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Columbia University Ignores Objections to Thought Reform Amid Free Speech Controversy

NEW YORK, October 11, 2006—The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling on Teachers College—Columbia University’s graduate school of education—to abandon its ideological litmus tests for students. These policies are manifestly inconsistent with Teachers College’s written promises of free speech and academic freedom as well as with Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s recent statements on the importance of free expression at Columbia University.

Teachers College’s Conceptual Framework, which represents the “philosophy for teacher education at Teachers College,” requires students to possess a “commitment to social justice.” Moreover, students are expected to recognize that “social inequalities are often produced and perpetuated through systematic discrimination and justified by societal ideology of merit, social mobility, and individual responsibility.”

“The freedom of the mind is perhaps our most essential liberty. Sadly, Teachers College’s policies include ideological requirements for future teachers,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “While social justice may sound nice, no two people define social justice in exactly the same way. This policy presents a serious problem for students who define it differently from the university.”

FIRE wrote to Columbia President Lee Bollinger and Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman on September 15, urging them to abandon the “policy of assessing student commitment to controversial, politicized, and wholly personal concepts like ‘social justice.’” FIRE pointed out that “the twentieth century well demonstrates that one man’s idea of ‘social justice’ potentially is another man’s idea of totalitarian tyranny,” and implored Teachers College to “live up to its public promises” of freedom of thought and expression. FIRE received no response to its letter.

“According to Teachers College, students who believe that merit, social mobility, and individual responsibility are positive values rather than the hallmarks of injustice are not cut out to be teachers,” Lukianoff said. “Such political litmus tests all but guarantee that students will be evaluated on their opinions rather than their abilities.”

Columbia’s silence on this matter comes at a time when Columbia has shown an embarrassing lack of respect for the rights of its students. It recently suspended its men’s ice hockey club for posting a flyer that some on campus found offensive, only backing off from that punishment after extensive negative publicity. It is also currently embroiled in a controversy over a melee that erupted at a College Republicans-sponsored lecture by Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrist.

At other colleges and universities, requirements of ideological conformity have led to specific incidents of viewpoint discrimination against teacher candidates with dissenting views. For example, at Washington State University (WSU), education student Ed Swan was threatened with dismissal from WSU’s College of Education because he expressed certain political beliefs, such as the idea that white privilege and male privilege do not exist. At the time, WSU required its education students to “exhibit[ ] an understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege in American society.” In WSU’s estimation, Swan, as an outspoken conservative, did not possess the required understanding. FIRE also had to intervene at Rhode Island College, where the School of Social Work required a conservative master’s student to publicly advocate for “progressive” social changes if he wanted to continue pursuing a degree in social work policy. At Le Moyne College, a student was dismissed from the graduate education program for writing a paper in which he expressed his personal beliefs about the need for strong discipline in the classroom—a paper that received an A-.

“Excellent teachers hold a wide variety of political and social views,” Lukianoff stated. “Teachers College should abandon its politically loaded evaluation criteria and focus on what matters: whether students have obtained the knowledge and skill sets necessary to teach.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Columbia University can be viewed at


Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

Lee Bollinger, President, Columbia University: 212-854-9970;

Susan Fuhrman, President, Teachers College: 212-678-3131;

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