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FIRE Letter to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman, May 9, 2007
President Lee C. Bollinger
Office of the President
202 Low Memorial Library
535 West 116th Street
New York, New York 10027-6606
PO Box 163
525 West 120th Street
New York, New York 10027-6606
FIRE once again writes to express our continuing concern about the ideological litmus tests employed by Teachers College to evaluate student performance. We note with dismay that since receiving our letter of October 16, 2006 you have failed to reform the policies which judge degree candidates by their adherence to vague and politically loaded standards. In past responses, you have maintained that Teachers College does not utilize ideological litmus tests and that student performance is not judged by demonstrated adherence to a particular ideology. Unfortunately, as we have repeatedly pointed out, this is not true.
Teachers College relies on “dispositions”—which you define as “observable behaviors that fall within the law and involve the use of certain skills”—to evaluate students. One of these dispositions is “Respect for Diversity and Commitment to Social Justice,” and demonstration of such is “expected of Teachers College candidates and graduates” and “assessed at each transition point.” (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education [NCATE] Standards, Element 4: Dispositions for All Candidates.) As we have made clear before, evaluating students on their ability to display “respect” for and “commitment” to “social justice” requires, at the absolute minimum, a normative institutional conception of what “social justice” is and is not. Eliminating the ability of students to decide for themselves what is and is not socially just is a deeply troubling violation of students’ freedom of conscience. That judging students against ill-defined, politically loaded standards is incompatible with the core intellectual precepts of modern liberal education should be obvious.
Teachers College’s commitment to a particular vision of “social justice” is clearly evidenced in the school’s “Conceptual Framework,” which states: “We see teaching as an ethical and political act. We see teachers as moral actors whose job is to facilitate the growth and development of other human beings, and as such, as participants in a larger struggle for social justice.” (Teachers College Conceptual Framework, p. 26; internal citation omitted.) If a newly admitted Teachers College student, in order to best prepare him- or herself for the academic rigors to come, were to inquire about what exactly constitutes “social justice” at Teachers College, an answer is readily available. Teachers College’s Conceptual Framework states plainly that “educators must recognize ways in which taken-for-granted notions regarding the legitimacy of the social order are flawed, see change agency as a moral imperative, and have skills to act as agents of change.” (Teachers College Conceptual Framework, p. 27.)
A monolithic, top-down definition of a concept as endlessly subjective as “social justice” can only serve to alienate or punish students simply because they do not share the institutional definition by which their own views are judged. You must recognize that not all students will agree that “change agency” is a “moral imperative.” Because of the necessary—and desirable—variation in personal philosophies from student to student, Teachers College’s reliance on a commitment to social justice as an element of evaluation is deeply problematic. As we discussed in our October 26 letter:
It should be apparent that this form of ideological litmus test contradicts Columbia’s oft-stated commitments to free expression and academic freedom. As evidenced by the extensive media coverage generated by Teachers College’s refusal to reform its evaluative criteria, the fact that ideologically charged standards are employed by a top-tier university like Columbia is indeed news to the general public. Teachers College’s use of the “social justice” disposition has been covered in The New York Sun (“Merit at Columbia,” October 12, 2006), the New York Post (“Litmus lesson: Teachers College’s political tests,” October 12, 2006), The New York Times (“A Columbia expert on free speech is accused of speaking too softly,” October 22, 2006), The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Social justice and political orthodoxy,” March 30, 2007) and Education Next (“Return of the Thought Police? The history of teacher attitude adjustment,” Spring 2007). Like FIRE, the general public expects much more from Columbia University, one of our nation’s premier institutions of higher education.
FIRE has no comment or position on the ideological or symbolic content of the college’s definition of social justice. We would oppose, with equal effort, a “disposition” purporting to grade students according to their demonstrated commitments to “capitalism,” “patriotism,” or “individualism.” Indeed, the crux of our objection is that by so defining and evaluating a student’s possible understanding of a concept as amorphous and personal as “social justice,” Teachers College is substituting its own conclusions for those of its students. Education demands that students analyze, critique, reason, argue, and research on their own; what Teachers College encourages here is instead rote recital, a kind of conceptual spoon-feeding.
The solution, however, is simple. As we stated in our last letter, we ask only that a personal “commitment to social justice” no longer be required of Teachers College students, not that the school as a whole abandon its attachment to a certain understanding of “social justice.” Again, all we ask is that you eliminate the use of impossibly vague and politically charged evaluative criteria. Allow your students to learn for themselves.
Teachers College should view this challenge as an opportunity. As anyone who has ever been a student must surely know, teachers come from the widest possible range of humanity, from every background and belief. Please, let Teachers College’s evaluative criteria reflect this truth.
Alan Brinkley, Provost, Columbia University
Susan Feagin, Executive Vice President for University Development and Alumni Relations, Columbia University
David M. Stone, Executive Vice President for Communications, Columbia University
Darlyne Bailey, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, Teachers College
Joseph S. Brosnan, Vice President for Development and External Affairs, Teachers College
Diane Dobry, Director of Communications, Teachers College
William V. Campbell, Chair, Columbia University Board of Trustees
Marilyn Laurie, Vice-Chair, Columbia University Board of Trustees
Philip Milstein, Vice-Chair, Columbia University Board of Trustees
Michael Patterson, Vice-Chair, Columbia University Board of Trustees
Richard Witten, Vice-Chair, Columbia University Board of Trustees
José Cabranes, Trustee, Columbia University Board of Trustees
John W. Hyland, Jr., Co-Chair, Teachers College Board of Trustees
William Dodge Rueckert, Co-Chair, Teachers College Board of Trustees
Stephen H. Balch, President, National Association of Scholars
Nat Hentoff, FIRE Board of Advisors
Michael Meyers, New York Civil Rights Coalition
Laurie Moses Hines, Education Next
Erin Durkin, Columbia Spectator