Politics & Policy

Being Lee Bollinger

The very model of a modern college president.

Editor’s note: This piece by Matthew Continetti appeared in the October 14, 2002, issue of National Review.

Lee Bollinger, the recently installed president of Columbia University, is used to praise. Newsweek labeled him an exemplar of a “new, visionary breed of college presidents.” In The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann wrote that “if you were called upon to invent a perfect university president, you couldn’t do better” than Bollinger. And in an article entitled “A Renaissance Man at Columbia’s Helm,” the Christian Science Monitor cooed that beneath the college president’s “gentle voice and unassuming manner lies a powerful legal counterpuncher.”

Why all the approbation? There are two reasons. The first is that Bollinger is a capable administrator. For example, when he served as president of the University of Michigan, he saw through the creation of a new Life Sciences Institute — a project with a hefty price tag of $700 million. But the second, and more important, reason is political. He represents a new type of university president, one whose notoriety stems not from his work as a public intellectual or even his prowess as a fundraiser, but from the left-wing causes with which he is associated. If the Supreme Court decides to hear arguments in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger this fall, not only will the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action policies be in the spotlight, but so will the chief defender of those policies — Lee Bollinger. With his newly acquired prominence as the head of an Ivy League university, and with the upcoming zero-hour in a five-year court battle over the future of affirmative action, Bollinger is poised to become one of the most recognized university figures in the country.

All this should be enough to cause substantial heartache for conservatives, especially those who are familiar with Bollinger’s record. The 56-year-old graduate of the University of Oregon and Columbia Law has a history of associating the good of his students with whatever leftish cause is currently garnering national attention. The typical result of this campus crusade for political correctness is a diminution of the idea of liberal education. Nicholas Lemann has it wrong: By any traditional standard, Lee Bollinger is the worst college president in America.

A clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger in the 1970s, Bollinger made his debut on the national political scene during Robert Bork’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1987. Having recently been appointed dean of the University of Michigan Law School, Bollinger — the author of several books on free speech — argued before the Senate that Bork’s interpretation of the First Amendment could lead to an eventual rollback of legal precedent. Bollinger’s testimony was one of the many blows that defeated Bork’s nomination. And one thing became clear after Bollinger’s testimony: He did not hold scholarship to be more sacred than politics.

You see, Bollinger himself knows a thing or two about restricting free speech. A year after his testimony against Bork, the University of Michigan became mired in controversy when its governing body adopted a stringent speech code, which stipulated that speech offensive to an individual on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. was a punishable offense. The code was in effect for only 15 months — it was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court — but a number of students were nonetheless penalized for offensive speech. As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has reported, one student was punished simply “for saying that ‘he had heard that minorities had a difficult time in [a] course and . . . were not treated fairly.’“

Where was Bollinger during all this? As dean of the law school, he was in a perfect position to speak out against the code. But throughout the code’s short, unhappy life, Bollinger said nary a word about it. “The failure of the dean of a law school, especially one with an expertise in the First Amendment, to speak up against a patently unconstitutional speech code is a blight on his record that should be mentioned until he explains himself,” says William Rice of the American Academy for Liberal Education. “It does raise the question of what he’s been willing to tolerate.”

Bollinger has said that he always opposed the code, but in a 1989 interview with the Associated Press he sent mixed signals. When asked to predict how the circuit court would rule, Bollinger answered: “The case law on what speech can be restricted is quite unclear. . . . Should the university be the place in society where there is ultimate protection of free speech, or is it a place where you want to preserve civility and discourse? Those are two very different models, both with strong appeals.”

Bollinger’s ambivalence toward the speech code might not have made him any friends with the civil-liberties crowd, but it didn’t hurt his career. After a brief sojourn as provost of Dartmouth, he was named president of the University of Michigan in 1996. Returning to Ann Arbor, he was greeted by the twin lawsuits known as Gratz (charging discrimination under the guise of affirmative action, at the university) and Grutter (ditto, at the law school).

The new president’s response was to mount one of the most aggressive defenses of affirmative action yet. Bollinger argued that affirmative action was not just one way to make sure minority students get an education, but also the only way to achieve the true end of education: diversity. “This principle of [affirmative action] is a deep part of the educational philosophy of American higher education,” Bollinger told the Christian Science Monitor last year. “Without the diversity it provides, the character and the quality of our great public universities would decline.”

It is on this point that Bollinger has staked the life of affirmative action: that education without a racially diverse student body isn’t education at all, and, further, that a system of discrimination based on racial preferences is the only means to achieving a racially diverse student body. And it isn’t intellectual diversity that the president is talking about, nor is it religious diversity, nor even political. It is simple, unalterable, banal skin color that Bollinger says must be diversified in order to provide students with a worthy education.

A poll conducted by the Michigan Daily, the university’s student-run paper, found that a majority of students there opposed affirmative action. But elite opinion continues to dominate discussion of racial preferences, and Bollinger’s man-of-the-people dealings with undergraduates inoculate him from criticism. In 1997, for example, just a few months after he became president, a large crowd of revelers formed outside his mansion, celebrating Michigan’s football victory over Penn State. Bollinger opened his doors and invited the students — all of them — inside to celebrate.

Bollinger must have a love of strangers who occupy his personal space, because after 30 anti-sweatshop activists stormed his office in 1999 he told the New York Times that the activists were “terrific students . . . They’re just the kind of students you want on your campus. They were interested in a serious problem, they were knowledgeable about the problem, and they really wanted to do something about it.”

The problem with Bollinger’s approach to education is that because its focus is on political activity, there’s a decline in basic academic seriousness. The Ann Arbor News reported that Bollinger’s convocation at the University of Michigan last year was significant for such helpful advice as “Be comfortable with your ignorance,” “Don’t let yourself be trapped by the natural wish for the answer,” and “Don’t underestimate the benefits of putting things off until the last moment.” And when the New York Times education supplement recently asked Bollinger what students should get out of college, he replied, “The university is about being able to move intellectually within a whole array of views. . . . It’s actually a quite frightening experience. The world will always be for you a more difficult and complicated place than perhaps you would like it to be.”

That must have been the message that Bollinger was trying to send when he refused to condemn the heckling and catcalling that greeted Ward Connerly when the anti-preferences activist addressed Michigan students in 1998. Indeed, Bollinger’s intellectual and administrative stance capitulates to the Left whenever it is politically expedient. “University presidents should be strong,” says Matthew Schwartz, a former editor of the Michigan Review who was once a student of Bollinger’s. “And Bollinger wasn’t.” If Lee Bollinger is indeed the future of American higher education, then college students face a future bereft of important principles like freedom of speech and equality under the law.


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