Middle East studies in the News
Bollinger Criticized for Embracing Report Clearing Faculty
by Jacob Gershman
Columbia University's president, Lee Bollinger, drew heavy criticism yesterday for embracing the conclusion of a special faculty committee that many of the allegations made by Jewish students against some faculty members did not merit concern.
As Mr. Bollinger sought to put a rest to a prolonged controversy concerning allegations that certain members of the Ivy League college's faculty are intolerant of dissenting views and are using the classroom as a platform to preach hatred against Israel, anger over the committee's dismissal of many of the complaints was heard at the campus yesterday.
"The report is unfortunately sorely lacking," Aharon Horwitz, a recent Columbia graduate who was one of 62 faculty members and students to testify before the committee, said. "What were they doing for three months?"
A number of Jewish students on campus have said they cannot speak freely about Israel in classes taught by anti-Israel professors, whom they accuse of spreading propaganda in the classroom. The accusations sparked counter-complaints from faculty members and other students, who charged that some of the Jewish students, as well as "outside agitators," were acting in ways that could stifle academic freedom.
Dozens of Jewish and Israeli students gathered yesterday in front of the gates of the university for a press conference, at which students declared that the committee, made up of five faculty members and advised by the prominent lawyer Floyd Abrams, whitewashed the problems.
Others on campus viewed the committee's conclusions as evidence that the complaints against the anti-Israel professors are overblown.
Soon after Mr. Bollinger formed the committee - as his university faced considerable public scrutiny for tolerating what students were describing as a hostile learning environment - many of those who supported a tough investigation accused Columbia's administration of not taking the student complaints seriously.
As evidence of the committee's alleged bias, critics of the administration pointed to the fact that two of the committee's members, Farah Griffin and Jean Howard, signed a petition circulated on campus in 2002 that denounced Israel and called on the university to boycott companies selling military hardware to the Jewish state.
Mr. Bollinger also faced criticism for approving another committee member, Lisa Anderson, who served as a dissertation adviser to an assistant professor accused by several students of abusing his role as a teacher, Joseph Massad.
The other two members of the committee were political scientist and historian, Ira Katznelson, and historian Mark Mazower.
Among those who found fault with the committee's 9,000-word report, which found substantiation in only one incident of misconduct or intimidation while students testified about dozens of alleged incidents, was Brooklyn and Queens congressman and mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. He has called on the university to fire two of its professors.
"President Bollinger has been trying to walk a tightrope, and in the effort not to offend anyone he may have a report on his desk that doesn't please anyone," he told The New York Sun. "It certainly doesn't please me."
Professor Dan Miron, a scholar of Hebrew literature at the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, said he thought the committee was trying to turn the student complaints into a "a problem of procedure and grievances." Mr. Miron based his opinion on press reports of the committee's conclusions.
Some of those who previously backed the university's handling of the investigation sounded a different note yesterday, saying they were disappointed that the Mr. Bollinger accepted what they viewed as a biased report. Comparing the report to the recently released interim report on the United Nations' oil-for-food program, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, of the New York Board of Rabbis, said: "Who would have thought that Columbia would make the U.N. look good?"
Rabbi Potasnik, who met with Mr. Bollinger earlier in the year to stress his concerns about the complaints from students, said: "I want to see students walking into a classroom and have the right to speak freely without any fears."
The only alleged instance of intimidation that the report said appeared to be substantiated concerned Mr. Massad. The report said the committee had found credible evidence that in 2002 Mr. Massad threatened to expel a student from his class because he thought she was defending Israeli conduct of military strikes at the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In general, the committee said it had focused its attention "on conduct, and on the relationship between that conduct and the obligation for all of us to maintain a civil and tolerant learning environment." It said it was not given instructions by the administration to deal with issues of bias and course content.
"As a matter of course, faculty should not ridicule, threaten, or discriminate against students because of their beliefs or identities," the report said.
Some observers criticized Columbia's report for concluding that complaints of anti-Semitism on campus did not have merit.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has criticized Columbia's administration for picking what he considered to be a biased committee, called the issue of anti-Semitism "a straw-man charge."
"The charge was that there was an atmosphere of intimidation toward pro-Israel students. To respond by saying there is no anti-Semitism is to erect and destroy a straw man," the noted attorney said.
Mr. Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer who advised the committee, defended its conclusions in an interview with The New York Sun yesterday.
"The report walked a very delicate line of trying to protect academic freedom of the faculty at the same time as they protected the rights of students to be treated in a civil and appropriate manner," he said.
Mr. Abrams said issues of bias in the classroom ought to be considered in internal discussions, such as a professor's five-year review.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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