The issue of academic freedom and First Amendment rights came dramatically to the fore at last March's teach-in on the Iraq war when Nicholas de Genova, assistant professor of anthropology, remarked that he wished for "a million Mogadishus." In the aftermath of that event, President Lee Bollinger, himself a First Amendment scholar, formed a committee of six professors to explore the bounds of political expression on campus.
"I took the position then, and I believe in it strongly, that academic freedom protects faculty members," Bollinger said in a phone interview. But after receiving a letter signed by 143 members of the House of Representatives and 20,000 e-mails regarding de Genova's comments, Bollinger began a dialogue with six other professors, hoping for diverse perspectives on a contentious issue.
Vincent Blasi, the chair of the committee and a law professor who is teaching at the University of Virginia this semester, told the New York Sun that the committee sought to make sure students "have an appropriate opportunity to register complaints when their classes are being taught in a politically charged way [that] they think is inappropriate."
The committee's role, however, is not to investigate particular departments or classes, Bollinger said. Rather, they function as advisors for him in determining University policy. "Should there be instances when people feel ... repeatedly intimidated for political reasons ... we should make it known that you can go speak to a dean or an advisor," Bollinger said. "That is one area where I think we can do better."
Public political statements by professors fall under the umbrella of academic freedom. Classroom intimidation, Bollinger said, does not. This includes grade retaliation, when students are penalized for failing to share a professor's political views. But though the New York Sun speculated that the committee was in large part designed to examine anti-American and anti-Israeli political activism within Columbia's Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures department, Bollinger maintained instead that the committee's function is not primarily an investigative one.
Rather, Bollinger said, he was hoping to tap into the diverse sentiments about academic freedom represented within Columbia's faculty. To that end, he assembled the committee with the aim of achieving a balance of perspectives that would help him refine his own; chaired by law professor Vince Blasi, the committee also includes University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis and Professor of Finance R. Glenn Hubbard, who is also the incoming dean of the Business School. The SEAS voice on the committee comes from Paul Duby, Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering.
According to the Sun, Blasi said, "It's not within our jurisdiction to assess whether a department is biased or has a particular kind of slant." Instead, the committee's jurisdiction is to explore the theoretical separation between academic expression and political activism.
Though the committee has yet to make any specific policy recommendations, they have explored a number of current issues. Henry Pinkham, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, wrote in a letter to graduate students last week that "actions that undermine respect for difference of opinion are antithetical to the values of the University."
David Horowitz, the editor of FrontPage Magazine and author of the Academic Bill of Rights, which encourages universities to ensure a political balance among faculty members, stressed the importance of not "confusing politics with education." He quoted from a statement made by the American Association of University Professors in 1940: "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."
According to Bollinger, each of his 31 years in academia has brought a "series of free speech and academic freedom questions."
"I hope the committee does something," Horowitz said. "The answer is already there."
Some answers to those questions may be forthcoming when the committee reports to the president in a few months.