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

February 01, 2012

By: Rodney A. Smolla (New York and London: New York University Press, 2011).

During their first year, law students are introduced to the principles of Constitutional Law. By the time they earn their JD, these students will have spent the better part of a decade studying in one or more academic institutions. However, law students may not appreciate the critical intersection between the American Constitution and the operations of colleges and universities across the country. 
Rodney Smolla, currently the President of Furman University and former dean of the Washington & Lee and University of Richmond law schools, examines the interrelation between major constitutional principles and academic institutions, and how one influences the other. Smolla explores five major constitutional questions which impact the fundamental nature and dynamics of academia. Does a “living” constitutional interpretation support a “right” to academic freedom and is this even desirable? What role should the government play in publicly regulating the private activities of universities? How does one constitutionally approach the concept of “rights” in academia, while balancing the interests of public and private stakeholders? How does one strike a balance between the freedom-oriented concepts faculty and students espouse, while recognizing the need for a certain degree of order within the institution and in its relationship to society? What does equality mean in academia, and how is it currently or ideally applied to university activities?

Smolla examines these issues through an exploration of different legal viewpoints in how the Constitution can be interpreted and applied to academic institutions. His assertions heavily rely on analyzing established precedent while interjecting his own views on these issues. Smolla, however,  strikes a reasonable balance between legal theory and opinion, resulting in a logical and interesting analysis. Additionally, the book avoids complicated legal jargon and provides an easy-to-follow narrative structure.  Smolla intersperses historically significant and topical examples to illustrate his assertions which helps keep the reader engaged. 

Students who are interested in learning more about Constitutional interpretation, academic freedom and governance, or just want an interesting read should consider visiting the Biddle Law Library and checking out this book.
Review by Mark Popielarski, Biddle Intern.