he selected the now-acclaimed architect Rafael Viñoly to design the facility, which subsequently opened in 1994.

Born in Manhattan in 1924, Dr. Lief was educated in public schools in Brooklyn and Queens and entered New York University, but his studies were interrupted by World War II, which led to his service in Europe as an infantry scout with the U.S. Army's 104th Division. Returning to N.Y.U. on the G.I. Bill, he earned his bachelor's degree in English and philosophy and went on to receive his master's degree from Columbia University and his doctorate in English from Syracuse University, where he began his teaching career.

Joining CUNY in 1955 as an instructor at Hunter College, he rose quickly through the ranks, publishing three widely used books, as well as many articles and reviews. In 1963, he was elected to a two-year term as the departmental representative to Hunter's Bronx campus, where he taught for nine years, and then was chosen as department chair in 1966. That same year, he was asked if he would be interested in being named as dean of faculties at the Bronx campus.

After a reception had been held celebrating his acceptance of that position — a position he never actually filled — he later recalled that "they asked me, since I was the chief academic officer, so to speak, or to be — I wasn't actually in office, I never served in that capacity — if I would become the provost. I remember asking, 'What is a provost'?"

Soon after, the CUNY Chancellor spoke to him about serving as president of a new college that would be established on the campus. Years later, he would note, "And that's how it all started."

Dr. Lief was made provost of Hunter College in the Bronx on June 1, 1967, serving during a year of transition until July 1, 1968, when the campus became an autonomous unit of CUNY and was renamed after the late Governor Herbert H. Lehman, with Dr. Lief as its president. A total of 8,242 undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled at the time. As president, he attended nearly every concert, play, art exhibit and scholarly conference held at the College. In 2000, he and his wife, the late Ruth Ann Lief, who was a writer and cellist, donated their extensive collection of more than 1,400 books to the Lehman Library. In May 2006, the Library was officially renamed the "Leonard Lief Library" in honor of Dr. Lief.

Dr. Lief is survived by his daughter, Madelon, of Madison, Wisconsin; two step-children, Carol Irene "Terry" Rodgers of Clyde, New York, and Scott Rodgers of Hudsonville, Michigan; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in the Fall on the Lehman College campus. Contributions in his memory may be made to the Ruth Ann and Leonard Lief Scholarship Fund at Lehman College.