Middle East studies in the News
A Double Disservice: the David Project Fails in its Mission
by Zac Frank
After months of controversy, I finally saw the David Project's film "Columbia Unbecoming" a little over a week ago. The film offers a stinging critique of certain members of Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department for intimidating dissenting students. Unfortunately, however, it goes beyond that to become of piece of agitprop, blurring charges of intimidation with criticism of the Israeli government and charges of anti-Semitism.
The film does a disservice to students who have valid complaints about the treatment they received from MEALAC professors. "Columbia Unbecoming" conflates professors' inappropriate behavior in class with their conduct outside of the classroom, their writing, and their political views. Amid several valid complaints about in-class conduct, for instance, there are anecdotes of interaction between professors and students who were never enrolled in any of their classes. In these instances, the film is dishonest in that it does not make clear which events happen in the context of a teacher-student relationship, in which a professor has an obvious power advantage over the student, and which happen off-campus and outside of a classroom relationship.
In addition, the movie draws upon the writing of certain MEALAC professors who have criticized the state of Israel and the policies of its government. While their behavior may at times not be productive in creating an academic dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has nothing to do with how students are treated in the classroom. Additionally, toward the end, the film cites the appearance of swastikas in bathrooms of Butler and Lerner as instances of anti-Semitism on campus. What that has to do with students being intimidated by professors, I don't know.
The swastika example reveals the greatest failing of "Columbia Unbecoming." Rather than simply documenting instances of student intimidation and inappropriate classroom behavior, the film confuses intimidation with political views of professors and unrelated acts of vandalism to point to what it claims is pervasive anti-Semitism at Columbia. It artfully transforms a political criticism of Israel's security fence into an anti-Semitic remark.
Valid complaints of intimidation have been voiced at Columbia, both with respect to and independently of the film. I have spoken to some students who want nothing to do with the David Project, but who have described very detailed instances of what can only be described as inappropriate classroom behavior by a professor. Unfortunately, "Columbia Unbecoming" makes it very difficult for the administration to redress valid complaints because of the film's approach. Whether or not any professor is guilty of intimidation, he or she can point to the film as an attempt at censorship and seize the mantle of academic freedom in defense.
But the disservice done to the students and to the University was not just propagated by the David Project. The administration also has a significant burden to bear in its response to the situation. Before seeing the film I was angry at the students involved. I thought they had not even attempted to utilize grievance procedures already in place at Columbia. Watching the film, however, changed that. I heard one woman speak of how she went to one office which told her to go to another, that office to a different one, and so on until she had come full circle. That, if anything, rings true of the Columbia experience. This is a problem of bureaucracy and a lack of communication between the various appendages of the University that needs to be addressed on a large scale. President Bollinger, however, has done nothing to even begin to cut through Columbia's red tape.
Furthermore, though the response by Bollinger, on its surface, seemed balanced, it revealed a total lack of action and initiative on the part of his administration to address the problem. The accusations against the department had surfaced long before the film came out. The investigation of those complaints, however, seems to have been cursory at best. Only until this became (unfairly) a public relations nightmare did the administration take any more steps to address it.
The appointment of the ad-hoc committee investigating intimidation, however, was incredibly misguided. While I do have confidence in the ability of the committee to be impartial and fair, it is not surprising that students making accusations would have a problem with its composition of Columbia faculty and administrators, some with ties to the professors involved. When there was a controversy surrounding the English department, a committee was convened with members from outside the University. If Bollinger were serious about this investigation and had any sense, he would have done the same in this situation, if for nothing else than to avoid even the appearance of conflict.
The David Project and the administration have failed both Columbia and its students.
Zac Frank is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. The Lowdown runs on alternate Mondays.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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