PUBLISHED:June 30, 2010

Six questions for Rodney Smolla

Rodney Smolla became president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., on June 30. A leading First Amendment scholar and appellate advocate, Smolla has taught law at DePaul University, the University of Illinois, the University of Arkansas, the University of Denver, and at the William & Mary Law School, where he also directed the Institute of Bill of Rights Law. He joined the faculty of the University of Richmond Law School in 1998 and in 2003 became dean. He was appointed dean of the Washington & Lee’s School of Law, where he also was Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor, in 2007.

Below, Smolla talks about his new position with Duke Law’s Matthew Taylor.

How did the opportunity at Furman come about, and what interested you in the position?

The opportunity came about because I was contacted by the search committee. It was a search firm that contacted me, so that’s how I first got wind of it. I think that the attractiveness was what Furman wanted in its new president. I think what it wanted was someone who would have a commitment to it being a vibrant intellectual community and at the same time have a commitment to wanting to lead a campus that had a sense of moral purpose and public responsibility. It was that blend of intellectual ambition and a moral community with a powerful tradition of service to society and commitment to helping students develop in their character that I found attractive.

What do you anticipate being the biggest change between educating law students and educating undergraduates?

I think they’re more alike than they are different. At its best, law school teaches you to take the theory and doctrines that you learn in the classroom and apply them in a creative way and in a problem solving way to give real clients wise counsel and to be their advocates, and I think that’s very much like the liberal arts tradition at its best. The goal of a liberal arts education is to help students take the knowledge and the information that they are presented with in a classroom and learn how to use it in ways that are entrepreneurial and creative, that solve problems, and that translate ideas into actions, so I think in many ways the educational theories are identical. It’s just that law is about one particular subject matter and the liberal arts encompass all the fields of human knowledge.

If you could find time to teach an undergraduate class at Furman, what would it be? Why?

I am going to teach an undergraduate class in the first semester. I’m going to teach one of Furman’s freshman seminars. It’s entitled “The Constitution Goes to College,” and it’s an examination of how constitutional issues have shaped colleges and universities, public and private in American society.

You have a book coming out by the same name. What are some of the themes of The Constitution Goes to College?

The thesis of the book is that some of the major tensions that have defined our constitutional law have also heavily shaped the identity of modern universities. Academic freedom is an example. Academic freedom on the one hand represents a very wide open, robust, anything goes notion of a free market of ideas, yet it also carries with it notions of academic integrity, honesty, rigor in argument, rationality, and so on. So there’s a tension. In one sense we are more free than almost any other aspect of society, because a university is this caldron of ideas. In nearly every aspect of what we do, ideas get challenged and tested and cross-examined. At the same time, there are certain responsibilities that faculty members and students have that place greater limits on their freedom. We have rules of rigor, and plagiarism, and solid evidence, and scientific method, and so on that limit what we can say without having some negative consequences attached to what we say. That’s an example of the two different sides of free speech that I use in the book, and I use the kinds of conflicts that occur on modern campuses involving speech to frame that. In the seminar, I’ll be giving students problems involving those issues and readings involving those issues, and we’ll explore the positive and negative sides of academic freedom in the same way I do in the book.

The book won’t be out in time for the freshman to use it, but the themes that I explore in the book are the themes I’m going to explore in the seminar.

You’ve done a lot of work related to academic freedom. How will that research inform or influence your work at Furman?

I think there will be a lot of connection. Many things that occur on American campuses involve conflicts that are either literally the kinds of conflicts that you face in constitutional law or they mirror them. Issues involving academic freedom, discrimination, harassment, due process are constantly issues that bubble up and command the focus of universities and the leaders of universities. I do think I have some advantage in having been involved in those issues as a lawyer and as a scholar as I now approach them as a university president, advantage at least in the sense that I’ve been exposed to the conflicts and the arguments on various sides. I hope will approach it with some balanced judgment because of that.

You attended two universities in Yale and Duke that work to balance rigorous academics with athletic success. What can you take from those experiences that will help you find that same balance at Furman?

I think both Duke and Yale are examples of robust athletic programs and extraordinary academic programs. One thing that both universities demonstrate that it’s possible to be very successful in intercollegiate athletics and at the same time successful in one’s academic program. Yale plays, for the most part, a different level of sports than Duke does, but I found my experiences at both campuses to be relatively similar in showing that there’s not an irreconcilable conflict between the two. At a school like Furman, a strong athletic program does a great deal to encourage upward mobility, add to the diversity of the student body, and to give opportunities to scholar athletes who are going to be great contributors to society as leaders. All of that is complementary to the larger missions that Furman has. I felt very good as a student at both Yale and Duke about the role of athletics and how it enhances the culture and life of those two universities, and I’m very comfortable being a champion for a strong athletic program at Furman. In fact, I think Furman’s goal should be to get a national championship in basketball sooner than North Carolina.