Middle East studies in the News
Amid Other Attacks on Academic Freedom, Columbia Crisis Continues
by Robert Gaines
The long-awaited Columbia University Grievance Committee report investigating student charges of anti-Semitism and pro-Palestinian bias on campus finally was released in late March—and everybody is still angry.
The committee consisting of five faculty members was created in December 2004 after the release of a documentary film, "Columbia Unbecoming." The film was produced by a Boston pro-Israel group and features Columbia students explaining how they allegedly had been intimidated and abused by teachers in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department (MEALAC).
In preparing the report, the committee interviewed 62 students, alumni and faculty in an effort to assess the complaints about the professors. The committee's report concluded there was no evidence that the MEALAC faculty had made any statements that could be deemed anti-Semitic and that no students had been punished for holding "dissenting opinions" in class. But the report suggested that MEALAC in the days following 9/11 was functioning in an increasingly politicized environment and was rife with tension and incivility.
The report singled out one professor, Assistant Professor Joseph Massad, who it said on one occasion "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" in an angry classroom exchange with a student who defended Israel's military actions. But the report also noted that Massad's class had become highly politicized and the professor "had good reason to believe" that another faculty member was using students in his class as spies to monitor his statements as "part of a campaign against him."
The committee concluded that the university's grievance procedures to protect students who felt they were being abused by faculty were inadequate, and that university administrators who knew of students' complaints about the MEALAC professors had not addressed these complaints decisively or referred them to the appropriate grievance channels.
"Columbia and Barnard students therefore found themselves in a thicket of confusing procedures, few of which seemed likely to produce the desired outcome: an opportunity to attend to concerns about faculty and course," the report stated.
The committee made a number of recommendations for the improvement of grievance procedures, and shortly after the release of the report the University Senate passed a resolution calling for new procedures for the handling of student grievances.
None of this proved particularly satisfactory to a number of the activist Jewish students on campus who had led the criticism of MEALAC. They saw the report as an effort to defend the university's public image and said it focused on protecting the faculty over the interests of students. They accused the report of concentrating on the "empty claim of anti-Semitism" instead of coming to grips with the real issue of political bias in university classrooms.
Other points of view were heard several days later, when 400 people jammed together in Low Library in the center of the campus for a faculty teach-in ostensibly on the issue of academic freedom, but concentrating in good part on the MEALAC controversy. A number of professors complained vehemently about the academic atmosphere at Columbia and the fact that student complaints about professors were aligned with the efforts of groups on campus seeking to intimidate the academics.
Several speakers said their classes had been attended by unregistered auditors who showed up primarily to disrupt the room with their controversial comments.
A high point of the teach-in was the appearance of Prof. Rashid Khalidi, head of the university's Middle East Institute and perhaps the most prominent Middle East specialist on campus (see April 2005 Washington Report, p. 57). Professor Khalidi inveighed angrily against the "Swift Boat-style attacks" by the pro-Israel groups that initiated the criticism of MEALAC.
"There is a nationwide campaign against the autonomy of universities," he said, "based on the utterly spurious assumption that universities are strongholds of radical and liberal beliefs.
"Would that they were!" he continued, then listed a variety of ways Columbia and other universities were surrendering academic freedoms in the face of right-wing pressure and the fear of possible loss of government funding and endowment gifts.
The most highly charged moment of the event took place when Prof. Joseph Massad, who had been singled out in the grievance committee report, walked on stage and received a standing ovation from the audience. For nearly 20 minutes, he responded to the committee's report, challenging its criticism of his classroom teaching style. He denounced the committee's conclusions as unfair and said there was no reason why one student's criticism of his classroom comments, which he disputed, should be given weight over his version about what was said.
According to the student daily newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, the controversy over MEALAC continues as one of the most heated issues on campus and, despite the release of the grievance committee report, remains a highly charged topic with students happy to argue all sides of the issue.
The efforts to fire Prof. Ward Churchill, the controversial ethnic-studies educator at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for his comments in an essay published shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, continue unabated.
In the essay, Professor Churchill argued that some of the people who died in the World Trade Center were part of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, which he said provoked the attack. He likened them to "little Eichmans," the seemingly benign Nazi bureaucrat who played an important role in the persecution of the Jews.
The essay drew little attention when it was first published, but was eventually reported on by several Colorado papers and created enormous furor. Many politicians, including Colorado's governor, demanded that the professor be fired.
The university undertook a seven-week review of Professor Churchill's statements and concluded recently that under the First Amendment his right to speak freely was guaranteed by the Constitution and he could not be dismissed on these grounds.
But the report concluded that there might be other reasons for disciplinary action or dismissal, and that these charges would be investigated. The new allegations include accusations of possible plagiarism and research misconduct. Churchill has been accused of deceptive scholarship as well as claiming to be an American Indian in order to lend credibility to his work on American Indian culture.
One educator at a Texas university has argued that Churchill falsely charged the U.S. Army with distributing smallpox infested blankets to Indians in 1837 as part of a larger genocidal goal to destroy Indian populations in the country.
Churchill has described the charges of research misconduct as "politically motivated and utterly frivolous" and maintains his description of himself as American Indian is consistent with federal law.
The new charges against Professor Churchill will be considered by a faculty committee on research misconduct. Some of his more recent writings and speeches also will be reviewed. The Colorado Board of Regents also has created a special panel to consider how the university awards tenure and how professors are evaluated afterward. There is a widely held assumption among Churchill's supporters that one of the goals of the panel will be to unseat the controversial professor.
In the meantime, academics across the country are coming to Professor Churchill's defense. The university chancellor's office at Boulder has received a letter signed by 400 professors, which argues that the criticism of Churchill by the news media and politicians represents a new form of McCarthyism.
The letter concludes: "Apparently Sept. 11 is now the third rail of American intellectual life: to critically probe into its causes and to interrogate the international role of the United States is treated as heresy."
Robert Gaines spent several years in the Publications Office of Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. He is currently working on a book about Muslim education around the world.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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