Some Observations on Academic Freedom

The report recently released by Columbia’s Ad Hoc Grievance Committee is an odd document. Several people, including this author, have pointed out that the section dealing with three student grievances against two professors makes very little sense.

Professor Joseph Massad

The report wavers wildly in standards of evidence required before an allegation can be deemed “credible”, whatever that word may mean, and seems to simply discount the word of a Dr. Joseph Massad while taking the word of a Dr. George Saliba at face value. In the case of a simple “he said, she said” grievance against Dr. Saliba, the Committee sided with the accused professor. In the case of “four people testify for Dr. Massad (including Dr. Massad), while three people testify for his accuser (including his accuser),” and when the testimony of Dr. Massad’s four is far more consistent and less suspect than that of the three testifying against him, the Committee sided with the accuser.

Large parts of the report draw conclusions from tenuous or even ridiculous evidence, including the testimony of a student who claims to have been yelled at in an off-campus lecture by Dr. Massad. Where? The student cannot remember. When? He cannot remember. Who sponsored the event? He cannot remember. Did he talk to anybody about it? He says no, but an assistant dean of student affairs remembers talking to him about it, and that he specifically said he didn’t think anything needed to be done about the incident. Incredibly, a friend of this student who supposedly attended this lecture with him also doesn’t remember where or when it took place, or who sponsored it. Dr. Massad claims, again, that the incident in question never took place, and that he has never met the accuser.

The second half of the report deals with a campaign of intimidation against Dr. Massad specifically, but also against several professors at Columbia deemed “pro-Palestinian” or “anti-Israeli”, whatever those terms may mean. The report is unambiguous on the following points, all of which were known well before the report was issued: students and at least one faculty member at Columbia have been spying on Dr. Massad in an attempt to compile a dossier on him for one of the most disturbing websites on today’s Internet,; Dr. Massad’s lectures have been repeatedly interrupted and disrupted by student provocateurs; Dr. Massad has always maintained an open and respectful environment in his classroom, even when being heckled, and has been vehement and absolute in his opposition to anti-Semitism. Finally, what is to my mind the report’s most astounding finding: students in Dr. Massad’s and other’s classes felt intimidated by the student hecklers themselves, not by Dr. Massad. The Committee reports:

While the international environment [following the outbreak of the second Intifada and the 9-11 attacks] had less impact upon the classroom than previously [meaning the period after the second Intifada started], the involvement of outside organizations in the surveillance of professors teaching the Middle East increased. The watch-list of professors published online from late 2002 by a group called Campus Watch which invited students to send in reports on their instructors, led to the named professors receiving hate mail. We heard credible evidence that in spring 2004 someone began filming in one of Professor Saliba’s classes without permission and left after being challenged. The inhibiting effect upon classroom debate was noted by a number of students. One undergraduate in Professor Saliba’s class told us that she was afraid to defend her views in the classroom “for fear of attack from students but also from reporters who may continue their investigations of our school undetected.” Graduate student teaching assistants reported that they no longer felt able to express their views freely for fear of retribution from outside bodies and that their teaching was affected as a result. Some expressed anxiety about how press attention would affect their job prospects.

In the spring of 2004, a significant number of students attended Professor Massad’s lectures on Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies because of reports about his class two years earlier. One student told Professor Massad directly that he wished to audit his class because he had heard from numerous people about its controversial nature. He was permitted to do so, and he found no signs that Professor Massad treated students with any kind of systematic bias. What he did find, however, was, as he put it, “a professor who was constantly harassed by outside agitators.” A small group of unregistered auditors attended Professor Massad’s lectures, and their frequent interruptions and hostile asides disturbed many of the students. (all emphasis mine)

As with any document or report, a rational person will take to heart the conclusions in the report that are well supported, and view with skepticism those that seem unsubstantiated, refusing to draw hard and fast conclusions in the face of a lack of evidence. In this case, that means being skeptical of the charges of intimidation and bias leveled against Drs. Massad and Saliba, and embracing the fact that these and other professors have been spied on, threatened with violence and even death, heckled, monitored and harassed by a group of zealous students and at least one professor acting in a coordinated, centralized manner in concert with an outside body (Campus Watch), which compiled a dossier detailing Dr. Massad’s supposed “anti-Israel” bias. That, I repeat, is what any rational person would conclude.

Enter the New York Times editorial board. Anyone who bothers to read the Columbia Committee’s report should also read one of the Times April 7 Op-Ed pieces, “Intimidation at Columbia”. According to the Times, “one member of the department, Joseph Massad, was judged clearly guilty of inappropriate conduct.” (my emphasis). The incident the Times is referring to is the one in which four people testified in Dr. Massad’s favor (again, including Dr. Massad), and three people testified against him (again, including his accuser). This, for the Times, is clear evidence of guilt.

