Cross-posted from Crooked Timber, where I’m guest-blogging this week.

Greetings from the edge of the American West, in the neighborhood of which friendly folks have been urging academics to brush up on how to fire each other.  In the midst of everyone scurrying around and reading rules and shouting, some of us noticed an article (not really online) in The New Yorker, which makes one wonder, is it maybe bad for academic freedom to have a free speech expert as university president?

In the middle of recounting the extraordinary brouhaha surrounding the tenure case of Nadia Abu El-Haj, Jane Kramer reports this go-round between the Columbia faculty and the Columbia president (and First Amendment scholar) Lee Bollinger:

A month after their meeting, de Grazia and her colleagues circulated an open letter to Bollinger…. charg[ing] that Bollinger had “failed to make a vigorous defense of core principles on which the university is founded”…. [H]e was more surprised and bewildered than mad.  When I saw Bollinger in December, he told me, “The faculty here have enormous freedom.  As a scholar, so do I.  I strongly believe that our profession is distinct from the political profession, and the attention span of the normal world is not always suited to the kind of discussions we have here.  Especially now, in a period of such heightened sensitivity.  You’ve seen the effects here.  But you deal with problems like these by enhancing judgment.  To me, the First Amendment means a robust marketplace of ideas that will, by definition, marginalize extremism.”

If Kramer’s report is accurate, you can see why the Columbia faculty got frustrated.  They wanted Bollinger to offer a traditional defense of academic freedom, which goes something like this:  Academic freedom predates free speech.  Although Prussia gave constitutional protection to Lehrfreiheitin 1850 (“science and its teaching shall be free”), academic freedom generally does not enjoy legal protection outside of contractual guarantees; rather, it rests on the authority and ability of a community of competent scholars to police their own discourse and on the willingness of universities to affirm this authority and ability.

In other words, the Columbia faculty seem to have wanted the Columbia president to say to Daniel Pipes—who describes himself here as “someone who has left the academy, meets a payroll, lives pretty much in the here and now”—buzz off:  this does not concern you, you have no standing to speak.  We want to hear what the community of competent scholars say.

Instead of saying something along these lines, Bollinger appears to have said, well, academic freedom = free speech + time.  Give it enough time, and the Daniel Pipes critique will fall short in the marketplace of ideas.

I can think of three reasons Bollinger might have said this, instead of offering the traditional defense of academic freedom.  

(1) He doesn’t know the history and sources of academic freedom.  This seems unlikely, though that phrase “surprised and bewildered” is worrying.

(2) He knows the history and sources of academic freedom, but he thinks it uncongenial to assert them in this anti-elitist day and age.  This is an old concern, going back at least half a century in AAUP bulletin dispatches that fret over the question of whether “the people at large … will resent granting special liberties to the teachers of their children,” to quote Fritz Machlup writing in 1955.  Maybe they will, and maybe Bollinger has this in mind.  This is understandable, if unfortunate:  as noted above, the preservation of academic freedom requires institutional affirmation.

(3) He knows the history and sources of academic freedom, but believes them superseded in the U.S. by First Amendment jurisprudence.  Which suggests that all manner of opinions will be heard—including Pipes’s, apparently—but he has confidence that the faculty of the relevant discipline will win out in the opinion marketplace.  This seems incredible, but that’s what the formula implies:  anyone can play this game.