FEATURE

The Education of Neil Gorsuch

As a Columbia undergrad, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch '88CC learned how to argue his opinions.

by Thomas Vinciguerra ’85CC, ’86JRN, ’90GSAS Published Fall 2017
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Still, Kamber quickly volunteers that he liked Gorsuch personally. In 1985, both of them lost the National Speech and Debate Association’s Lincoln-Douglas Debate at the organization’s national championships. When Kamber sought refuge in drink, Gorsuch consoled him, literally patting him on the back.

Elizabeth King Humphrey ’88CC, a freelance writer and editor in North Carolina, and a signer of the pro-Gorsuch petition, points to the number of signatories as testament to Gorsuch’s personal appeal. “When you spoke with him you could tell he respected you,” she says. “If I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have kept up with him all these years.”

In face-to-face discussion, Kamber, too, found Gorsuch delightful. “We would argue for hours, and it was a lot of fun. He was a fascinating guy to talk to. We had a friendly rivalry. It was a private debating club of two people.”

Their most memorable dustup came when Kamber, a University senator, suggested that Columbia’s fraternities might be compelled to admit women (the College went coed in 1983). The notion became a cause célèbre, spawned a movement on campus called Students for a Reformed Fraternity System, and culminated in a point-counterpoint in the March 7, 1988, issue of the Fed.

“He was a fascinating guy to talk to. We had a friendly rivalry.” — Tom Kamber ’89CC

Defending Kamber’s position, Nancy Murphy ’89CC wrote, “Single-sex fraternities pose an immediate threat to all Columbia students . . . Women who are barred from fraternities by accident of birth face tangible harm.” She equated all-male Greek houses with “slavery and segregation, clear evils [that] were long supported by law simply because they were cultural institutions.”

Gorsuch and his Fiji brother Michael Behringer ’89CC (currently president of the Columbia College Alumni Association) countered the “righteous reformers.” Calling forced coeducation of fraternities “absurd,” they argued for freedom of choice: “What such heavy-handed moralism misses is the fact that Columbia is a pluralistic University, that its fraternity system is equally pluralistic, with options available for everyone. There is no one at Columbia who cannot join a fraternity or initiate a new one if they wish to do so.” Noting that “three all-women fraternities/sororities” had lately been formed, Gorsuch and Behringer asserted that Kamber’s forces were “incapable of mustering a stable argument against the system as a whole.”

 

All of this, of course, raises the question: why would Gorsuch attend a college where his views would not only be in the minority, but also draw strong opposition?

Elizabeth Pleshette offers this insight: “We would frequently say to him, ‘Why are you here? Everything upsets you. You think all of these liberal students are so frivolous.’ We were always challenging him. And he said he wanted to be in the belly of the beast to test himself. He said, ‘This is going to hone me. If I surrounded myself with like-minded students, I wouldn’t get stronger.’”

“Neil often told me that he elected to attend Columbia for two reasons: the Core Curriculum and the rich diversity of Columbia’s student body,” Behringer wrote in a Facebook post the day the Senate confirmed Gorsuch’s nomination.

Perhaps that combination gave Gorsuch the ability to probe his opponents’ beliefs, the better to counter them. Or perhaps it opened his mind, preparing him for when he might have to sit on a high court in dispassionate judgment.

Former Fed editor Eric Prager ’90CC, now a partner at a New York City law firm, finds truth in both these theories. Either way, Prager pegged his old friend three decades ago.

“It’s a trite expression,” Prager says, “but it captures what I feel: I thought he was destined for greatness.”

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