The Times also mentions the accuser who remembers almost nothing about the incident he alleges took place during an off-campus lecture, declaring, “Had that incident occurred in the classroom, the panel concluded, it would clearly have been out of [the] bounds [of professorial conduct].” Again, no mention of the fact that there is nowhere near enough evidence to conclude that this incident occurred anywhere, or that the accuser and his supporting witness both seem to have an inexplicable case of selective amnesia.

(To be fair, the Times editorial does mention, “Their [the professors in question] classes were infiltrated by hecklers and surreptitious monitors, and they received hate mail and death threats.” These seventeen words are the full extent of the commentary on this issue, in a 550-word editorial.)

But the closing paragraph of the Times piece is perhaps the most illustrative:

But in the end, the report is deeply unsatisfactory because the panel’s mandate was so limited. Most student complaints were not really about intimidation, but about allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the part of several professors. The panel had no mandate to examine the quality and fairness of teaching. That leaves the university to follow up on complaints about politicized courses and a lack of scholarly rigor as part of its effort to upgrade the department. One can only hope that Columbia will proceed with more determination and care than it has heretofore. (my emphasis)

Leave aside that this panel of five is hardly equipped to review every course at Columbia to ensure they all fall into some vague “quality and fairness of teaching” category. Far more important is this question: Why is a “stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias” indicative of a lack of “quality and fairness in teaching”?

If it is, we must assume that it is because having a “stridently pro-anything, anti-anything bias” is indicative of a lack of “quality and fairness in teaching.” This leads to conclusions nobody accepts as valid. Should literal neutrality on the subjects of genocide and anti-Semitism be a hiring requirement for professors teaching the history of Nazi Germany? Should professors teaching courses on war crimes and crimes against humanity be required to give lectures in which they genuinely try to convince their students that Indonesia never killed one-third of East Timor’s population, lest they show “pro-Indonesian-genocide believer, anti-Indonesian-genocide denier bias”? Could the Times possibly believe that professors teaching the history of American slavery should not express their views on the topic of American racism? Indeed, if this is the case, shouldn’t the Times chastise Dr. Massad as vehemently for his alleged “anti-anti-Semitism, pro-refraining-from-anti-Semitism bias” as it does for his alleged “pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli” bias?

Hamas graffiti in Tulkarm. Does a “stridently anti-Hamas” bias qualify as a lack of “quality and fairness in teaching” as well? (Photo: Feroze Sidhwa)

And what happens when we universalize this “no bias allowed” principle beyond the social sciences and into the natural or medical sciences? Should astronomy professors be fair-minded on the issue of whether or not the sun revolves around the earth? Or Niels Bohr’s theory explaining hydrogen’s emission spectrum put on equal footing with quantum mechanics? Should teaching physicians give credence to the idea of bleeding patients to cure cancer? The possibilities are endless. This is why academic freedom is so deeply cherished. It allows occasional crackpots like Holocaust deniers to pop every now and then, but over time a long enough timeline, logic suggests that academic freedom will lead to the possession of objective truth.

Furthermore, from my own personal experience, I know full well that university professors — especially political science professors — aren’t neutral about anything. Take my experience at Johns Hopkins University with Dr. Robert Freedman. Dr. Freedman is a friendly, intelligent, highly qualified professor and an engaging lecturer. He is also vehemently “pro-Israel” (a term I consider a misnomer, but that is another topic), even to the point of barely concealed contempt for the lives of Arabs. For example, after discussing Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, he offered two sentences on the Sabra-Shatila massacres: “After the Israelis took Beirut, the Christian Phalange militia killed hundreds of Palestinians in two refugee camps. And, well, to quote Menachem Begin, ‘Goyim kill goyim, and immediately they blame the Jews’.” In several other instances this same open contempt for Arabs was expressed, even at times directly contradicting information in the readings we had been given. In a class entitled “Arab-Israeli Conflict” with several required books, no Arabs wrote any of them.

Or take my “American Foreign Policy Since 1945” professor, Dr. Thomas Thornton. Once, after class, I asked him a question about Fox News coverage of the war in Afghanistan. His one-sentence response was, “Between you and me (sorry Dr. Thornton), I think all things Fox News should die a horrible death.”

Or take my Comparative Government professor, Dr. Gottfried Dietze. Once, he made clear his absolute opposition to the death penalty, because “in Hitler’s Germany, I saw how the death penalty was abused, and the horrors it created” (he is over 80 years old, and lived in Nazi Germany before emigrating to the United States). Then, a few weeks later, he defended the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square because, according to him, the student protesters were relatively privileged in Chinese society, so they should have done what the government told them to. Besides, he said, they all knew what the Chinese government would do to them if they didn’t call off their protests when told to do so.

