Middle East studies in the News
Letter to the Columbia Trustees
by Candace de Russy
Why do you remain silent in face of complaints by students that your campus has long tolerated a hostile learning environment, that a faculty committee appointed to investigate these complaints was biased, and that its recently released report on the matter ignores dozens of complaints and largely "whitewashes" intimidating classroom conduct on the part of several professors? Even this highly criticized report finds that one of your professors, Joseph Massad, did threaten to expel a student from his class because her views on Israel differed from his own.
Countrywide, there are many other indications of oppression of students by professors because of their opinions. Notably, a survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni finds that one-third of all students at the top 50 colleges believe they must agree with the political views of their professors to get a good grade.
Moreover, the professoriate is increasingly under scrutiny for other kinds of misconduct and unprofessionalism in its ranks. In one high-profile example, allegations of plagiarism and fabrication against Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado ethnic studies professor who compared September 11 victims to a Nazi organizer of the Holocaust, have been referred by university administrators to its Standing Committee on Research Misconduct.
Trustees with fiduciary responsibility must confront more forthrightly the structural cause of these festering scandals as well as the countless less explosive cases that universities successfully shield from public view. I refer to the radical breakdown of faculty self-policing, and in particular the neglect, abuse and lack of transparency surrounding the vital university policies and procedures over which professors have primary dominion. These duties include hiring, granting of tenure, and evaluation of performance within their own ranks; ensuring curricular and programmatic quality, and providing a robust intellectual campus environment.
Professors today, especially those who teach humanities and social sciences, too often abandon their own historic standards, among these the duty to provide students with "the best scholarly ... standards of the discipline" and "to set forth ... the divergent evidence and propositions of other investigators" (as enshrined, respectively, in the 1966 Statement on Professional Ethics and the 1915 General Declaration of Principles by the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP).
Your present travail is a case in point: Are any of you prepared to certify, in light of the array of accounts of bias and inaccuracies within your Middle East studies program, that it reflects "the best standards"? Would you defend some of these Middle East scholars' painfully obvious lack of respect for "divergent" scholarly views?
In light of such incidents, you and the public can no longer blindly rely on the professoriate to use justly the unique autonomy and privileges traditionally granted it. Most insidiously - and at the root of the current turmoil at Columbia University and on other campuses - it too often abuses its power to replenish its own ranks; specifically, it overwhelmingly self-selects on the basis of left-liberal ideological conformity (as demonstrated in numerous studies, most recently in "Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty" by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte).
And it is virtually accountable to no one. Even acclaimed administrators such as your president, Lee Bollinger, desist from setting clear rules by which to hold faculties to account. Although in a recent speech he rightfully affirms the university's duty to "review ... the 'content' of our classes or our scholarship," he has failed to undertake such a review of the long suspect Middle East studies; nor does he dare specify what measures might be taken, and by whom, when faculty peer reviewers fail to remove from their ranks what the AAUP's 1915 Declaration described as "the incompetent and the unworthy," or when it uses academic freedom "as a shelter ... for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship... ."
Enter your trustees, whose obligation it is guarantee the integrity of scholarship at Columbia, all the while protecting academic freedom. You are, in the words of the 1915 Declaration, "ultimate repositories of power ... [and] in a position of public trust to serve the public interest." What can you do to meet this great obligation?
As I have proposed at the State University of New York, you could adopt the Academic Bill of Rights conceived by reformer and author David Horowitz, or a variant thereof. You could ask the faculty to voluntarily and creatively implement the bill, which is modeled on AAUP principles, and then to present you with progress reports. Such an affirmative statement would aim at preventing discrimination against faculty and students, fostering a plurality of scholarly perspectives in the classroom, and encouraging a selection of speakers and other campus activities that reflect intellectual pluralism.
In addition, you could enact measures for providing transparency and accountability in place of the present opaque and often secretive handling of personnel and curricular decisions at Columbia and most other campuses. More exactly, to shed light on all forms of personnel discrimination, curricular bias and bogus scholarship - without dictating content - you can require public disclosure on Columbia's Web site of the following information:
* Faculty search committee records, e.g., candidates' vitae, field of specialization, accomplishments; minutes of committee meetings, and reasons to justify new hiring. This is feasible especially at public institutions, where every employee is responsible to taxpayers, but private universities should also wish to reassure the public of high quality and nondiscriminatory hiring.
* Tenure decisions and how they were made, in addition to evaluations of post tenure professors. (Relatedly, in the wake of the Ward Churchill scandal, the University of Colorado Board of Regents has created a panel to review tenure practices. A former president of the University of Rochester, George Dennis O'Brien, predicts that "some combination of economics, legality, and rational common sense will eliminate, or at least seriously qualify, current tenure practices and assumptions.")
* The reasons for all terminations of faculty with tenure-track appointments. Egregious discrimination on the basis of political and other views occurs at this level. (For example, faculty members denied tenure to historian K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College on spurious and hypocritical grounds that he was insufficiently "collegial"; the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York had the courage to reverse this decision.)
* The posting by faculty of course descriptions, syllabi, assignments, and lecture notes. Do not parents and students paying ever increasing tuition rates as well as taxpayers who generously subsidize higher education have a right to learn about the content and quality of education?
* All sources of college funds and for what academic purposes they are used, such as department chairs and speakers. Has your Middle East studies program been unduly influenced because of lavish funding by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Aramco? Certainly, the public deserves to know about such connections, especially at a time when, as this publication's editors stress, this nation is at war against Islamofascist terrorists.
Such bold and beneficial actions on the part of you, trustees of so renowned an institution, would reverberate throughout all higher education. Boards throughout the country might follow your lead.
Be bold. Break your silence. Lead.
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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