Columbia Considers Limits on Political Expression at University

18 April 2004

Columbia University is looking into where to draw the line on political expression on campus, as the school aims to fend off a growing reputation for its anti-American and anti-Israeli activism among professors.

Convened by Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger - a First Amendment scholar - a committee of six Columbia professors has been probing one of the most difficult questions in academia: What boundaries should a university set between academic expression and political activism?

The question looms over Columbia, as several of its professors over the last couple of years have been accused of using the campus as a staging ground for promoting an anti-American and anti-Israeli agenda.

By setting up a committee with a broad mandate to examine academic freedom, Mr. Bollinger has in effect framed one of the most controversial issues on campus - the perceived bias of Columbia’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department - as a freedom of speech question.

The proposals put forward by the committee when it submits a report to Mr. Bollinger in several months are unlikely to address Columbia’s Middle Eastern studies department, according to the chairman of the committee, law Professor Vincent Blasi, 61, a First Amendment scholar who also teaches at the University of Virginia.

Instead, he said, the committee is determining how Columbia can ensure that students and professors are able to “express their political opinions in a free and inquisitive way.”

He said the committee is seeking to make sure students “have an appropriate opportunity to register complaints when their classes are being taught in a politically charged way they think is inappropriate.”

Critics of Columbia’s Middle Eastern studies department say Mr. Bollinger is responding to complaints from Jewish students, faculty members, and alumni without focusing attention on the Middle Eastern studies department.

“He feels under the gun. He making it seem as if the Jewish students are offended, and it’s another case of offending minorities,” said a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University, Ruth Wisse. “This is not a question of comfort of students. The real question is what is the status of Middle East studies at Columbia University.”

In nearly two years at the helm of Columbia, Mr. Bollinger has frequently invoked freedom of speech in addressing contentious campus issues.

In a letter last month to students upset over a racist cartoon printed in a student newspaper, Mr. Bollinger wrote: “We know that in the course of public debate passions and misjudgment may lead people to say bad things, and, yet, in order to maintain an atmosphere of free and spirited inquiry and discussion, we must choose to forego our natural instinct to punish those who are intemperate and even offensive.”

Mr. Bollinger has refrained from criticizing the Middle Eastern studies department or explicitly addressing the issue of anti-Semitism in academia in the way that Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers, did in his September 2002 speech at Harvard’s Memorial Church.

“But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities,” Mr. Summers said. “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.”

The existence of the committee, first reported Thursday by the Jewish Week newspaper in New York, dates back a year ago, when Columbia faced a public relations crisis over assistant professor of anthropology Nicholas De Genova’s call for an American defeat in Iraq at a faculty teach-in. Mr. De Genova said he wished for a “million Mogadishus.”

As the speech quickly drew nationwide attention, Mr. Bollinger condemned Mr. De Genova’s comments but refused to take any disciplinary actions, arguing that he was “exercising his right to free speech.”

A number of students and faculty members disagreed with Mr. Bollinger, questioning whether the university has the responsibility to tolerate extremist views and whether faculty ought to have been allowed to cancel classes and stage an anti-war protest using campus facilities.

Anger over the incident prompted Mr. Bollinger to set up a committee that would examine the “limits of political expression in the campus environment,” Mr. Blasi said.

Though Mr. Blasi said the committee is not focused on any particular academic department and does not see its mission to investigate anti-Israel promotion on campus, it was convened at a time when Columbia has come under increasing scrutiny for its hiring of anti-Israeli professors, including historian Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies, and Joseph Massad, an assistant professor.

Mr. Khalidi, the director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, is best known for his writings on Palestinian national identity. He has condemned Palestinian violence against civilians, but approved of attacks on soldiers in occupied territories, calling such attacks “resistance.”

In an interview with the Electronic Intifada, an online pro-Palestinian magazine, Mr. Khalidi said his critics have intended to “silence such perfectly legitimate criticism” of Israel “by tarring it with the brush of anti-Semitism.”

About one-third of faculty members in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department signed a petition last year calling for Columbia to divest from Israel.

Mr. Blasi said, “It’s not within our jurisdiction to assess whether a department is biased or has any particular kind of slant.”

He said the committee, which has met once a month since September, is probing issues of academic freedom more broadly. The committee is also investigating the extent to which students confront “grade retaliation” for expressing an opposing political to a professor or having a “fear of being humiliated before the class.”

And it is also looking into whether minorities feel they are “inhibited from expressing their views,” Mr. Blasi said.

In February, the committee met with Rabbi Charles Sheer, Columbia’s longtime Jewish chaplain and campus Hillel director, who has been highly critical of Columbia’s Middle Eastern studies department.

Rabbi Sheer said he described to the committee a lecture delivered by Mr. Massad in which he compared Zionism to Nazism.

“He has the right of speech, but what he said was unacceptable academically,” Rabbi Sheer told The New York Sun.

Mr. Massad teaches a course on Palestinian and Israeli politics that has received wildly mixed reactions from students who posted reviews on the Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability Web site. “Massad is excellent,” wrote one student. “But in my opinion many students in the class were prejudiced.”

Another student said Mr. Massad explicitly tells students at the beginning of the course that he is presenting one side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “A perfect example of brainwashing,” the student wrote.

Mr. Massad in his writings has said Israel is illegitimate as a Jewish state.

Rabbi Sheer also spoke about last year’s Palestinian film festival at Columbia, which was endorsed by the Middle Eastern studies department and advertised with a poster that depicted a map with Palestine in place of Israel.

Mr. Bollinger’s effort was praised last night by one of the leading figures in the effort to confront deficient scholarship on the Middle East, Daniel Pipes, who is director of the Middle East Forum and a Sun columnist. He is also head of Campus Watch, which is the group through which he critiques Middle East studies on North American campuses.

“I am pleased that President Bollinger has recognized the problem Columbia has in its Middle Eastern studies programs,” he said. “I look forward to the committee’s making serious and constructive recommendations.”