Nicholas Lemann began his journalism career as a 17-year-old writer for an alternative weekly newspaper in his native New Orleans. He graduated from Harvard College in 1976, where he was president of the Harvard Crimson. He went on to hold editorial and writing positions at the Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker.
In September 2003, Lemann became dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, at the end of a re-examination of the school's mission conducted by Lee C. Bollinger. During his deanship, the Journalism School launched and completed its first capital fundraising campaign, added 20 members to its full-time faculty, built a student center, started its first new professional degree program since the 1930s, and launched significant new initiatives in investigative reporting, digital journalism, and executive leadership for news organizations. He stepped down as dean in 2013. Now dean emeritus and Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism, he also directs Columbia Global Reports, a book publishing venture, and was former director of Columbia World Projects, a new institution that implements academic research outside the university.
Lemann continues to contribute to The New Yorker as a staff writer. He has published five books, including Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream (2019); Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2006); The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999), which helped lead to a major reform of the SAT; and The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991).
He currently serves on the boards of the Authors Guild, the Knight First Amendment Institute, the Thomson Reuters Founders Share Company, and the Russell Sage Foundation. He is a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and The American Academy of Political & Social Science.