Every time I think Columbia University could not possibly be the subject of more controversy relating to Middle Eastern politics, another controversy emerges. Columbia has been in the news most recently for its decision to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as part of its annual World Leaders Forum, at which Heads of State in New York for the UN General Assembly stop by Morningside Heights each fall to give a talk.
The way Columbia President Lee Bollinger has dealt with, and in some cases, invited these controversies has surely made him many enemies, but I admire his even-handedness and courage to speak hard truths to people on all sides of the issues. His approach has likely made him many enemies and lost Columbia a few donors, but it has made me extremely proud to be an alum.
The atmosphere at Columbia surrounding the discussion and study of Middle East issues has been toxic long before Bollinger arrived from Michigan Law School in 2003. Student groups organized around Israeli-Palestinian issues have failed to treat each other with even a modicum of respect and have polarized the environment to such an extent that virtually no reasoned discussion is possible. Dialogue at the facultly level is not much better.
Bollinger has not demonstrably improved this situation, but in my opinion (my organization has nothing to do with this) displayed a great deal of leadership and courage when he has weighed in on Middle East politics.
First, Bollinger stood up to Daniel Pipes’s witch hunt in Columbia’s Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department. Pipes’s initiative, Campus Watch, is dedicated to “improving” Middle Eastern Studies departments across the United States. The actual aim of Campus Watch is to expose outspoken, anti-Israel faculty members.
Scholarship of Middle East issues might indeed benefit from more diverse perspectives, but Campus Watch is more interested in intimidation than engaging in two-way dialogue. It sponsored Columbia Unbecoming, a documentary chronicling accusations against MEALAC faculty, and launched the Columbia Project, a campaign to single out Columbia faculty and its most notorious member, Professor Joseph Massad. The overview of the Columbia Project reveals immediately that it presupposes its conclusions; it also terribly (and possibly deliberately) misconstrues the the ideas and legacy of Edward Said, Columbia’s late public intellectual.
I took a class with Professor Massad in 2001. I found many of his ideas very distasteful. He urges students to see insurgent violence in the context of the relationship between the oppressed and their oppressors. He ascribes ulterior motives to ideological opponents far more than I think is justified. And he has a view of Israeli-Palestinian history and current affairs that is, in my view, overly simplistic. Professor Massad also aggressively challenges students with whom he disagrees.
But Massad is fair, approachable inside and outside of class, and devoted to his students. He understands that his views are not shared by most people in the class and invites students to engage with him in the best tradition of the academy. Furthermore, he graded my work based on my understanding of the material and ability to analyze it, not ideological considerations. He and (and other faculty) may be highly enthusiastic and radical, and he may occasionally been excessively zealous, but Massad does not attempt to intimidate students who hold opposing views.
Massad has been public enemy number one for Pipes and a number of Jewish organizations. When students came forward with complaints against Massad, Bollinger organized a committee to investigate, which contacted me at the time. The process satisfied neither Massad nor his accusers, but the committee’s report ultimately failed to find any systematic abuses. To the great dismay of the inquisition, President Bollinger rightly accepted the report and put the issue to rest.
While the process wasn’t smooth and, frankly, neither the MEALAC faculty nor Campus Watch and its allies were happy with it. What’s important is that Bollinger ultimately stood up for free speech by refusing to go after Massad and Co.
He did so again when he issued a statement rejecting the British University and College Union’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions. His statement was applauded by the many of the same Jewish organizations so livid over the conduct of Columbia’s MEALAC department. Here it is:
“As a citizen, I am profoundly disturbed by the recent vote by Britain’s new University and College Union to advance a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. As a university professor and president, I find this idea utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy, where we will not hold intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment. In seeking to quarantine Israeli universities and scholars this vote threatens every university committed to fostering scholarly and cultural exchanges that lead to enlightenment, empathy, and a much-needed international marketplace of ideas.
“At Columbia I am proud to say that we embrace Israeli scholars and universities that the UCU is now all too eager to isolate — as we embrace scholars from many countries regardless of divergent views on their government’s policies. Therefore, if the British UCU is intent on pursuing its deeply misguided policy, then it should add Columbia to its boycott list, for we do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish. Boycott us, then, for we gladly stand together with our many colleagues in British, American and Israeli universities against such intellectually shoddy and politically biased attempts to hijack the central mission of higher education.”
Over 159 university presidents have endorsed Bollinger’s statement since it was issued and I hope more still join the roster.
That brings us to today, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia at Bollinger’s invitation. The invitation was consistent with Bollinger’s views on free speech and, despite the uproar, was entirely appropriate.
I agree entirely with Steve’s assessment that Ahmadinejad is Iran’s Cheney. Guess what? Cheney speaks regularly in the United States and the American public disapproves of no individual in public life more than him.
Bollinger’s introduction of Ahmadinejad today was extremely antagonistic, but it serves to underscore the point of the invitation: just as everyone should be heard, everyone should be forced to confront direct and unfiltered criticism. It should also serve to remind people — Bush administration officials in particular — that hearing the ideas of others is not the same as endorsing those ideas.
In his four-year tenure at Columbia, Bollinger has probably disappointed most students, faculty, and alumni at one time or another. Still, he has navigated at least three controversial high-profile guided primarily by his concern for free speech, intellectual honesty, the open exchange of ideas, and and the best interests of the university. It’s also important to note that Bollinger could easily have avoided controversy by doing nothing, both on the Israeli universities boycott and Ahmadinejad’s visit. Instead, he bravely spoke up and did the right thing in both cases.
Columbia may be losing money and credibility with Israel’s most ardent supporters and its most vocal critics. But Bollinger is making a believer out of me.
— Scott Paul
Update: A few readers have taken issue with the hostile nature of Bollinger’s introductory remarks. They are quite confrontational. And Bollinger’s comparison of Ahmadinejad to a dictator is clearly off base.
But it’s important to see these comments in context. Bollinger told Iranian officials explicitly that he would make a critical introduction and “pose sharp challenges and questions.” None of this was a surprise. And, for that matter, the rules of diplomatic protocol don’t apply here and Bollinger is under no obligation to be courteous in his remarks. Ahmadinejad was invited to spur dialogue, not to be honored or toasted — and he knew it.
Moreover, the purpose of his comments is neither to advance the war agenda nor to placate the hawks, as some have suggested. Rather, they represent the flip side of Bollinger’s point on free speech: anyone who wants a public forum must be willing to endure public criticism, however unpleasant or even rude it may be. Point well taken in my book.