Middle East studies in the News
New Grievance Policies Released
by James Romoser
University President Lee Bollinger announced yesterday a sweeping set of new grievance procedures, including the formation of a permanent five-member faculty committee within Arts and Sciences charged with reviewing student complaints.
He also announced the establishment of a new President's Council on Student Affairs, a small panel of student representatives from across the University that will meet regularly with top administrators to discuss student issues.
Coupled with revamped school-specific grievance procedures, the reforms are intended to repair the systemic confusion and communication failures that allowed students' complaints about the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department to fester for years and eventually explode.
"There were too many instances when particular individuals in the administration or on the faculty didn't know where to turn to deal with a grievance," Bollinger said.
Still, there were signs of lingering uncertainty and frustration yesterday. Administrators appeared to disagree on whether the grievance procedures should address claims of bias in the classroom, and some students, while saying the new procedures are a step in the right direction, called for a clearer definition of students' rights.
The centerpiece of the new grievance procedures is the standing committee, the creation of which has been widely anticipated. Students may bring complaints about Arts and Sciences faculty members directly to the committee, and the committee will also hear grievances that cannot be resolved through the more informal channels within individual schools.
In addition, each school within the University completed a revision of its own internal grievance procedures, mostly intended to improve clarity and specificity.
Taken together, the new grievance procedures represent the culmination of a review process that began last December when the administration acknowledged that Columbia's existing policies were unequipped to handle a slew of widely publicized, controversial claims about political bias and discrimination in the MEALAC department. Two weeks ago, an ad hoc faculty committee appointed by Bollinger sharply criticized the University's grievance channels and called for clearer, more robust policies on the proper methods of dealing with students' concerns about what goes on in the classroom.
Both the central administration and individual schools have spent weeks clarifying the proper channels for lodging complaints and ensuring that those procedures are well known among students and faculty.
But even amid a coordinated University effort to publicize the newly refined procedures, there was apparent confusion among top administrators yesterday about the scope of the new procedures and about what types of claims they are meant to address.
Bollinger and Provost Alan Brinkley both said it would be appropriate for the new standing faculty committee to hear students' complaints about perceived bias or political advocacy in the classroom. While these types of complaints represented the majority of grievances about the MEALAC department brought before the ad hoc committee during its nine-week investigation, that committee was instructed only to address specific claims of intimidation.
The standing faculty committee, on the other hand, should consider broader concerns about bias, Bollinger and Brinkley said. If it found those concerns legitimate, Brinkley added, it would report them to Nicholas Dirks, the vice president for Arts and Sciences, who would then address the concerns with the department and faculty members in question.
But Dirks himself, who will directly oversee the standing committee, said the committee should not consider such complaints.
"We're not addressing bias in the classroom or perceived bias in the classroom through grievance procedures. That's not in the language of the grievance procedures," Dirks said.
For instance, concerns about the alleged pro-Palestinian bias of the MEALAC department, or claims made by some students that certain MEALAC professors use their classes to teach lies or propaganda, should not be raised through grievance channels, Dirks said, but should only be addressed through "academic review," the continuous process of internal evaluation of a department's curriculum.
This uncertainty about what types of student complaints merit official grievances exemplifies a broader debate about the limits of academic freedom for students and professors. Ariel Beery, a student who has spoken on behalf of many of the students raising complaints about MEALAC, criticized the new grievance procedures for failing to resolve that issue.
"It's funny that you put a mechanism in place before you define a problem," said Beery, GS '05, who is also the president of the General Studies Student Council. "The problem is what the rights of students are. Students' rights aren't well defined."
The scope of Columbia's grievance procedures and the types of concerns that are considered appropriate for students to lodge against professors are questions that ultimately hinge on the murky nature of many of the complaints themselves. This is especially true of the highly charged allegations about the MEALAC department, where the issues of biased teaching have become conflated with allegations of intimidation.
Told of the apparent discrepancy between Bollinger's assessment of the committee's scope and his own, Dirks backtracked, saying it all depends on how one defines classroom bias.
"Bias is a term that means a lot of things to a lot of different people. That is the issue. So if what is taken to be bias turns out to be a certain kind of intimidation, then it's obviously subject to grievance procedures," Dirks said.
Administrators did agree yesterday that Columbia's grievance procedures are still a work in progress. Dirks expects to announce the five members who will begin serving on the committee in the next two weeks.
As for the somewhat unexpected announcement of a student advisory committee to the president, Bollinger said it would help him stay more attuned to student concerns. Its members will be chosen over the next several week.
Aharon Horwitz, CC '04, who has raised complaints about MEALAC professors, lauded the formation of the student committee.
"It's a vindication of student activism that it achieved something like this," he said.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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