Thursday, October 12, 2006


Lee Bollinger

I'm definitley arriving late to the party, but I wanted to comment on the story of a group of students at Columbia University who stormed the stage during a speech by Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrist.

Here's a round-up of the coverage:

From Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

here and here

From The Volokh Conspiracy:

here and here.

And finally, from No Se Nada:

here (with a wonderful personal anecdote about Bollinger).

I left a comment at No Se Nada, and I wanted to expand on it here.

I spent a fair number of years at the University of Michigan and Lee Bollinger was president for a good chunk of that time. I remember a few incidents during Bollinger's tenure.

In 2000 a group called the Students of Color Coalition (SCC) occupied the offices of a student society called Michigamua. Michigamua was founded in 1902 and was given a perputal lease to some offices in the student union in gratitude for their fund raising efforts. Some of the ceremonies in Michigamua involved Native American artifacts and references (mockeries?) of Native American culture. Michigamua agreed to stop using Native American artifacts in 1989, but according to SCC they didn't follow through on their promise (SCC also claimed that their name was offensive). SCC occupied Michigamua's offices and hung a banner out the window of the 3rd floor of the union (I don't remember what it said even though I saw it every day on my way to and from the bus). Here's a statement Bollinger made in Feb. 2000:

“For the past ten days, we have been engaged in discussions with students including the students occupying the tower of the Union. We do not believe that occupation is the way to resolve issues within the University. In this instance we felt that it was in the best interests of our educational process for the University to pursue that discussion to a reasonable resolution.

“Any conversation must have starting points. For a University, a fundamental principle is that, with rare exceptions, students, faculty and staff must not be treated differently because of their beliefs or the expressions of those beliefs. That principle has direct application to this controversy. Some have argued that one of the societies using the Union tower space, Michigamua, should be stripped of its University affiliation and lose its exclusive use of that space because it has a history of practices that demean and degrade Native American culture and spirituality. Under our principles it is clear that student organizations must not be recognized or de-recognized, or suffer any other penalty, because the ideas they espouse or beliefs they adhere to are offensive, or even dangerous, to our community. I have spoken to leaders of the groups occupying the tower, other students and faculty, and they, too, value this principle.

“Neither viewpoints nor legacy necessarily entitle any group within the campus to privileged space. We will address, in a neutral way, the process of space allocation among student organizations within the University.

“It must be said, again and again, that responsible membership in our University community implies caring about the perceived impact of one’s actions on others. Of particular importance are perceptions, however unintended, of cultural offense, and those behaviors that cause others in the community to be excluded and unappreciated. Whether conscious or not, practices that negatively stereotype groups in our society cause unjust pain and humiliation. I believe such practices are not acceptable behaviors in a University that values and fosters diversity. We must never take lightly the effects of such perceptions and behaviors.

“Current students of Michigamua acknowledge that its history has included practices demeaning of Native American culture. None of us, however, can count ourselves free of embarrassment and even shame for what we have once believed or practiced, not even the University of Michigan.

“Our students are continually reminding us of the challenge embedded in Pascal’s enduring words, inscribed on the walls of our University, ‘Justice and power must be brought together so that whatever is just may be powerful and whatever is powerful must be just.’ ”

He agreed that demeaning Native American culture is inappropriate, admonished SCC for occupying the office, and didn't take the easy out of condemning the present members of Michigamua for the behavior of past members.

Here's his statement from March of 2000:

"As I stressed in my Statement of February 17, 2000, "practices that negatively stereotype groups in our society cause unjust pain and humiliation. I believe such practices are not acceptable behaviors in a University that values and fosters diversity. We must never take lightly the effects of such perceptions and behaviors." While this University honors the principle that individuals and groups within the University community must be free to express a wide variety of beliefs and ideas, it is also committed to ensuring that its own institutional voice on the subject of racial and ethnic respect be unequivocal. The University simply does not condone practices that denigrate the values or traditions of particular racial or ethnic groups. Finally, it must also be said that the University does not condone the illegal occupation of University premises by any student group.

