The Constitution Goes to College: Five Constitutional Ideas That Have Shaped the American University

The Constitution Goes to College: Five Constitutional Ideas That Have Shaped the American University

The Constitution Goes to College: Five Constitutional Ideas That Have Shaped the American University

The Constitution Goes to College: Five Constitutional Ideas That Have Shaped the American University


American college campuses, where ideas are freely exchanged, contested, and above all uncensored, are historical hotbeds of political and social turmoil. In the past decade alone, the media has carefully tracked the controversy surrounding the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia, the massacres at Virginia Tech, the dismissal of Harvard's President Lawrence Summers, and the lacrosse team rape case at Duke, among others. No matter what the event, the conflicts that arise on our campuses can be viewed in terms of constitutional principles, which either control or influence outcomes of these events. In turn, constitutional principles are frequently shaped and forged by campus culture, creating a symbiotic relationship in which constitutional values influence the nature of universities, which themselves influence the nature of our constitutional values.

In The Constitution Goes to College, Rodney A. Smolla- a former dean and current university president who is an expert on the First Amendment- deftly uses the American university as a lens through which to view the Constitution in action. Drawing on landmark cases and conflicts played out on college campuses, Smolla demonstrates how five key constitutional ideas- the living Constitution, the division between public and private spheres, the distinction between rights and privileges, ordered liberty, and equality- are not only fiercely contested on college campuses, but also dominate the shape and identity of American university life.

Ultimately, Smolla compellingly demonstrates that the American college community, like the Constitution, is orderly and hierarchical yet intellectually free and open, a microcosm where these constitutional dichotomies play out with heightened intensity.


Reflecting on my life as a parent, my role as an educator, and my work as a lawyer, scholar, and advocate on issues of constitutional law, I have come to realize that in each setting my world is converging. in all three facets of my life, I face variations on the same themes. As an educator, I want for my students very much the same things that, as a parent, I want for my children. What are these things that I want, as both educator and parent? I want students, including my own children, to prosper academically, reaping the intellectual benefits of a liberal education. I also want students to grow in their character and moral sensibilities, to develop lives of consequence and meaning. in turn, as a constitutional lawyer and scholar, I sense the American “constitutional unconscious” at work, as the challenges, tensions, and tradeoffs that dominate our national life seem increasingly to infiltrate and influence my two closer worlds, at home and on the university campus.

This book is a meditation on these connections. My hypothesis is that five large themes of the American constitutional experience—the debate over whether we have a “living Constitution,” the division between the “public” and “private” spheres of society, the distinction between “rights” and “privileges,” our seemingly contradictory commitment to “ordered liberty,” and our competing conceptions of “equality”—have exerted a profound influence on identity of American colleges and universities. I intend for this argument to be taken seriously, but not literally. To speak as lawyers speak, the influence of the American Constitution on the American campus is not so much controlling authority in shaping universities, but persuasive precedent.

In writing this book, however, I speak not only as a lawyer, but also as a parent and educator. in those roles, seeking for my children, students, and . . .

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