Middle East studies in the News
by Ariel Beery
It is very tempting with one month of classes under our belts to put aside thoughts of Columbia's fall in the U.S. News and World Report's rankings. But lest we fall into complacency, it is important to take another look at some of the factors that have caused ill will on this campus and among the alumni community.
First we should recognize that we have a problem, and that this problem has reaches beyond the rankings. While rankings are important for the prestige of the University, they certainly are not the end-all of ratings of Columbia's character. They do, however, point to a worrisome trend: the loss of alumni donations. This loss may stem from the fact that alumni--and some of the current student body--are feeling increasingly alienated from the University community.
Two issues, in particular, are potential threats to alumni donations. The first was Nicholas De Genova's call for "a million Mogadishus" last semester. The second is that the University has not reported the names of the donors to the Edward Said Chair. In both cases, Columbia's image has been tarnished and the administration has poorly handled its public relations, resulting in a tear in the fabric of our community.
As Spectator reported in April, the De Genova scandal led alumni to call in and state, in the words of Columbia College alumnus Steve Stuart, that "until he is fired, the University will suffer." Similar declarations were made by alums regarding the Said Chair. Yet things on campus are not as bad as they seem--Columbia is not made up of a million De Genovas. There is, however, much room for improvement, and the first step should be to resolve these two scandals.
The controversy surrounding the Said Chair can certainly be brought to a swift end if the administration acts quickly and resolutely. The University should immediately open its records regarding the endowment, especially to clear up the charge by Martin Kramer, the author of Ivory Towers in the Sand, that a foreign government contributed a quarter of a million dollars to the chair. It certainly is possible that this government actively supports anti-American and anti-Semitic projects, as was the case with the donation to Harvard's Divinity School by the Holocaust-denying Zayed Center of the United Arab Emirates. It might also not be the case. Either way, the public should know, and if the donor is clean from guilt, then why keep the donation secret?
From the events of years past, it is apparent that the majority of Columbia's Middle East faculty share a common ideological background, and the administration might think of attracting faculty who would add to the diversity of the field. Putting that aside, some students and alumni have conflated the controversy surrounding the donation of the chair with the academic work of the professor chosen to fill it.
Professor Rashid Khalidi has a long track record of professional scholarship behind him and was more than a suitable choice for the position. He has been criticized in the New York Post for comments he made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they are an exception to his body of scholarship. Before rushing to conclusions about his character, alumni and students should get acquainted with Khalidi's full range of work.
The problem of the rabid anti-Americanism exhibited by De Genova is a tougher nut to crack because it reaches far beyond the incident itself, reflecting the culture of our institution. The public perception, simply put, is that Columbia is biased, and alumni who do not agree with the left-leaning politics of Columbia's professors might be dissuaded from contributing money. While as a voting Democrat I have less of a problem with the leftist bias, I certainly can understand the critics. The Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative group, published a study that found that Columbia's faculty contains 14 registered Democrats for every one registered Republican. Fourteen-to-one is quite a difference--and that is not taking into account unregistered faculty, many of whom might feel themselves too left-leaning for the Democratic party.
Too much ideological agreement is a bad thing in an institution that prides itself on being a hub of the marketplace of ideas. To paraphrase Professor Judith Russell, "The only way you really get to know what you believe is to argue it." Instead of being a place to bounce ideas off people from across the ideological spectrum, Columbia's tendency toward uniformity simply does not offer enough room for one to test one's worldview and assumptions. This holds true in all departments dealing with the social sciences, not just the field of Middle East studies.
More needs to be done to attract ideological diversity to Columbia's campus if we want the university to become a place that all alumni and students feel proud to associate with and donate to. Not only will our ranking rise, but we might also learn a thing or two in the process.
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