Campus Watch Research
'Outside Groups'and Academe [regarding Jon Wiener's comments on the Columbia crisis]
by Alexander H. Joffe
To the Editor:
Jon Wiener's essay requires several comments ("When Students Complain About Professors, Who Gets to Define the Controversy?," The Chronicle Review, May 13). His contrast of the Stephan Thernstrom affair with the one that continues to unfold at Columbia University over Middle Eastern studies situates both in a crude left-right dichotomy. In his predictable morality tale, the left lost, in part because the right was "well financed." This sort of simplistic reductionism does credit to neither situation.
Of the Thernstrom affair I can say little except that it dealt with "insensitivity" and that it took place in pre-Internet 1988. The Columbia case dealt with harassment and intimidation and unfolded in real time, in part thanks to broadband.
But if technology and the substance of the issues do not figure in Wiener's narrative, money, power, and real estate do. Wiener believes that Columbia's need to secure city approval for campus expansion is the hidden background to its dithering. Such dithering over expansion goes back at least to the 1950s, and in any event, community opposition, not city approval, is and has always been Columbia's real problem. ...
Wiener's assertion that outside groups such as Campus Watch and the David Proj-ect (described as "well financed" and having "organized a sophisticated media campaign") framed the debate in a completely one-sided manner does no credit to Joseph A. Massad and his supporters. ...
Professor Massad and his colleagues have not been passive victims, and indeed it is they, not Campus Watch or the David Project, who have been most vocal in reframing questions of harassment and intimidation in terms of "anti-Israel bias," which of course they promptly deny. And for the record, Campus Watch does not dispatch "monitors" into classrooms. Wiener's familiarity with the facts is deficient.
Whether or not the vast right-wing conspiracy, never named but certainly hinted at by Wiener, underplayed the accusations against Thernstrom in order to somehow produce Dinesh D'Souza is trivial, as is the self-evident question of whether the news media like controversies. More to the point are Wiener's misrepresentations and the larger issue of the role of outside organizations in the life of the university.
For faculty members to pronounce on anything and everything outside the university and to deny the rest of us the right to comment on what goes on inside the university is inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. Academe should be prepared to engage its critics rather than dismiss them and to deny their right to criticize. Until it does that, comments such as Wiener's cannot be taken seriously.
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