Founding President Leonard Lief (1924-2007)
Founding President of Lehman College
Dr. Leonard Lief was President of Herbert H. Lehman College from 1968 until 1990. For more than two decades, his commitment to the liberal arts and to academic excellence provided a clear focus for the young, developing college. His vision of using the performing arts to enhance the public perception of the institution led to a campus master plan that included spaces for performance, a strengthened library, and an arts center. Classrooms and laboratories were added, and the delayed completion of a physical education facility was underway upon his retirement.
Dr. Lief grew up in New York City and fought as a soldier in the Second World War. He attended New York University for his bachelor's degree in English and Philosophy, continued at Columbia University for a master's degree, and completed his Ph.D. in English at Syracuse University in 1953.
He joined The City University of New York in 1955 as an instructor at Hunter College. Rising quickly through the ranks, he became Chair of the Department of English in 1966. The following year he was named Provost of Hunter College in the Bronx, soon to become Lehman. A teacher of Shakespeare, highly regarded by both students and faculty, he produced three widely used books and many articles and reviews.
The years of Dr. Lief's presidency were enormously challenging. On two separate occasions, amid the political and social upheaval of the early 1970s, his courageous and determined championing of the College sustained its viability as a senior institution in CUNY. Steadfast in support of academic freedom for faculty, Dr. Lief was also stalwart in defending the rights of students to take controversial positions, which he considered to be part of their intellectual passage. Dr. Lief saw the university as a noble place for the contemplation of higher truths, as an arena in which cultural differences could be explored and bridged. This philosophy shaped the establishment of the Japan campus in 1989.
The tree-lined campus built during President Lief's tenure has been described by many students as "an oasis" and by The New York Times as "the most attractive of the CUNY college...with some of its finest facilities." Much of the credit for this achievement goes to Dr. Lief. As President, he became immersed in understanding the aesthetic elements of architecture and was involved in every aspect of the master plan–from acoustics to wood flooring to decorative exteriors. "We have to get it right," he often said. Under his leadership, the College built Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, the Library, the Art Gallery, and the Speech and Theatre Building with its Lovinger Theatre and Studio Theatre. He won approval to build a major new sports and recreation center and selected architect Rafael Viñoly to design the facility. When The APEX, as it is known, opened in 1994, architecture critic Herbert Muschamp of The New York Times called it "a temple to physical education." Recently, this same critic referred to the structure as one of the City's examples of "progressive architecture."
During Dr. Lief's presidency, the College broadened its academic offerings to include 62 baccalaureate programs, 29 master's programs, and the CUNY doctoral program in plant sciences in collaboration with the New York Botanical Garden. As president, Dr. Lief attended nearly every concert, play, art exhibit, and scholarly conference held on the Lehman campus. In 2000, he and his wife, Ruth Ann Lief, donated their extensive personal collection of more than 1400 books to the Lehman College Library. In May 2006, the Library was officially renamed the "Leonard Lief Library" in honor of Dr. Lief.
Dr. Lief died July 30, 2007 at Willow Towers in New Rochelle, following a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. He was 83. A memorial service, attended by many of his friends and colleagues, was held on the Lehman campus in November 2007.
Last modified: Oct 13, 2011