Middle East studies in the News
Council Member Calls for Independent Investigation
by Jacob Gershman
Columbia University's leadership was wrong to have faculty members investigate colleagues accused of intimidating Jewish students, City Council Member Michael Nelson told The New York Sun yesterday.
Mr. Nelson, a Democrat of Brooklyn who is chairman of the council's Jewish Caucus, said he and other council members would insist that the university have an independent body investigate complaints against professors. About a half dozen current and former Columbia students have accused a number of professors in the Middle East studies department of silencing opinions in the classroom and mistreating students who express support for Israel.
Mr. Nelson has suggested that the New York City Commission on Human Rights or the Anti-Defamation League could look into the matter. The council does not have legal authority to mandate an investigation at the university.
"The evaluation shouldn't be the decision of the faculty," Mr. Nelson said. "I don't think it affords the best possible opportunity to get to the bottom of the matter."
Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, on Wednesday said he had created a committee of five professors to listen to and investigate complaints from students and report back to school officials early next year. Attorney Floyd Abrams, a specialist on the First Amendment, will be advising the committee.
"These claims by our own students must be taken very seriously, while recognizing that before and judgment is reached all sides must be heard," Mr. Bollinger wrote in a letter he distributed to the university. He wrote that the response to the complaints "must be dealt with at the faculty, departmental, and school level."
Mr. Nelson said he has the support of more than 30 of the 51 council members for sending a letter to Columbia urging officials to set up an independent body to investigate the charges made by students.
The complaints, aired in a 25-minute documentary video produced by a pro-Israel group based in Boston, have focused national attention on the treatment of Jewish students and how Israel is portrayed and researched at one of the nation's most highly regarded universities.
The professors targeted in the video say they have not intimidated any students and accuse them of conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
Mr. Nelson also criticized the task of the committee as being too "narrow." Mr. Bollinger said it would not investigate departments, scholars' political beliefs, or curricula.
He said Columbia officials ought to be concerned about whether "professors are using classrooms as a platform to promote their political views."
In deciding how to handle what has ballooned into the most serious crisis of his two-year tenure, Mr. Bollinger has faced intense pressure from both sides of the dispute. Faculty members have expressed fear that their academic freedom could be jeopardized if the school took action against the accused professors.
Those who have made the complaints say the school needs to protect students from professors who are intolerant of opposing views and mistreat students who express them. In one case, an assistant professor in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, Joseph Massad, is said to have threatened to banish a student from his course concerning the Middle East conflict if the student continued to deny that Israel committed atrocities against Palestinians.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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