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November 24, 2005

Bollinger, Academic Freedom, and Tolerance

Steven Shiffrin: November 24, 2005

Earlier this year President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University gave the Cardozo Lecture to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. The subject was academic freedom. Bollinger maintained that academic freedom included academic responsibilities. One of those responsibilities, he maintained, was that every professor was to cover the full range of the complexity of the subject in every course. Why?

 According to Bollinger, the goal of university education is to produce tolerant and non-authoritarian citizens, citizens who have “the imaginative range and the mental courage to take in, to explore, the full complexity of the subject. To set aside one's pre-existing beliefs, to hold simultaneously in one's mind multiple angles of seeing things, to actually allow yourself seemingly to believe another view as you consider it. . . .”

 It strikes me that this perspective on academic freedom is overly narrow. We can all agree that professor have responsibilities. They must teach within the confines of the subject they are teaching. They must respect students whose views are different than those of the professor. In many courses they should be expected to explore, so far as possible, “the full range of the complexity of the subject.” (Bollinger, I believe is not so naïve as to believe that the full range can really be explored in every course. What he means to counter is one-sided or partisan teaching). But, in requiring this of every course, Bollinger goes too far. Is it wrong for a teacher in a seminar on law and economics to explore the subject without having a unit on challenges to law and economics? For a teacher of feminist thought not to have a unit with readings from fundamentalist patriarchal thinkers? Suppose I teach a seminar on First Amendment Theory and decide to focus on adherents to one or two theories in depth because I think exploring subjects in depth is better than seeing the general map of first amendment theory or because I think these two theories are best and want to compare them. Is this professionally irresponsible?

 It seems to me that Bollinger goes wrong in two ways. First, he underestimates the extent to which a mission of the university in many courses is to explore truth wherever it may lead. This may lead to teaching that some might call partisan. So long as the “partisan” teacher is fair to those of different views, I believe the cause of truth is advanced in a university in which such teaching is respected and defended.

The other problem stems from an overly narrow conception of the first amendment and the makeup of a democratic citizen. Bollinger has written an excellent book in which he highlights the role of the first amendment in encouraging tolerant citizens. I, for one, doubt that the most important feature of the first amendment is nurturing character traits (though I think it plays a role). But I believe that Columbia Law Professor Vincent Blasi presents a richer view of the kind of character that the first amendment might be out to cultivate. Blasi speaks in favor of the claim that a “culture that prizes and protects expressive liberty nurtures in its members certain character traits such as inquisitiveness, independence of judgment, distrust of authority, willingness to take initiative, perseverance, and the courage to confront evil. Such character traits are valuable, so the argument goes, not for their intrinsic virtue but for their instrumental contribution to collective well-being, social as well as political.” Vincent Blasi, The First Amendment and Character, 46 UCLA L.Rev. 1567, 1569 (1999). I believe that what Blasi says of a first amendment culture is true of a university culture and that Bollinger proposal of a “fairness doctrine” for the subject matter of every course is unduly restrictive. We need more than tolerant citizens; we need engaged citizens. Conceding that Bollinger’s restrictions are appropriate in many introductory courses, a first amendment culture is more likely to produce engaged students and citizens than Bollinger’s more restricted culture

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