In late 2004, claims of intimidation in the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) of Columbia University hit newspapers around the world after an unreleased documentary, “Columbia Unbecoming”, which purported to reveal incidences of intimidation and anti-Semitism in the classroom. The primary target of the organized campaign was Professor Joseph Massad. Columbia University ultimately formed an ad hoc committee to investigate, which released its report on 31 March 2005. Joseph Massad responds to the report.
Response to the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee Report
The Ad Hoc Grievance Committee Report suffers from major logical flaws, undefended conclusions, inconsistencies, and clear bias in favor of the witch-hunt that has targeted me for over three years. Despite these major limitations, the report acknowledges that there has been an organized attempt by internal and external forces to intimidate faculty at Columbia and that I have been the central target of this attempt. In the following, I will point out the most glaring flaws in the report to illustrate that not only was the committee illegitimate, but that it has also produced a report that is not defended by argument, facts, or proof.
I should reiterate that I do not recognize the legitimacy of the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee established by the Columbia administration, as I consider it an instrument in the ongoing campaign to suppress academic freedom on this campus. This is so because the charge of the committee ignored the central question of the intimidation of faculty by other faculty, by students, by administrators, and by forces from outside the university. I told this to the members of the committee when I met with them on March 14th and clarified to them that I had acquiesced in appearing before them out of a combined sense of obligation and intimidation. It is this sense that motivates my response to the report that the committee released on March 28.
Pedagogy in Context
Let me begin with section IV of the report titled “Pedagogy in Context.” Despite the limitations placed on the committee by its official charge, the committee’s report was forced to acknowledge that I have been the target of a political campaign by actors inside and outside the university, as well as by registered and unregistered students inside and outside my classroom. It affirms that during the Spring of 2002, I was spied upon by at least one other professor on campus, that my class was disrupted by registered students (non-auditors) and unregistered auditors, and that individuals and organizations outside the university targeted me, my class, and my teaching.
Furthermore, the report not only confirms that in my classes, and specifically in the Spring 2002 course on Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies, I allowed all questions to be asked, but, in fact, implicitly assigns blame to me for being too open during the Spring 2002:
there is ample evidence of [Massad’s] willingness — as part of a deliberate pedagogical strategy — to permit anyone who wished to do so to comment or raise a question during his lectures. For many students this approach itself became problematic because it allowed a small but vociferous group of fellow students to disrupt lectures by their incessant questions and comments. (Section IV)
The report also claims that as a result of this situation, the atmosphere in the classroom, as described by some students, was “tense”: “Some students referred to ‘emotional outbursts,’ another to the atmosphere being ‘combative.’” Yet despite these limitations and provocations against the professor, the report states that “A significant number of students found Professor Massad to be an excellent and inspiring teacher, and several described his class as the best they took at Columbia.” Moreover, the report further affirms that instead of being provoked to respond to this campaign inappropriately or irresponsibly, that I seem to have taken my professorial tasks professionally and responsibly:
Outside the classroom, there can be little doubt of Professor Massad’s dedication to, and respectful attitude towards, his students whatever their confessional or ethnic background or their political outlook. He made himself available to them in office hours and afterwards. One student, critical of other aspects of his pedagogy, praised his “warmth, dynamism and candor” and his unusual accessibility and friendliness. One of the group of students who questioned him regularly and critically in class told us of their friendly relations outside class where their discussions often continued.
As for limitations that I insisted on in my classroom, the report confirms one: “”Professor Massad…has been categorical in his classes concerning the unacceptability of anti-semitic views.” The report also affirms that the committee did not find that any of my students were “penalized for their views by receiving lower grades.” The report does not find any other limitations that I imposed on my students. It is in this context that the report examines the claim made by Deena Shanker, which is alleged to have taken place during the Spring 2002 class on Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies.
The report engages Deena Shanker’s claim in a way that renders it into a moving target. The committee first reports Deena Shanker’s testimony in which she claims that I told her “If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!” Shanker has two witnesses, one is a registered student, and one whom she claims was a visitor for the day, a claim that has not been verified by anybody except for Shanker who is the only witness that this person was visiting my class, just as he is her witness that the incident she describes took place! As for the registered student, he provided testimony that differs significantly from that provided by Shanker. He alleges that I “raised” my “voice considerably and said that ‘I will not stand by and let you sit in my classroom and deny Israeli atrocities.”
