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The Wisdom of Solomon

A rare example of conservatives triumphing over the liberal academy.

11:00 PM, Nov 7, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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SINCE TAKING OVER Congress in 1995, the Republican party has proven itself mostly inept at using the power of the federal purse to pursue conservative goals. But the Solomon Amendment, the 1996 brainchild of former New York GOP congressman Gerald Solomon, is now proving to be a notable exception. For some two decades, elite universities have barred the armed forces from their campuses because of both general disdain for the military and disagreement with their personnel policy on gays. (Never mind that this same military just ousted a regime in Afghanistan that stoned homosexuals to death for sport.) In response, the Solomon Amendment made federal research funding for colleges contingent on schools' providing to military recruiters the same campus access offered to all other employers.

Since Solomon became law, the Department of Defense has allowed schools to fulfill the amendment's requirements via technicalities (by allowing military recruiters to arrange off-campus meetings with students, etc.). But this year, the DOD finally decided to give the amendment some teeth. In May, the Air Force sent letters to over a dozen law schools, announcing that universities who denied military recruiters full access would jeopardize all of their federal funding--which, in the case of ostensibly "private" schools like Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and Yale, annually exceeds $300 million each.

Faced with this choice, the law schools caved--but not without some particularly obnoxious grandstanding. In whiny, apologetic letters to students and faculty explaining their decisions to exempt the military from their schools' non-discrimination policies, many deans cited the danger that losing federal funding would pose to . . . medical research. Typical was this statement from Harvard Law dean Robert C. Clark: "To say that this decision is just about money trivializes the significance these funds have on . . . scientific research that can lead to cures to life-threatening illnesses and debilitating diseases." Similarly, Columbia Law dean David Leebron wrote last month: "The benefits that flow from [federal] funding are not limited to the University and members of our community, but extend far beyond to many segments of our society, including those in need of yet to be discovered medical treatments." In other words, we have to let the buzz-cut ogres visit--otherwise, they'll prevent us from curing cancer!

As risible as this argument is, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger is employing an additional defense, one that's both subtler and more radical in its implications. In his letter explaining Columbia's decision, Bollinger echoed Dean Leebron's point, but closed with a more provocative claim:

"The ready availability of [the enormous funding power of the state] requires self-restraint by officials, for otherwise we will lose our liberties not to official prohibitions but rather to the conditions attached to the purse. Such self-restraint is especially called for when colleges and universities are involved. The principle of academic freedom is one of the hallmarks of our country . . . Respect for the autonomy of these institutions is critical."

Notice the intellectual sleight-of-hand Bollinger is attempting here. The concept of academic freedom--the right of professors and students to teach, research, and publish on subjects of their choosing without fear of reprisal--is being extended to include institutional "autonomy," defined as the right of universities to see themselves as inviolable miniature fiefdoms with no accountability to outsiders. No one doubts the importance of defending academic freedom. But doing so becomes more difficult when the concept is stretched like Silly Putty to justify the whims of college bureaucrats who take unusual pleasure in giving the raspberry to the broader community's sensibilities.

It's no surprise hearing Bollinger make this argument. During his recently concluded tenure as president of the University of Michigan, Bollinger hinted that this definition of academic freedom as institutional "autonomy" should also spare Michigan's constitutionally dubious racial-preference admissions policies from scrutiny, because those policies serve an academic purpose. (Preserving "diversity" in the classroom, and all that.)

But I wonder how far Bollinger is willing to push this argument. If a professor at a public university decided to teach a course denying the Holocaust, would Bollinger be outraged if state legislators or elected university regents objected and threatened to cut funding if the professor wasn't fired? My guess is no. Or, would he have defended Bob Jones University in the early 1980s, when its federal tax exemption was threatened because of its policy on interracial dating? Under Bollinger's criteria, that was just as much a question of "academic freedom" and autonomy as Columbia's desire to bar military recruiters from campus while still receiving federal money.

We should not allow academic freedom to become so expansive a concept that administrators may use it to justify almost any policy--even those with little or no connection to the classroom. The matters that Bollinger wants to exempt from government interference are not purely academic questions; they are administrative ones. In the case of Michigan, the question is not simply whether the school's racial preference admissions policies are academically useful; it's whether they are unconstitutional. In the case of Columbia Law School and its peers, the question is whether college administrators should be allowed to deny a particular employer equal campus access merely because they find that employer's policies morally objectionable.

Why do we establish public universities and support them with taxpayer dollars? (Or, in this case, support "private" universities with massive amounts of federal largesse?) Because we expect them to serve certain public goods. The broad freedoms under which they pursue those goods must also, as with all freedoms, be linked to a wider sense of duty and responsibility. A failure to meet those responsibilities should have consequences. That is the sensible goal of the Solomon Amendment. After years of forcing taxpayers to subsidize academia's radical, anti-American agenda, it is not too much to ask--and certainly no threat to academic freedom, rightly understood--for academics to display a modicum of respect toward the nation's armed forces in order to continue to gorge at the public trough. It's the military's sacrifices, after all, that allow academics to teach--as well as burnish their senses of moral superiority--in comfort and freedom.

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.