Nick Lemann is the Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism and a former New Yorker staff writer. While at Harvard – where he graduated in 1976 – Lemann served as President of the Crimson. He has worked as a reporter and editor at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Post, focusing primarily on national affairs.
Lemann is the author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, about the SAT, and most recently, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, about the failure of Reconstruction. At Columbia, where he was hired as Dean of the Journalism School in 2003, Lemann implemented a two-year curriculum and has focused on teaching alternative journalistic mediums in the Internet age.
Question: Who are you?
Nicholas Lemann: My name is Nicholas Lemann. I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and it shaped me a lot. I . . . My family has lived in Southern Louisiana since 1836. So I grew up in a place where I had very deep roots and a lot of . . . a small nuclear family but a large extended family and a very strong sense of place. So I grew up in . . . I was born several months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, so I really grew up during the Civil Rights era. And that had a big effect on me, particularly being in a Black majority city in the deep South. And I guess another thing that had an effect on me is even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a declining city. Relative to other American big cities, New Orleans probably peaked in about 1850. In absolute terms it, you know, through most of my life has been a city with problems. So I watched the so called sunbelt phenomenon happen all around New Orleans, and watched New Orleans not be part of it.