In the midst of the controversy on Columbia's campus regarding academic freedom in the MEALAC department, University President Lee Bollinger addressed the New York City Association of the Bar on the subject of academic freedom last night. Bollinger was invited to give the annual Benjamin N. Cardozo lecture.
In his speech, Bollinger gave a detailed and new historical and legal perspective on academic freedom in order to help his audience obtain a greater understanding of the current "deep sense of vulnerability in our universities." He characterized the university environment as one increasingly characterized by tensions between politicized individuals or groups within it and their counterparts, such as the national group Students for Academic Freedom, which created an "academic bill of rights" in order to encourage diverse perspectives on campuses around the nation.
Bollinger also set forth a framework for applying the concept of academic freedom to the university, emphasizing that faculty members should not think of themselves as individual scholars before thinking of themselves as university professors.
"We should not elevate our autonomy as individual faculty above all other values," he said.
Bollinger also mentioned the need for professors to maintain their professional standards.
"First, we need to realize that the health and vigor, which I believe is strong, of universities depends upon the scholarly professionalism I have described," affirmed Bollinger. "This involves our commitment to the intellectual disposition of extraordinary openness of intellect and the self-restraints that entails."
Another principle that should guide the university in applying the framework of academic freedom, according to Bollinger, is the concept of separation of university and state.
The final guiding principle must be a commitment to maintain self-government within the university.
"My fourth point is that all of us, but universities in particular, must stand firm in insisting that, when there are lines to be drawn, we must and will be the ones to do it. Not outside actors. Not politicians, not pressure groups, not the media. Ours is and must remain a system of self-government."
According to Bollinger, the current conception of academic freedom appeared in early 19th century at the University of Berlin in Germany. Its founders developed separate concepts of the "freedom to teach" and the "freedom to learn," and adopted these principles.
Bollinger also cited a lengthy series of conflicts beginning in the late 1800s that invoked a similar definition of academic freedom to the one we have today. One 1896 episode included Republican Jane Lathrop Stanford, the widow of Leland J. Stanford, who disagreed so strongly with statements made publicly by Stanford economist Edward A. Ross in support of Democrat William Jennings Bryan, that she eventually convinced the president of the university to force Ross to resign in 1900.
Bollinger also cited numerous examples from the World War I and McCarthy eras, during which some universities fired faculty in light of their political views and affiliations.
In 1917, Columbia's Board of Trustees enacted a code of loyalty to the nation on the university campus. In the Commencement Address of 1917, Nicholas Murray Butler stated plainly that no opposition to the war effort would be tolerated. According to Bollinger, Butler stated, "What had been tolerated before became intolerable now. What has been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason."
The imposition of the Trustee's code led to some upheaval amongst professors at Columbia, and in turn, some were investigated and fired.
It was shortly following the McCarthy era that the U.S. Supreme Court started to identify academic freedom as a branch of free expression protected by the First Amendment. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire in 1957, the Supreme Court sided with a professor who refused to cooperate with his investigators. The Court decided, "Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate."
About 300 people attended last night's lecture, which was held at the House of the Bar Association on 44th Street.
The Benjamin N. Cardozo lecture, which began in 1941 to commemorate Supreme Court Justice Cardozo's "love for the law, passion for justice, and sympathy for humanity."