Note that Shanker’s claim that I instructed her to “get out of my classroom” is not corroborated but rather replaced by a different claim altogether. The fact that I deny that the incident ever took place and that my testimony is corroborated by three students, two graduate Teaching Assistants and one registered undergraduate student, while mentioned in the report, is treated as immaterial to the report’s conclusion. Also immaterial to the report’s conclusion is the report’s finding that Shanker did not register this complaint in her anonymous evaluation of the course, nor reported it to any one in authority nor spoke of it to me, her professor.
The report, despite noting the campaign against me during the Spring of 2002 from inside the classroom and outside it, from inside the university and outside it, and despite its finding that I had conducted myself in a responsible professorial way with students who would incessantly disrupt and interrupt my class, surprisingly moves to conjure up a fantastic scenario wherein it “finds it credible that Professor Massad became angered at a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and that he responded heatedly.” This the report explains as consisting of an allegedly “rhetorical response…conveying that [Shanker’s] question merited harsh public criticism.”
Thus, what the report finds credible is that I became “angered” and “responded heatedly” with “harsh public criticism.” Notice that the charge is a moving target. It started with the claim that I threatened to expel Deena Shanker from my class, to my threatening not to “stand by” while Shanker denies Israeli atrocities, to the final form of the charge, namely that I responded “heatedly” to Shanker with “harsh public criticism.” It is this last charge that the report found “credible.”
The Committee makes no attempt to relate Shanker’s allegations to two of its own findings: first, that those testifying before the Committee agreed that I conducted my class in an inclusive manner, both in terms of allowing everyone to ask questions and that I set no limitations on the questions that could be asked. How then was the allegation that I sought to exclude, whether directly or through a heated exchange, a student who disagreed with me found credible? And, second, that I and my class were already the target of an organized attempt at espionage and intimidation when Shanker claimed to recover her memory suddenly because of hearsay by another student interviewed in “Columbia Unbecoming.”
Let me move now to the report’s attempt to establish facts. The report never claims that it established Shanker’s claim as true beyond a reasonable doubt, rather that it found it “credible.” What this suggests is that at best the evidence was not persuasive enough to establish the claim as a solid incontrovertible fact but rather as “credible.” Still, the report never explains the basis on which the committee found Shanker’s claim and her witnesses more “credible” than my denial and that of my witnesses. Floyd Abrams, the advisor to the committee, responded to my public query by telling the Chronicle of Higher Education “That’s what juries do all the time.”
Mr. Abrams seems to elide the fact that the ad hoc committee is not a court and that unlike the ad hoc committee, a real court and a real jury listen to real testimony, not from volunteers, but from all who were determined to be present when an incident occurred, and that the witnesses are subjected to cross-examination. These important elements, which escaped the attention of our esteemed lawyer, did not apply to the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee, as it is not a court of law, evidenced by its failure to accord me due process. Indeed, the committee’s conclusion of the credibility of Shanker’s claim stands undefended by facts, logic, or argumentation, all of which are absent in relation to this finding.
In contrast with the committee’s conclusion that at worst it found it “credible” that I responded to Shanker “heatedly” with “harsh public criticism,” President Bollinger reached an altogether different conclusion. In a radio interview on April 1st 2005 with NPR’s Brian Lehrer, Bollinger responded to Lehrer’s statement that the committee found it probably true that Massad “yelled at a Jewish student to get out of his classroom,” by affirming that the described incident “did in fact happen” (emphasis added). Bollinger not only changes the report’s finding that the claim of a “heated” response and “harsh public criticism” is “credible” but transforms it into a new claim, namely, that I instructed Shanker to “get out” of my class room, and that this claim is a “fact.”
As for the Tomy Schoenfeld’s claim, the Committee affirms that it occurred at an unspecified time (“in the late Fall or early Spring terms of the 2001-2002 academic year”), and at an unspecified place (“in a building adjacent to campus on 113th or 114th street”), at an event with an unspecified title and unknown sponsor. Schoenfeld claims that at this alleged event I asked him “How may Palestinians have you killed.” He brought with him one witness who, like him, also could not recall the time, place, or title of the event at which this alleged incident took place. According to the report,
Mr. Schoenfeld told the committee that he had not spoken to a dean or advisor about the incident. By contrast, an assistant dean of student affairs in the School of General Studies recalls that Mr. Schoenfeld spoke with her about the incident shortly after it occurred. Although he seemed upset, she remembers that at the time he did not think this episode warranted further action.
Although the report mentions that I have denied that this incident ever took place, that I have never met or seen Mr. Schoenfeld, the report concludes that “In light of the confirmation of the event by another student and the contemporaneous reporting to a dean, the committee finds it credible that an exchange of this nature did occur at a location adjacent to campus.”
