Born in 1946 in Santa Rosa, California, Bollinger graduated from the University of Oregon and Columbia Law School. He was a law clerk for Judge Wilfred Feinberg of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger in the early 1970s. In 1973 Bollinger joined the faculty of the University of Michigan Law School, where he would be named dean fourteen years later.
Bollinger made his debut on the national political stage during Robert Bork's Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1987. Arguing before the Senate that Bork's interpretation of the First Amendment could eventually roll back legal precedent, Bollinger helped derail Bork's nomination.
In 1988 the University of Michigan (UM) became mired in controversy when its governing body adopted a stringent speech code stipulating that speech offensive to an individual on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender was a punishable offense. The code was in effect for only fifteen months — it was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court — but a number of students were nonetheless penalized for offensive speech.
During his tenure as UM dean, Bollinger never questioned the legitimacy of his school’s speech code. "The failure of the dean of a law school, especially one with an expertise in the First Amendment, to speak up against a patently unconstitutional speech code is a blight on his record that should be mentioned until he explains himself," said William Rice of the American Academy for Liberal Education.
After a brief stint as Provost of Dartmouth College, Bollinger returned to the University of Michigan in 1996 as the school’s President. In 2003 he was named in the landmark Supreme Court lawsuits of Grutter v. Bollinger (where the Court upheld UM's affirmative action admissions policies) and Gratz v. Bollinger (where the Court found that UM's point system was too mechanistic and thus in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment).
Bollinger responded to these Court rulings by arguing passionately in defense of affirmative action. "This principle of [affirmative action] is a deep part of the educational philosophy of American higher education," he told the Christian Science Monitor in 2001. "Without the diversity it provides, the character and the quality of our great public universities would decline."
Also during his tenure at UM, Bollinger in 1999 defended the actions of thirty anti-sweatshop activists who had stormed his office. He told The New York Times that the activists were "terrific students … They're just the kind of students you want on your campus. They were interested in a serious problem, they were knowledgeable about the problem, and they really wanted to do something about it."
In June 2002 Bollinger was named President of Columbia University, where in 2004 he was at the fore of an on-campus controversy centered on the concept of academic freedom. The David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel group, had recently produced a documentary titled Columbia Unbecoming that featured student supporters of Israel recounting the harassment and intimidation that allegedly had been directed at them by faculty members in the University’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) Department. Bollinger was criticized by a number of Columbia professors for his reluctance to speak out about the problem.
Eventually, Columbia organized an ad-hoc committee to review the allegations. "This is a completely new process that has been set up," Bollinger said. “This is a very important, careful, delicate process to think about behavior in the classroom.”
In addition to his role at President of Columbia, Bollinger sits on the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. He has authored the books The Tolerant Society and Images of a Free Press.
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