Middle East studies in the News
Columbia U. Report Criticizes Professor's Classroom Conduct but Finds No Pattern of Anti-Semitism
by Jennifer Jacobson
A faculty committee charged with investigating complaints that professors in Columbia University's Middle Eastern studies department had intimidated pro-Israel, Jewish students has found no evidence that faculty members made anti-Semitic statements.
But in a report released on Thursday, the panel did find one instance in which a professor had "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" of classroom behavior when he publicly and harshly criticized a student who, he believed, was defending Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
The professor, Joseph A. Massad, was one of two faculty members mentioned in the committee's report, which also described a lack of civility on the campus and an abundance of tension in classrooms, where pro-Israel students have disrupted lectures and professors have felt they were being watched and reported on.
The committee also found that the university's failure to quickly deal with students' complaints of intimidation had "led to an acute erosion of trust between faculty and students."
Mr. Massad criticized the committee as "illegitimate" and its report as "inaccurate and unfair."
Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia's president, appointed the panel in December, after the release of Columbia Unbecoming, a short film in which students at Columbia and Barnard College accused professors of intimidation and harassment in and out of class.
The David Project, a pro-Israel group based in Boston, produced the film, whose allegations prompted overwhelming concern among Jewish groups, alumni, and defenders of academic freedom. Shortly after the film's release last fall, a member of Congress called on the university to fire Mr. Massad.
"The committee is to be commended for fairly and honestly evaluating behavior and conduct in the classroom," Mr. Bollinger said. Some people have misunderstood the panel's purpose, he said, which was "not to look into claims of bias in teaching or politicization or anti-Semitism in the classroom."
The ad hoc committee, many of whose members have been criticized in news accounts for holding anti-Israel views, included Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and comparative literature; Jean Howard, a professor of English and vice provost for diversity initiatives; and Ira Katznelson, a professor of political science and history and the committee's chairman. Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer and a visiting professor in the School of Journalism, served as an adviser.
"The report skillfully and carefully defends the academic freedom of the Columbia faculty," Mr. Abrams said. "At the same time it assures that the rights of Columbia students to learn in a civil and open-minded environment is protected."
The committee met with 62 students, alumni, faculty members, and administrators, and considered 60 written statements, some submitted anonymously. In its report, it said it could find no evidence that students had received lower grades because of their views. Members of the panel were most concerned about three alleged episodes of intimidation from the 2001-2 academic year, before Mr. Bollinger became president.
The most serious involved Mr. Massad, an assistant professor in the department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures. The professor, who does not have tenure, taught a class on "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies." According to the report, Deena Shanker, a student in the class, recalled asking the professor if it was true that Israel sometimes gave a warning before bombing a Palestinian property so that people would not get hurt. Mr. Massad, she said, became enraged and yelled, "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!"
According to the report, two students have corroborated Ms. Shanker's account, while Mr. Massad "has denied emphatically" that the incident took place and told the panel that he would never ask a student to leave his class. Two graduate teaching assistants and an undergraduate did not recall the episode, and it was not recorded in teaching evaluations that were made available to the committee.
Still, the panel found Ms. Shanker's account "credible" and said that Mr. Massad "exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism."
In an e-mail message to The Chronicle on Thursday, Mr. Massad called the report's conclusion "inaccurate and unfair." The report "gives no reason why Shanker's account and her witnesses are more credible than mine and my witnesses," he said. "This illegitimate committee has bowed to the very outside pressure which it criticizes as well as the pressure coming its way from the Columbia administration."
Mr. Abrams, the committee's adviser, defended its work. "Everything that was done was fact-based and a good-faith effort," he said. Regarding the question that Mr. Massad raised, of how the committee could end up believing one side more than the other, Mr. Abrams said, "That's what juries do all the time."
Mr. Bollinger declined to comment on Mr. Massad's statement, saying only that he had complete confidence in the panel's judgment.
The committee could not determine the credibility of two other alleged incidents, one of which involved an Israeli student's account of an interaction with Mr. Massad at an off-campus lecture. Tomy Shoenfeld told the committee that he had attended a lecture by the professor on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Schoenfeld said he had asked a question and identified himself as an Israeli student, according to the committee's report. Mr. Massad then asked him whether he served in the military. When Mr. Schoenfeld said yes, Mr. Massad asked him, twice, how many Palestinians he had killed. Mr. Schoenfeld refused to answer and then asked Mr. Massad how many members of his family had celebrated on September 11, 2001.
According to the committee, Mr. Massad said that he had no recollection of the episode and that he had never met Mr. Shoenfeld. The panel concluded that the incident fell "into a challenging gray 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 incident allegedly involved George Saliba, a full professor in the department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures, who taught the course "Introduction to Islamic Civilization." According to the report, Lindsay Shrier, a student, said the professor had told her after class that she was not a Semite because she had green eyes, which meant that she had "no claim to the land of Israel."
Mr. Saliba told the committee that the student perhaps misunderstood an argument he sometimes made that biological or genetic arguments are not persuasive as the basis for claims to land.
The committee concluded that, "however regrettable a personal reference might have been, it is a good deal more likely to have been a statement that was integral to an argument about the use of history and lineage than an act approaching intimidation."
In an e-mail message to The Chronicle on Thursday, Mr. Saliba said that he would never make such a "personal reference." The committee's evidence for it, he said, "is the statement of the student who is recollecting my exact words from a four-year-old memory." He continued by saying that the student had given an inconsistent account of where the alleged incident took place. Basing its conclusion in the report "on such a faulty memory is doubly 'regrettable' on the part of the committee," he said.
In its report, the committee most harshly criticized the university itself for not having clear channels and procedures that students and faculty members could use to air their complaints. "As a result of these failures, outside advocacy groups devoted to purposes tangential to those of the university were able to intervene to take up complaints expressed by some students," the report said.
The committee recommended that the university institute accessible, transparent, and well-publicized grievance procedures "geared toward the speedy resolution of complaints and the appropriate protection of privacy."
The committee also urged Columbia to improve its advising system and said that faculty members have a duty of civility and respect toward one another.
Mr. Bollinger said that, within the next two weeks, the university would announce specific steps based on the report's recommendations. The institution, he said, would develop new grievance procedures for students and faculty members. He said he wanted to make the procedures "more uniform, obvious, and transparent."
Mr. Bollinger declined to discuss whether Mr. Massad would face disciplinary action.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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