Middle East studies in the News
Committee Report Criticizes Grievance Procedures, Finds No Anti-Semitism
by James Romoser
In a strong indictment of Columbia's grievance procedures and advising channels, the ad hoc faculty committee investigating students' claims that they were intimidated by some Middle East studies professors described a pattern of mishandled complaints and widespread confusion over how to address students' concerns about what goes on in the classroom.
The committee's report, obtained by Spectator last night and expected to be made public today, also identified one instance in which assistant professor Joseph Massad "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" when he made an angry outburst to a student defending Israel's military conduct.
The report addressed two other specific claims of intimidation, neither of which it found to constitute abuse.
The committee also said it "found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic," and it said no students had received lower grades for holding dissenting viewpoints.
But throughout the 24-page document, a picture emerges of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department as rife with tension and incivility, especially in an increasingly politicized climate after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Numerous students, the report says, felt unable to defend their views in class because they feared attacks from other students or the media. Some graduate student teaching assistants were similarly hesitant to express their views because of pressure from outside organizations critical of the department. This semester, a lecture class taught by Massad frequently suffered hostile interruptions by a group of unregistered students auditing the class.
And in February 2002, the report said, Massad "had good reason to believe" that another faculty member was using students in his class as spies to monitor his statements "as part of a campaign against him."
The committee, which was composed of five members of the faculty of Arts and Sciences led by history professor Ira Katznelson and advised by First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, was appointed by University President Lee Bollinger last December after the release of the film Columbia Unbecoming, a documentary produced by the pro-Israel group The David Project. In the film, students and recent alumni say they faced intimidation and abuse from some MEALAC professors, including Professors George Saliba, Hamid Dabashi, and Massad. Provost Alan Brinkley recommended the formation of the committee in December because of what he called "the inadequacy of our grievance procedures" to address the complaints.
The committee sharply criticized those grievance procedures in its report, saying they were unclear, inconsistent, and inaccessible to both students and faculty. Beginning in fall 2001 and continuing up to the present controversy, the committee said, administrators and faculty members who knew of students' complaints about MEALAC classes or professors neglected to address them decisively or refer them to the proper existing channels.
"Columbia and Barnard students therefore found themselves in a thicket of confusing procedures, few of which seemed likely to produce the desired outcome: an opportunity to attend to concerns about faculty and courses," the report said.
The ultimate result, according to the committee, was that outside organizations were able to seize onto students' grievances and control the debate.
The committee made five recommendations, all of which centered on the clarification and improvement of procedures for handling future student complaints. Among the suggestions was the establishment of "a common, central university site to which students, faculty and administrators could turn to express concerns, though not necessarily grievances, about the quality of their experience at Columbia."
The committee, which interviewed 62 students, alumni, faculty members, and administrators and considered over 60 written submissions, was charged with investigating only specific complaints about the conduct of professors. It did not address perceived bias on the part of professors, even though bias was the focus of the majority of complaints it received. The committee said it was most concerned with three instances, all of which were described in Columbia Unbecoming and have been widely retold since then.
The first involved an episode in spring 2002 in which Massad allegedly screamed at a student in his class, Deena Shanker, who was defending Israel, "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!" Two other students corroborated the exchange; Massad has denied that it ever took place. But the committee said it found Shanker's account "credible," and, quoting the University's Faculty Handbook, said Massad violated the responsibility of all professors "to show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own."
The second incident concerned an alleged exchange between Massad and another student that took place in late 2001 or early 2002 at a lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sponsored by a student group. The student, Tomy Schoenfeld, who served in the Israeli Army, claims Massad responded to a question he asked by saying, "Well, if you served in the military, then why don't you tell us how many Palestinians have you killed?" Massad said he did not remember the event. The committee found that the episode "falls into a challenging grey zone, neither in the classroom, where the reported behavior would not be acceptable, nor in an off-campus political event, where it might fit within a not unfamiliar range of give and take regarding charged issues."
The third instance of alleged intimidation involved a conversation in fall 2001 between Saliba and one of his students, Lindsay Shrier, who says Saliba told her she had "no claim to the land of Israel" because she has green eyes. The committee found that Saliba, in making the remark, probably intended to advance a serious argument rather than to intimidate Shrier.
Reached late last night, Saliba said he had not yet seen the report. Massad did not return a phone message left at his home last night, but he told The New York Times that he had read the report, disagrees with its findings, and denies the allegations against him.
The report made no mention of any other specific allegations of abuse. Bari Weiss, CC '07 and a co-founder of Columbians for Academic Freedom, a group supporting the student complaints, said she was "insulted" that so few complaints were addressed.
"We know of dozens of incidences that are absolutely appalling that are not in this report," Weiss said.
In an interview, Bollinger said he supported the committee's findings and said a new set of grievance procedures, as well as specific plans about how the committee's recommendations will be enacted, would be announced in the next week or two.
"It is a very serious problem that we have not had adequate grievance procedures for students," Bollinger said. "Obviously this goes back a long way, but it also continues on, and we have to fix them."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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