Paul LeClerc, Ph.D. ’69, French and Romance Philology

Volume 3, Issue 2, Spring 2013

 By Alexander Gelfand

If Paul LeClerc’s retirement hasn’t turned out quite the way he’d planned, he can blame it all on lunch with Nicholas Dirks, executive vice president and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and chancellor designate of the University of California at Berkeley.

When LeClerc stepped down from his post as president and CEO of the New York Public Library in 2011, he had already enjoyed the equivalent of several successful careers: as a highly respected scholar of French literature (a specialist on Voltaire, he has been awarded the French Legion of Honor and a brace of honorary doctorates); a high-level academic administrator (provost of Baruch College, president of Hunter College); and head of one of the largest public library systems in the United States (the New York Public Library). He planned to spend his newly found free time writing a book about money, power, and sex in 18th-century France, a project that had already attracted the interest of two publishers.

Then came that fateful lunch. When LeClerc told Dirks about his book, Dirks insisted that LeClerc write it at Columbia, and offered him a visiting scholar position in the Department of French and Romance Philology.

“Then he said, ‘Would you by any chance consider becoming the director of the Global Center for Europe?’” LeClerc recalls. “And I said, ‘My God, I don’t know!’”

When LeClerc finally accepted the offer, it was for two primary reasons.

On the one hand, he liked the idea of a network of small, low-cost centers designed to broaden the educational and cultural experiences of the Columbia community, as opposed to branch campuses that were merely intended to boost foreign enrollments. On the other, he was attracted to the Paris Center’s regional focus. “This is a center not just for French studies but for European affairs,” LeClerc says. “The problems that Europe faces today”—e.g., sovereign debt, the integration of non-European cultures—“are really big, really interesting, really important,” and the Global Center for Europe offers Columbia students and faculty a “great laboratory” in which to explore them.

LeClerc’s own interests run to the effects of globalization on local cultures. “Oftentimes, when one talks about globalization, there are the standard, very significant topics: migration, integration, environmental sustainability, economic equality,” he says. But what about the influence that dominant global cultures exert over indigenous ones? Do they, LeClerc asks, have a liberating effect “in societies where freedom of expression is neither the norm nor the desired state of affairs?” Or are they more likely to “snuff out local cultures that go back thousands of years”?

The line of inquiry might be new, but LeClerc’s interest in world affairs is not. Given his personal and professional background, that’s hardly surprising.

Raised in a Franco-American household—his ancestors emigrated from France to Canada in the middle of the 17th century, and his grandparents migrated from Quebec to New England at the turn of the 20th—LeClerc spoke a distinctive patois of French-Canadian French and American English as a child. After attending Catholic school in Queens, he enrolled at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he came under the sway of Father Alfred Desautels, a Jesuit professor who was himself of French Canadian descent. It was Desautels who introduced LeClerc to Voltaire (Candide was on the church’s index of prohibited books at the time, and LeClerc had to petition the Bishop of Worcester for permission to read it); who advised him to study at the Sorbonne for a year after graduation, and to do his graduate work in French literature at either Columbia or Yale; and who inspired him to become a French professor at a small liberal arts college—in LeClerc’s case, Union College, in Schenectady, New York.

LeClerc went on to a series of academic and administrative posts at the City University of New York—”I wanted to work for a city university dedicated to providing access to underserved groups,” he says—before taking the reins of the NYPL in 1993, leaving a trail of international programs in his wake: he directed study-abroad programs in France while at Union; established student exchanges between Baruch, Hunter, and various French schools; and helped to create the CUNY-Universités de Paris Exchange Program—the first large-scale exchange between an American public university system and a European one, and one of the few accomplishments in which LeClerc will admit to taking pride, mainly because it gave students of modest means the opportunity to study in Paris at no extra cost. At the NYPL, LeClerc forged special relationships with institutions in Russia and Brazil, and mounted exhibits in New York with help from the British Library in London and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

He has similar plans for the Global Center ǀ Europe. In addition to maintaining Reid Hall’s historic focus on teaching and research, LeClerc would like to create a “whole new generation of programs having to do with European affairs”—programs that need not take place in Paris but might instead involve working with archives and institutions across the Continent. For example, students interested in exploring the European financial crisis could, with Center support, gain access to the finance ministries of Germany, Greece, and Spain.

LeClerc would also like to mount public programs similar to those he encouraged at NYPL, and to engage in collaborations with other Global Centers. In a move that would scratch both itches at once, he is currently planning a global writers’ festival for October 2013. He has already approached the Bibliothèque nationale about cosponsoring the festival and asked the directors of the other seven Centers to suggest prominent authors, making the event “one of the first products of the entire network.”

In the meantime, LeClerc intends to confer with the Center’s faculty steering committee to produce a strategic plan for the latest iteration of Columbia’s presence in Europe. “The academic enterprise is owned by the faculty,” he says, sounding like the veteran scholar that he is. “I need them to decide what they want to do with this place over the next five years.”

It sounds like a lot of work, and a hefty commitment, for a man who just a year ago thought that he was retiring in order to write a book. But when Dirks made his lunchtime offer, it was evidently one that LeClerc, who speaks of his “immense gratitude” to Columbia, felt he couldn’t refuse.

“I never would have done this if any other university had asked me," he says.