Middle East studies in the News
Columbia University bias affair heats up
by Shira Schoenberg
The furor over anti-Israel bias at Columbia University deepened when four more students came forward to document failures by the university administration to respond to charges of academic intimidation by faculty.
In exclusive interviews with The Advocate, students Shari Keller, Aharon Horwitz and Ariel Beery detailed accusations against Columbia College Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis for her own alleged intimidation of a complaining student. They also criticized a committee on academic freedom led by Columbia Law School Professor Vincent Blasi for "whitewashing" the issue.
Columbia University officials — including Provost Alan Brinkley — in statements to The Advocate, denied that any formal complaints had been lodged and countered that the Blasi committee was not meant to be an investigative body.
The charges come in the wake of the film, "Columbia Unbecoming," released last month by the Boston-based David Project, in which 10 current and former students complained of anti-Israel bias and intimidation by professors.
The new testimony, which includes four oral interviews and several written statements, will be released soon by the students and The David Project in New York City.
Shari Keller, a Columbia College senior, is one of those testifying against Yatrakis. She met with the dean to discuss the conduct of Professor George Saliba of the MEALAC (Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures) department, with whom Keller took a course on Contemporary Islamic Civilization.
On April 17, 2002, students sponsored a pro-Palestinian rally. That day, Keller recalled, when Saliba came to class, "His face was red with anger, he was yelling, his fist waving."
Saliba claimed, according to Keller, that "Another Sabra and Shatila is happening in Jenin. The withholding of information from the masses is the method Israel uses to maintain power."
Saliba cancelled class and, without taking questions, "invited" students to join him at the protest.
Upset at what she called a "highly intimidating atmosphere," Keller arranged a meeting with Dean Yatrakis. When Keller arrived at the meeting with a friend and a prepared agenda, Yatrakis allegedly requested that Keller's friend wait outside and that she put her papers away.
"I felt she wanted me alone and vulnerable, off-guard," said Keller.
According to Keller's notes from the meeting, Yatrakis asked whether she went to parochial school, and said, "Coming from a parochial school, it must have been difficult to hear ideas different from your own."
Yatrakis steered the conversation away from the classroom atmosphere to ask Keller whether Saliba's claims of Israeli massacres could be factual, and emphasized that this incident comprised only "1/14" of the semester's total class time.
Yatrakis recommended that Keller e-mail Saliba, and gave no indication that she would pursue the issue further, Keller recalled.
According to Ariel Beery, a General Studies senior who appeared in the first film, and Aharon Horwitz, a Columbia College graduate who appears in the updated testimony, the upcoming interviews will focus on the administration, with specific information on the dean.
"Testimony will point to systematic neglect in the upper levels of the university on the issue," said Horwitz.
The administration denies that an official report was ever made regarding classroom intimidation. Provost Brinkley stated in an e-mail to The Advocate, "I had not, and still have not, received any complaints from students about the behavior of faculty in the classroom…as far as I know, no formal complaints have been made through any of the established grievance procedures relating to the charges made in the film."
Columbia University spokeswoman Susan Brown said similarly that prior to the film, "There was no formal complaint."
A meeting with Yatrakis would be considered a formal complaint according to the University.
If a student did approach Yatrakis, Brown said that "She would be charged with giving the student the appropriate place to file a complaint, and she would follow up." Yet, according to Brown, "No student, either outside or inside the film," did so.
Dean Yatrakis could not be reached for comment.
The second main issue addressed in the testimony, according to Horwitz and Beery, is the Blasi committee. The committee investigating academic freedom was formed by University President Lee Bollinger in response to a March 2003 rally at which a comment by assistant anthropology professor Nicholas de Genova wishing for "a million Mogadishus" earned national condemnation.
Beery said, "The committee never followed leads; it dropped the investigation at a crucial point."
Rabbi Charles Sheer, rabbi emeritus of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, testified before of the committee for an hour and called it a "whitewash."
Sheer had been concerned about student complaints of bias in the MEALAC department for two years prior to the film.
"Students complained about courses continuously," he said.
In a meeting with three top administrators, including ombudsman Marsha Wagner, Sheer was told that nothing could be done so long as a professor's conduct was not "actionable," meaning a student's grade would not be affected for political reasons.
His testimony before the committee seemed to have little impact, Sheer concluded. "They said there was no problem. The committee interviewed people for hours on free speech and came up with no report."
The David Project's president, Charles Jacobs, added: "Everyone's looking for the report of the Blasi committee. All we hear is the verbal conclusion that there were no complaints."
The university claims that the job of the committee was never to issue a report. "It was not a committee designed to write a report or pass policy. It was advisory to President Bollinger and that's what we did. We did no factual investigation," Blasi told The Advocate. "We interviewed administration and faculty not for fact-finding but to think through issues and policies of academic freedom."
Spokewoman Brown confirmed that the goal of the committee was "to give President Bollinger a report on what's going on at Columbia. Part of what it looked at was whether there was widespread intimidation or harassment. It said it had not uncovered any intimidation."
Yet she added, "It was not scientific, it was not there to review specifics, but to get feedback on the general strength of the academic climate on campus."
Both President Bollinger and Provost Brinkley have made public statements voicing their concerns over the charges and their efforts to evaluate the charges and discuss their grievance policies.
Bollinger wrote on Oct. 27, "Academic freedom does not extend to protecting behavior in the classroom that threatens or intimidates students who express their viewpoints."
With allegations against the University's top officials, Jacobs questions "whether Columbia needs an external investigation."
The New York City Council, led by Jewish Caucus Chair Michael Nelson, has begun to investigate the issue, and Nelson's spokeswoman, Jennifer Fischer, told The Advocate that the council is formulating a letter to President Bollinger and considering a council resolution.
We're asking for an in-depth, expeditious internal investigation. We hope Columbia will take action themselves," she said.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.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org