Middle East studies in the News
MEALAC Controversy Lies Low for Fall Semester
by Lisa Hirschmann
The turmoil that accompanied the academic freedom controversy surrounding the Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures Department that erupted in the spring may have halted, but it has not been forgotten.
This fall has seen none of the inflammatory public discussion that characterized last semester, but a number of initiatives that were prompted by the controversy have quietly continued.
The three main professors criticized in the underground film Columbia Unbecoming, a compilation of student testimonials alleging incidents of academic abuse and intimidation in Columbia's MEALAC Department, are currently on leave.
Professor Joseph Massad is spending this semester in Cairo, Egypt, finishing his book on homosexuality in the Arab world and beginning a new research project. He is scheduled to teach MEALAC classes again here next semester.
George Saliba, another MEALAC professor mentioned in the film, will remain on leave next semester, as will comparative literature professor Hamid Dabashi, another controversial name from Columbia Unbecoming.
According to Nicholas Dirks, vice president of the Arts and Sciences, it is "coincidence" that so many MEALAC professors are on leave in the wake of the controversy. Acting MEALAC chair Partha Chatterjee corroborated this claim.
Bari Weiss, CC '07, de facto leader of Columbians for Academic Freedom, the student group that spearheaded formal allegations of academic abuse in the MEALAC Department last spring, called the professors' absences a "brilliant political move" on the part of the University.
Weiss added that although CAF has been relatively inactive this semester, it is "alive and kicking" and is determined not to let the situation in the MEALAC Department regress.
"People are naïve if they think that we're just going to kind of let things lie, and I think the Columbia administration sort of thinks that if they don't talk about it, everyone's just going to forget, which is absurd," Weiss said.
Columbia Unbecoming was created in the winter of 2003 after leaders of the Boston-based Israel advocacy group the David Project met with leaders of the Columbia pro-Israel student group LionPAC, because students felt available recourses for academic grievances within the University were inadequate.
Several tumultuous months later, a faculty committee organized by the administration to investigate the allegations of academic abuse produced a 24-page report outlining the systematic failure of University grievance procedures. The University has since solidified those procedures and made them more visible to students on the Columbia College Web site.
In addition to revised grievance procedures, another boon yielded by the controversy was the creation of the Kraft Family Fund for Intercultural and Interfaith Awareness, established in April by Robert Kraft, CC '63 and trustee emeritus, which "seeks to provide students with timely and appropriate venues for exploring controversial issues and resolving conflicts in a manner that promotes greater understanding among Columbia University students of diverse backgrounds and perspectives," according to its official description.
Thirty-five thousand of the $500,000 donated by Kraft, and matched by the University, were allocated to student groups by a committee headed by University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis.
The chaplain's committee is funding seven student group initiatives this year, each proposed by two or more different faith or cultural groups that will work cooperatively, a requirement to apply for financial support from the Kraft fund.
Amen, one of the funded student initiatives, is co-sponsored by Turath, an Arab student group, and Hillel, the main Jewish student group on campus. It intends to use various art forms, such as dance, theater, music, and comedy, to "promote respectful dialogue and deeper understanding of Middle Eastern cultures and faiths," according to a description provided by the chaplain's office.
A third development not unrelated to the controversy was last March's announcement of the creation of the Israeli Studies Chair in the MEALAC Department.
The Israeli Studies Chair search committee has met several times this fall. It hopes to produce a list of candidates by the end of the fall semester, at which point each one will be invited to campus.
"We hope to have a final decision by March 1, but since we are looking for a tenured appointment, we might have to wait until later in the spring for a formal announcement, after an ad hoc committee deliberates," Stanislawski said in an e-mail to Spectator.
At the announcement of the chair's creation last spring, Stanislawski made clear that "this chair is not a political appointment—it's an academic appointment," and that it was a coincidence that news of the chair was made public in the midst of increasing national attention for the MEALAC Department at Columbia.
"It would be naïve to think that there's a ‘Chinese wall' between the two, but there's no causal relationship between this year's controversy and this chair," he said last spring.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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