University President Ignores Facts and His Own Life While Praising the Autonomy of Universities


Columbia University President Lee Bollinger weighed-in on the newspaper industry crisis in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Surprise, suprise—Bollinger trots out the college president

model for fixing everything: Give 'em some government funding.

The prospect of newspapers becoming indebted to government, the very institution in greatest need of journalistic oversight, is troublesome, to say the least. Reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch has written extensively against the idea of a journalism bailout, and responded to Bollinger's op-ed earlier today. I'll defer to those arguments against a bailout, as Bollinger's op-ed proceeds to make a glaringly false analogy deserving of its own response:

There are examples of other institutions in the U.S. where state support does not translate into official control. The most compelling are our public universities and our federal programs for dispensing billions of dollars annually for research. Those of us in public and private research universities care every bit as much about academic freedom as journalists care about a free press.

Yet—through a carefully designed system with peer review of grant-making, a strong culture of independence, and the protections afforded by the First Amendment—there have been strikingly few instances of government abuse.

That has to be a misprint—surely where Bollinger wrote "few" he actually meant "constant." The statement that few instances of government abuse occur in higher education is so absurdly false that only an Ivy League president could possibly believe it. Said abuses occur daily. They take the form of public university professors being fired, in spite of the First Amendment, for expressing their opinions, which happened at the University of Illinois just recently, and at countless other colleges, both public and private. They take the form of legacy admissions scandals, where college applicants who are relatives of government officials and other noteworthy people are given unmerited consideration (the most recent occurence of this was also at the University of Illinois). Go to The Chronicle of Higher Education here and browse the headlines: every other article highlights the tangled web of private/public/government intrigue and abuse in the nation's colleges without even trying to do so.

Bollinger, for his part, is no stranger to government abuse in higher education. As Columbia University's president, Bollinger conspired with New York's pseudo-public Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to use eminent domain to confiscate private property in a West Harlem neighborhood. Reason Associate Editor Damon W. Root wrote that there was "convincing and damning evidence of widespread collusion between the ESDC and Columbia University to violate both the letter and spirit of the law, as well as to create the very conditions that ESDC officials then used to justify their intervention on Columbia's behalf."

When it comes to universities, public vs. private is a tricky distinction. Private universities receive government funding. Public university presidents draw salaries from sitting on the boards of both private and public companies (Bollinger is a member of the boards of both the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the company that owns The Washington Post). But no reasonable person would conclude that this situation is relatively free of government abuse.