Middle East studies in the News
MEALAC Report Sparks Debate
by James Romoser
Six days after the release of the ad hoc faculty committee's report on grievance procedures and classroom intimidation, some Columbia professors still haven't finished reading it.
But that doesn't mean they're ignoring it.
The dense, sweeping 24-page document, which found one instance of inappropriate conduct by a professor and revealed systemic problems in how Columbia has dealt with student complaints, will have broad ramifications for the University beyond the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department, faculty members agreed.
And although it was a handful of undergraduates who initiated the debate—first by lodging complaints about certain MEALAC professors, and then, when they received little formal response from the University, by working with an outside group to create the film Columbia Unbecoming—the controversy in many ways now sits squarely on the Columbia faculty.
At the center of the whirlwind, of course, are the three MEALAC faculty members—Joseph Massad, George Saliba, and Hamid Dabashi—who have been singled out in student complaints. But there is also the five-member senior faculty committee that investigated the complaints and, indeed, the entire faculty of arts and sciences, where the words "academic freedom" seem to be on everybody's lips.
As the committee's report made clear, this is a dispute about the rights and responsibilities of professors, and most faculty members have responded to the committee's report by withholding judgment on the specific professors and classroom incidents involved, while at the same time applauding the principle of peer review and echoing the committee's call for new, clearer grievance policies.
"It seems to me the report reaches a reasonable conclusion, which is that professors need to behave responsibly and respectfully in class to views different from their own, and yet they have to be free to provoke and upset students," said Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences. "If all we do is tell people what they already know or already want to hear—if everyone already thinks alike—no one thinks very much.
"We have to maintain an open forum at Columbia," Jackson continued, "but I think we need to recognize that maintaining that open forum requires us to act carefully and responsibly and respectfully to the people that are in front of us."
According to the committee, it also requires revamping the University's grievance procedures so that they are well-publicized and easily accessible channels for students—or professors—to pursue if they feel they have been harassed in the classroom. Noting that very few of the student complaints about classroom intimidation were ever addressed under normal grievance procedures, the committee wrote, "These failures reflected both the negligent or misguided behavior of individuals, and widespread systemic confusion about responsibility and authority."
Professors bore some of the brunt of the committee's indictment; according to the report, many professors do not understand Columbia's grievance policies or know where to direct students who came to them with complaints. Faculty members interviewed this week agreed with that assessment for the most part.
"I think the faculty are not sufficiently aware of those channels, and I also suspect that students are not sufficiently aware," said Robert Hymes, the Horace Walpole Carpentier Professor of Chinese History and the chair of the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department. "I get the feeling, just from the way things developed in this particular matter, that the lines people are supposed to go to are not sufficiently clear."
Eric Foner, the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History, said he endorsed the committee's findings in response to what he called a murky and difficult set of grievances.
"The problem was that the grievances lumped together all sorts of things, some of which a university has no concern with," such as opinion articles a professor writes as a private citizen, Foner said.
When asked if he agreed with the committee's assertion that many professors do not understand Columbia's grievance procedures, Foner said, "I don't know what the grievance procedures are, so perhaps that's an example that it's true. If a student came to me and asked me how to deal with a grievance in a class, I wouldn't quite know what to do. I suppose I would tell them to talk to their class dean."
Referring students to a class dean is the natural response for many professors, but the committee found that most students go to class deans primarily to clarify academic requirements, not to discuss personal complaints about professors.
Beyond the planned changes to Columbia's grievance policies, which the administration is expected to begin announcing this week, lies a broader debate about the meaning of academic freedom. For weeks, many faculty members have spoken out in increasingly vocal terms about what they see as an infringement on the autonomy of professors, mainly from outside organizers who have been critical of the MEALAC Department. It culminated last night with a teach-in in Low Library, at which numerous faculty—including Massad and Saliba—denounced what they called an assault on academic freedom at Columbia.
Whether the committee's recommendations will help to assuage those concerns remains to be seen, but some professors did seem heartened by the report's declaration that academic freedom must be protected.
"I think the report will probably go some way toward quelling the recent issues, and it provides some kind of resolution for the recent issues. So I think in that sense it will probably have a salutary effect," said David Johnston, the Joseph Strauss Professor of Political Philosophy and the Core Curriculum, who, along with Foner, recently drafted an open letter on academic freedom that has received nearly 400 online signatures from students and professors.
Other professors diagnosed the issue more simply.
"I think we ought to assume that everyone is acting in good spirit, and we ought to cool it," said art history professor James Beck. "I just think we should all cool it."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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