Middle East studies in the News
The Hamlet of Morningside Heights
by Jacob Gershman
It may be good to be king, but life has seldom been easy for embattled Columbia University President Lee Bollinger since Jewish students first raised charges of professorial abuse last October.
My sources tell me that the president would like to take a tougher stand against the anti-Zionist club that is the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. His slow reaction, which his critics have labeled "a paralysis of leadership," is motivated by his reluctance to confront a faculty wary of — if not paranoid about — any investigation into the conduct of its members and bitterly resentful of criticism. What's more, many faculty members suspect that the Jewish students raising these complaints are agents of shadowy right-wing, pro-Israel groups. As Bollinger considers his next move, the plight of Lawrence Summers doubtless reminds him of the importance of keeping the faculty happy. As his consideration of these matters has lagged on, he's earning a reputation for lengthy deliberation such that one professor sympathetic to his politics has dubbed him "the Hamlet of Morningside Heights."
When his administration first became aware of the student allegations, its first reaction was to wish them away without conducting an investigation or otherwise pursuing the complaints. Once the students went to the press at least five months later and the story first appeared in The New York Sun, Mr. Bollinger turned to a two-pronged strategy: delegate and hesitate. He put his provost, the esteemed historian Alan Brinkley, and his vice president for Arts and Sciences, anthropologist Nicholas Dirks, in charge of formulating a policy to respond to the allegations. This set in motion a clunky process that has dragged on for almost half a year. Following a series of unexplained delays, the faculty committee responsible for investigating these charges is likely to release its conclusions to the public later this week.
No matter the committee's conclusions, its report sets the stage for Bollinger to put an end to a controversy that has taken a toll on the president professionally and on the university academically.
As he enters this crucial stage, here are four recommendations for Bollinger.
1. Acknowledge the full scope of the controversy. The special committee was given instructions not to examine the teaching and research of the professors under investigation. While Columbia scholars have urged the president not to bow down to pro-Israel pressure groups who they accused of trying to censor Middle East professors who hold controversial anti-Israel opinions, the problems extend beyond intimidation.
One example: Assistant Professor Joseph Massad taught the second half of Topics in Asian Civilization, a lecture class spanning the history of the Middle East. Some students in the course thought he abused his role as a teacher.
"The course was supposed to be all about the Middle East," sophomore Bari Weiss told The New York Sun. "The amount of time he spent talking about Zionism or the Jewish nation or Jewish culture was inappropriate. In nearly all of his lectures, professor Massad found a way to denounce Israel and the West. We were not presented with any material that argued that Zionism is not racist," she said. (Weiss, it should be noted, received an "A" for the course). And this isn't even the class in which Massad was accused of intimidation.
Delivering the annual Cardozo Lecture on Academic Freedom last week, Bollinger identified with great eloquence the key to living by what he called the "scholarly temperament":
"Of all the qualities of mind valued in the academic community I would say the most valued is that of having the imaginative range and the mental courage to take in, to explore, the full complexity of the subject. To set aside one's pre-existing beliefs, to hold simultaneously in one's mind multiple angles of seeing things, to actually allow yourself seemingly to believe another view as you consider it — these are the kind intellectual qualities that characterize the very best faculty and students I have known and that suffuse the academic atmosphere at its best."
Students I have talked to describe classroom experiences in which the standards that Bollinger demands are flouted by professors with an unapologetic political agenda. Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian culture, for instance, canceled class in honor of an anti-Israel protest on campus in April 2002. His teaching assistants, wearing black armbands, urged students who showed up to class to come to the rally and hear their professor speak.
Though the line between teaching with an opinion and political activism is often difficult to draw, the establishment of stricter guidelines defining the boundary — as well as a grievance procedure for students who believe the line has been crossed — could only encourage professors to stay within the realm of academic discourse.
2. Punish transgressors. If the committee finds evidence that professors have abused their role as teachers, it is unlikely to recommend much more in the way of punishment than a stern warning. Such a slap on the wrist will be taken as a sign that the administration is not serious when saying that it won't tolerate intimidation. What kind of message does that send to other students who find themselves in similar predicaments?
3. Start acting and stop delegating. Bollinger has paid a price for passing the buck on the hard decisions. It was Brinkley and Dirks who appointed to the committee two professors who had signed a divestment petition against Israel. But it is Bollinger, in the end, who is responsible for the composition of the committee.
4. Make the whole report public. As it stands, the university is planning to openly release just a summary; only certain administrators and faculty members will have access to the full report and to most of the individual testimony. A partial release, however, will only increase suspicions about the committee's perceived bias. It shouldn't be too difficult to determine a way to release the report in its entirety without compromising the privacy of faculty members and students involved.
President Bollinger's speech last week eloquently captured the essence of an idea – academic freedom — whose complexity and nuance has eluded many of his professors. What remains to be seen is if he can translate such rhetoric into a course of action that will restore the now tarnished reputation for integrity of one of America's greatest universities.
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