By Published: May 8, 2018

Toby Bollig, the spring 2018 outstanding graduate in the College of Arts and Sciences, had a personal experience with the issue after serious car crash left him with a brain injury that made attending church ‘miserable’

Toby Bollig is as comfortable in the humanities as he is in the natural sciences, as his academic record at the University of Colorado Boulder effectively proves. Additionally, Bollig overcame a traumatic brain injury in a 2016 car accident and used that experience as a jumping-off point for one of his two honors theses.

Bollig will graduate Thursday as a double major in philosophy and in physics summa cum laude. He completed an honors thesis in each of those disciplines.


At the top of the page, Toby Bollig poses for a photo in 2014. Photo by Jamie Leigh Siebert. Above, Bollig in a contemplative moment this spring next to the Robert Frost statue outside of Old Main on campus. Staff photo.

While at CU Boulder, he worked in several jobs and amassed an impressive list of campus leadership experience, including co-chair of the Chancellor’s Accessibility Committee. He is one of 10 students from this graduating class in the College of Arts and Sciences to earn nothing but As.

Those are some reasons Bollig has been named the college’s outstanding graduate for spring 2018.

Bollig is a fourth-generation Colorado native, born and reared in Fort Collins and the son of a Colorado State University alumnus. Partly because of CU Boulder’s good reputation in physics, “I moseyed my way down here to Boulder,” he said last week, adding:

“I bleed silver and gold now.”

In his honors thesis in physics, Bollig examined the scientific revolution in the development of the Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom.

Bollig argues for a revision in a theory of scientific revolution proposed by Thomas Kuhn, a 20th-century American physicist and author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

“One of my basic philosophical commitments is to metaphysical realism,” Bollig said last week. “Science, though not perfect—it’s fallible—does give us information about reality and knowledge about reality. It’s a reasonable aim of science to do that, and that knowledge is mind-independent and kind of in a shared common space.”

This perspective also infuses his philosophy honors thesis—which focused on the religious exemptions to the Americans with Disabilities Act—or ADA. He examined Christian metaethical accounts of human rights and specifically disability rights.

“I think moral facts do exist,” Bollig said. “I think we can at least if not have perfect knowledge then have some knowledge of them. And they’re mind-independent as well, for me.”

It seemed very problematic to me that someone with a brain injury would be more able to go to a food truck collective in a bar than to attend a church or religious service.”

Bollig’s own life raised this question. In fall 2016, he was driving home to see his parents, turning left on a protected green arrow from Highway 52 onto I-25. A guy who had dropped an avocado while driving was trying to grab the fruit and ran the red light, smashing into Bollig’s car.

Initially, doctors thought he’d be fine within a week. Two weeks after, he interviewed for the Rhodes Scholarship, and his traumatic brain injury made it a “miserable experience.” That’s because stimulation from light and noise can leave the injured person exhausted and suffering from headaches.

He saw a neurologist, who diagnosed a concussion after doing “baseline cognitive testing,” which showed Bollig’s cognitive abilities in the single-digits percentile range and some less than the first percentile. “The average college student, they would expect to be in the 90th percentile or higher.”

Bollig took a medical leave from CU Boulder and moved in with his parents. For eight months, he was not able to live independently.

During this time, Bollig’s best friend, Floyd Pierce (ApMath, Econ’17), appeared on the CBS series The Amazing Race, and held a premiere party at a Boulder bar. To reduce the stimulation of the place, he wore tinted glasses and ear plugs, “and it was fine.”

Within a week of Pierce’s party, Bollig’s parents wanted him to go to church with them for Easter. “That experience was miserable,” Bollig recalled. “It was 10 times harder than going to that premiere party.”

He added: “My brain was so compromised by the flashing lights and the loud noises and all of objects in my visual field that I didn’t even realize that I could get up and leave the service to get away from the stimulation causing my symptoms to escalate.”

Noting that Title III of the ADA exempts religious organizations from the requirement to provide equal access to facilities for people with disabilities, Bollig said, “It seemed very problematic to me that someone with a brain injury would be more able to go to a food truck collective in a bar than to attend a church or religious service.”

In his honors thesis, Bollig examines the work of theologians who argue against the concept of human rights, broadly speaking, “which they think are inextricably tied to the excessive individualism of the Enlightenment.”

Bollig’s thesis proposes two ways to “include people with disabilities in a robust, theistic account of human rights.” Even though the ADA exempts religious facilities, Bollig hopes religious institutions find his moral arguments at more compelling than federal law.

And he has made some headway. Bollig’s church in Louisville has been “very receptive to talking about and working on becoming more accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities,” he said.

The church is building a new facility asked and asked Bollig for suggestions on incorporating accessibility into the work. Before his thesis was completed, Bollig discussed ways the church could work with its building contractor “including voluntarily building their new space in compliance with Title III of the ADA.”

After graduation, Bollig plans to take a few months to recover from neck surgery that is related to the car crash. During that time, he hopes to land a job working with a law firm that practices disability law.

Later, he hopes to get a doctorate in philosophy and go to law school. In the long term, he’d like to be a professor working at the intersection of “theology, philosophy and law to address disability issues” and also human rights.