Let me emphasize that what the committee found “credible” is not that I allegedly asked Schoenfeld “how many Palestinians have you killed,” rather that an “exchange of this nature” occurred. What that means, the report does not clarify. It would seem that based on this finding, anyone who was a student in any department at Columbia University in the last six years can come forward to this committee claiming an imaginary exchange with me at some event whose date, place, sponsor, and title need not be disclosed, and the committee will find their claim at least partly “credible.”
There is therefore a glaring illogic governing the committee’s finding in this instance, given the facts available to it. Moreover, I should reemphasize that given the organized political campaign against me, which the report acknowledges, it is mystifying why the report fails to make any connection between this campaign and the nature and timing of the claims made by Shanker and Schoenfeld.
Now having established these two claims against me as being “credible,” the committee moves to analyze why this situation occurred and what remedies are needed. The committee declares that:
Almost none of the issues enumerated in the preceding pages found their way into the normal channels for addressing student concerns about curriculum and instruction, particularly complaints about individual faculty and specific courses. The establishment of this committee was a response to the failure to address such concerns clearly, promptly, and consistently. These failures reflected both the negligent or misguided behavior of individuals and widespread systemic confusion about responsibility and authority. As a result of these failures, outside advocacy groups devoted to purposes tangential to those of the University were able to intervene to take up complaints expressed by some students, further confusing the location of responsibility and authority for addressing student concerns about instruction at Columbia.
This is indeed a surprising conclusion. Since the report tells us that neither Deena Shanker nor Tomy Schoenfeld (nor even Lindsay Shrier, for that matter, who had complained to the committee about Professor George Saliba) sought to register their complaints against me with any university channel, how could the university be faulted for not addressing their grievances? As there were no other grievances of merit against me, or Professor Saliba, according to the report, or against any other professor for that matter, to what failure of university grievance procedure is the committee referring? This is especially puzzling as the report states that “Many of the matters brought before us did not, in our opinion, constitute the basis for formal grievances but were issues that warranted sympathetic hearing and an appropriate university response.” Which matters exactly then were reported to existing grievance channels that failed to address them? On that, the report remains silent.
The report issued by the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee is indeed a weak report that is flawed in its very essence. Not only does it not provide a logical progression of its arguments to reach a conclusion, it simply states conclusions that are undefended in the body of the report. This applies as much to its finding claims by Shanker and Schoenfeld “credible” as to it identifying the university grievance procedure as having failed, which in turn pushed complaining students to outside parties. The report fails completely to establish facts or to persuade by reasoned argument. Its conclusions are simply baseless, demonstrating a lack of courage and a lack of principled commitment to academic freedom.
The only possible logic that might have contributed to the findings reported by the committee is the logic of pressure exercised by the administration and outside groups on the committee to declare specific findings. Such pressures are hardly separable from the national campaign targeting academic freedom on various campuses across the country. It was these pressures to which the administration had initially acquiesced when it established the Ad Hoc Committee as part of the inquisition of the faculty. Since as I demonstrated above, the report’s conclusions follow no logic or consistent argument, one is left with a sense of bewilderment as to why the committee would find unsubstantiated student claims more “credible” than the testimony of professors. It is here where the political element was perhaps greatest in influencing the findings of the committee, wherein it decided to throw the witch hunters a morsel to placate them.
Even though the report acknowledges that there has been an ongoing organized effort at intimidation, by forces both external and internal to the university, of Middle East faculty at Columbia, especially me, and that this has been going on for years, the committee fails to see how its very establishment and the manner in which it established its findings makes it part of this campaign of intimidation. The objective of this campaign is to silence all dissenting scholarly voices, indeed to silence scholarship per se on the Palestine/Israel conflict. As scholarship on the conflict has largely uncovered the scale of the atrocities and historical wrongs that Israel and the Zionist movement have visited and continue to visit on the Palestinian people, the witch hunters won’t have any of it. It is high time that Columbia faculty stood up to this internal and external campaign that seeks to suppress our academic freedom and to destroy the institution of the university. If we fail to act now, the repercussions will indeed be grave for all of us.
Joseph Massad is a professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.
1. This response will be posted on www.censoringthought.org and on my webpage at www.columbia.edu/cu/mealac/faculty/massad/
2. All citations in this section are from Section IV of the report.
3. Section IV.
4. Section III, C.
5. Section III, D.
6. Section III, 1.
10. Jennifer Jacobson, “Columbia U. Report Criticizes Professor’s Classroom Conduct But Finds No Pattern of Anti-Semitism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 April 2005.
11. Section III, 2.
14. Section VI, 5.