CHICAGO – Columbia University President Lee Bollinger said he sees history running in fifty-year cycles, and he believes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the University of Michigan’s lawsuits regarding its race-conscious admissions policies begins a new cycle.
“We’re facing the question. ‘Do we have the will to continue?'”, Bollinger asked, almost fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision which declared the “separate but equal” concept unconstitutional.
Bollinger, president of the University from 1997 to 2001, spoke at the National Educational Writers Association Conference Friday, discussing the many challenges universities face today, including the importance of diversity.
He dispelled many myths associated with affirmative action – especially the viewpoint that race no longer matters because we live in an integrated society.
“The whole controversy involving Trent Lott was very effective in making that no longer a myth,” Bollinger said.
Bollinger also said he remains bewildered by Justice Atonin Scalia’s comments during the April 1 oral arguments. Scalia told the University to lower its admissions standards if it feels diversity is a compelling state interest.
“You don’t know how to respond to that,” Bollinger said. “What do you do in the face of that alternative.”
Bollinger also talked about the strategies he and his administrative team implemented from 1997 to 2001 when the lawsuits began to make their way through the court system. Besides accumulating a top-notch legal defense, he said one of the biggest challenges was finding allies who would openly support the University.
“Nobody likes to associate with defendants,” he said, adding that a New York Times Op/Ed column written by University President and former President Gerald Ford in 1999 supporting race-conscious admissions, was a major breakthrough for the University’s case.
The University also pushed very hard to bring the lawsuits into the public spectacle, showing that affirmative action was an issue that affected “all of mainstream America” including businesses and the military.
Other issues he touched on dealt with the growing importance of the life sciences, cultural awareness and unionization of campus workers, all of which touched Bollinger’s tenure in some way.
Bollinger, a noted First Amendment scholar, also briefly discussed controversial remarks made at a recent Columbia war teach-in by Prof. Nicholas De Genova. Although Bollinger said he was disgusted by the nature of DeGenova’s comments, he refuses to engage in censorship of the professor.
“He has the right to say what he wants to,” Bollinger said. “I won’t fire him.”