Campus Watch in the Media
Professors Contest Charges Of Anti-Semitism
by James Romoser
Disturbed by the outgrowths of the controversy over Middle East studies at Columbia, faculty members across the university are speaking out against what they see as baseless attacks from outsiders intending to harm Columbia's reputation.
They are responding not to the specific allegations made against certain professors in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, but to the broader characterizations of Columbia as an intolerant, even anti-Semitic university that have arisen out of those allegations.
Some professors are also criticizing University President Lee Bollinger for not defending Columbia forcefully enough or early enough in the controversy, thereby letting outside organizations like The David Project and newspapers like The New York Sun frame the debate.
In their comments, made both publicly and in interviews with Spectator, the professors have repeatedly invoked the ideals and terminology of academic freedom, saying universities like Columbia must retain absolute authority over what they teach and how they teach it. Outside groups, they say, are violating professorial autonomy by attacking Columbia based on the controversial views of certain MEALAC professors, like Joseph Massad and Hamid Dabashi, who have been critical of Israel.
"There is a broad sentiment among the faculty that Columbia has been very unfairly under attack from public organizations and newspapers," said Eric Foner, the Dewitt Clinton professor of history.
"Charges that there is a climate of anti-Semitism at Columbia, that it is impossible to express pro-Israeli views at Columbia, these wild charges that this is a place where Jewish students are intimidated all the time—I just feel that these charges are utterly inaccurate and they need to be refuted directly," Foner added.
Such charges have come from a variety of sources over the last few months in the aftermath of the release of Columbia Unbecoming, a documentary produced by The David Project in which several students and recent alumni say they were intimidated by some MEALAC professors, including Massad and Dabashi.
Last October, a New York Daily News editorial entitled "Depths of bigotry at Columbia" stated, "Columbia University classrooms are infected by a culture of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bigotry."
Last November, an editorial in The New York Sun said, "The fact is that Columbia has been infected with a contingent of faculty members whose hatred for Israel has eclipsed any academic mission."
In addition, heavily pro-Israel commentators like Martin Kramer, of Tel Aviv University, and Daniel Pipes, of the Middle East Forum and Campus Watch, have long been critical of Middle East studies at Columbia and have made similarly severe accusations against the university recently.
As a way to respond to these charges, Foner and David Johnston, the Joseph Straus professor of political philosophy and the core curriculum, composed an open letter on academic freedom and gathered 43 other signatures from members of the arts and sciences faculty. The one-and-a-half-page letter, which refers to the MEALAC controversy only implicitly, supports the unfettered right of professors to explore "unwelcome, unsettling, or offensive" ideas.
"Many of the allegations that have been made during this campaign—allegations that have attempted to create the impression that an atmosphere of intolerance exists at Columbia—are blatantly false," the letter states.
Even Jonathan Cole, Columbia's former provost, addressed the allegations against Columbia in a talk on campus last Tuesday. Comparing the current situation to a McCarthy-era witchhunt, Cole said, "The university must nurture the creation of novel and sometimes unsettling ideas."
A number of faculty members have also criticized the way the president has handled the attacks. While most professors expressed lukewarm support for the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee, the Bollinger-created task force which is nearing the end of its investigation of students' claims of intimidation, many of them also said his public comments in response to outside charges of anti-Semitism have been inadequate.
"Although there's been some defense of academic freedom in the administration's statements certainly, it's been a pretty mixed defense," Johnston said.
Christia Mercer, a professor of philosophy who signed the letter, called Columbia Unbecoming a "piece of right-wing propaganda," and said, "It would have behooved the administration to say very early on that the claims The David Project made about Columbia were just utterly absurd. If we at Columbia let the right-wingers attack us and get away with it, that will set a very bad precedent."
A university spokeswoman, Susan Brown, did not respond to requests for comment on the professors' criticisms of Bollinger, but she did issue a statement on the faculty letter. The statement read in part, "The letter signed by  members of the faculty addresses the fundamental importance of freedom of thought and speech to the mission, character and contributions of research universities. The values expressed by the faculty members are shared by the administration."
In a speech before the New York City bar association last Wednesday, Bollinger made some of his most forceful remarks to date in regard to Columbia's critics. "It is simply preposterous to characterize Columbia as anti-Semitic or as having a hostile climate for Jewish students and faculty," he said, according to a transcript of the speech.
But early on in the controversy, Bollinger's public comments were far more measured, often going no further than to stress the general importance of academic freedom for both professors and students.
And even in Wednesday's speech, Bollinger did not go as far in defending professorial autonomy as some faculty members have called for. Autonomy, Bollinger said, is not absolute—and there can be limits on the content of what is taught.
"We should not say that academic freedom means that there is no review within the university, no accountability, for the ‘content' of our classes or our scholarship. There is review, it does have consequences, and it does consider content," he said.
Andrew Nathan, the Class of 1919 professor of political science, was sharply critical of that portion of Bollinger's speech.
"This was a talk in which he still entertained the possibility that what he calls unacceptable ideas are being taught in the classroom," Nathan said.
Nathan also said he wishes Bollinger had been more supportive of the faculty from the beginning.
"I think the administration should say strongly that our existing mechanisms of faculty self-governance and the quality of teaching and scholarship on the campus is high, and that they don't believe that unacceptable ideas have been promulgated in the classroom," Nathan said.
History professor Richard Bulliet, a Middle East specialist who has not been named in the controversy, said he wishes the administration had acted more quickly to quell the controversy, but he generally defended Bollinger's actions.
"If you have very specific charges that are made, I think it probably is wise not to make absolute blanket statements absolving professors of all misbehavior until you have made some sort of determination as to whether there's a factual base that would call for some action," he said.
Bulliet's name was not on the letter circulated by Foner and Johnston, and he said he was unaware of it.Note: Postings in "Campus Watch in the Media" do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch.
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