The recent protests about the Michigamua student organization have raised an important question as to the proper nature and scope of University involvement with student organizations. Accordingly, the panel described in my Statement of February 25, 2000 that is considering the question of privileged space also will consider under what circumstances and in what ways the University, its administrators and faculty members should be associated with such organizations and it will recommend guiding principles in this regard. The University's Executive Officers and I will then decide whether and how to implement such principles.

In considering this issue, the panel will consider the concerns that have been expressed about whether and to what extent associations between the University, its administrators or faculty can or have given rise to the impression that the University endorses racial or ethnic ridicule, and whether and to what extent those associations can or have contributed to marginalizing or disenfranchising other groups or students. The panel will also consider applicable civil rights and anti-discrimination principles as well as applicable First Amendment principles such as freedom of speech and freedom of association.

As with the question of privileged space, the panel will gather public input in a variety of ways including holding public hearings to solicit student, staff, faculty and community member input. The panel will work expeditiously and make its recommendations regarding space before April 13, 2000. The panel will make its recommendation on all other issues before it by October 2, 2000. The decisions the University makes about the assignment and use of the Michigan Union tower and any other exclusively assigned space will be made prior to the beginning of the Fall 2000 academic term. The panel will issue its findings and recommendations on all questions before it in written form, and those findings and recommendations will be published to all interested parties and the public."

In the end Michigamua got to keep their name, but agreed to move out of the Union. Their website is here.

I remember a few other incidents. When the U of M affirmitive action case was just starting there was a flurry of activity on campus. Two of the speakers stick in my mind. Jesse Jackson came to give a talk in favor of affirmitive action (I save one of his placards - I rediscovered it while I was moving out of my office at the end of grad school). Fred Phelps and his group came to protest. I vividly remember an ~five year old boy holding a sign proclaiming "Matthew Shepard is burning in Hell." Despite the disgusting nature of Phelps' group they were allowed to protest unmolested. I also remember a preacher who'd hold up a sign on the Diag and comdemn passing students to an eternity of fire (I know that this was at least a weekly event but I don't remember if he did this more often). He was occasionally heckled, but he was never stopped from speaking. During the 2000 elections the campus Republicans had a table set up on the Diag, and they were even able to hand out collections of G. W. Bush's speeches (I got a copy and had a lot of fun sneaking it on to my friend's bookshelves and seeing how long it took them to notice). I also remember an instance when a group of abortion protestors rented a truck and drove it around campus with pictures of aborted fetuses.

The average person at Michigan was certainly liberal, but it was a place where free speech was encouraged (at least in my experience). Returning to the modern day I was very pleased with Bollinger's statment about the protestors at Columbia University (excerpted below):

"Of course, the University is thoroughly investigating the incident, and it is critically important not to prejudge the outcome of that inquiry with respect to individuals. But, as we made clear in our University statements on both Wednesday night and Thursday, we must speak out to deplore a disruption that threatens the central principle to which we are institutionally dedicated, namely to respect the rights of others to express their views.

This is not complicated: Students and faculty have rights to invite speakers to the campus. Others have rights to hear them. Those who wish to protest have rights to do so. No one, however, shall have the right or the power to use the cover of protest to silence speakers. This is a sacrosanct and inviolable principle.

It is unacceptable to seek to deprive another person of his or her right of expression through actions such as taking a stage and interrupting the speech. We rightly have a visceral rejection of this behavior, because we all sense how easy it is to slide from our collective commitment to the hard work of intellectual confrontation to the easy path of physical brutishness. When the latter happens, we know instinctively we are all threatened."

The students who stormed the stage were thugs, plain and simple, and they deserve to be prosecuted.

Ending on a lighter note The Daily Show covered the event here (hat tip to The Volokh Conspiracy). The best line of the clip is (paraphrasing): "Congratulations protestors, you've managed to make Sean Hannity seem like the reasonable one."

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