Or take the former head of the Hopkins International Relations Department, Dr. Steven David, who justified Israeli assassinations of Palestinians in the Begin-Sadat Journal of Strategic Defense in (as I recall) a more than 20-page argument bordering on comical. The argument put forward was so preposterous that a 20-year-old university junior majoring in public health (this author) demolished it in an 800-word essay in the Hopkins undergraduate student newspaper. Indeed, in the end, Dr. David’s justification for Israeli assassinations was exactly the same as Hamas’ justification for suicide bombings.

All of these professors displayed rigorous biases. After class Dr. Freedman refused to even entertain the notion that Israel was responsible for the Sabra-Shatila massacres. I tried to quote him American envoy Morris Drapper’s famous protest to the Israelis while the massacre was still ongoing (“You must stop the massacres. They are obscene. I have an officer in the camp counting the bodies. You ought to be ashamed. The situation is rotten and terrible. They are killing children. You are in absolute control of the area and therefore responsible for that area.”), but he would have none of it. Dr. Thornton dismissed Fox News with contempt. I’m not arguing he was wrong to do so, only that doing so exposed a serious bias against Fox News. Dr. Dietze justified an event that (I thought) is universally reviled as a massive crime against humanity by the Chinese state against its own, unarmed population, and vehemently opposed the death penalty openly (yes, it’s a unique combination of views). Dr. David practically bent over backwards to justify obviously unjustifiable crimes by the Israeli state, revealing an incomprehensible “pro-Israel” bias that seemed to rob this intelligent, thoughtful man of his powers of logic.

That leaves all of these former professors of mine in the heap of lecturers who display a “lack of scholarly rigor,” according to the newspaper of record. But this is absurd. Nobody — nobody — thinks these professors should be forbidden from teaching simply because they have views on things, even if those views are extreme, and even if, in some cases, they are justifying or excusing some of the most terrible human depravities of the 20th century. Maybe Drs. Massad and Saliba are the two most intimidating people since Attila the Hun (I have never met either man), but nobody accuses them of justifying ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In Dr. Freedman’s class I regularly challenged the professor, as did other students, as regularly as he made statements that I regarded as utter nonsense. Indeed, even on his short essay exams I wrote answers that he must have regarded as completely and totally wrong. I referred to virtually none of the books he had assigned, but instead referred to those I had read outside of class, on my own time, and specifically directed my arguments against those he had made in class. His reaction was to ask me to read two of my essays aloud to the class, and I received an A for the course, a grade he handed out to very few people.

Furthermore, our in-class conversations were not always the epitome of academic civility. Just after the invasion of Iraq, I asked Dr. Freedman, “What if no weapons of mass destruction are found? Would you think the invasion was unjustified?”

“Well,” he responded, “even if we don’t find any WMDs, we’ve freed the Iraqi people from a brutal dicta…”

“No, no, no, no!” I said, rudely interrupting him in front of the entire class. “What are you, a spokesman for the Bush administration? I was informed by the President of the United States himself that this war was fought for my safety, not for the freedom of the Iraqi people.”

Some of the class laughed, Dr. Freedman chuckled and I tried to understand what was funny. Some students probably thought about what I said, others didn’t. That’s life; grownups accept it.

Professors are not — and are not meant to be — demigods with all the right answers on a given subject stuffed into their heads, and nobody thinks or acts like they are, either in or out of class. They are fallible and, especially in the social sciences, they are at the mercy of their sociopolitical views. University students who disagree with their professors, even vehemently so, don’t sit around and mope all day, wailing about the big bad meany who won’t let them express their views, or wait for Campus Watch or the David Project to come around and save them from their anti-Semitic university incubus. Instead they engage in conversation and debate, especially over emotional and political issues. If the professor penalizes you simply for expressing your views, you go tell the dean that he’s not doing his job; it’s a very simple matter. If students prefer to cry about disagreements then they should go back to kindergarten where they belong. And, if the Times editorial board really believes what it wrote on Thursday, they’ll have some company.

Academic freedom necessarily includes the freedom to offend, to provoke, and even to outrage others, especially students. That is a universally accepted fact, totally and absolutely undisputed outside of fascist circles. You are either for or against academic freedom. Universities are (ostensibly) for it. If you are against it, there’s a simple solution: avoid universities.

Feroze Sidhwa is a 23-year-old American citizen of Persian descent. He is currently traveling in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and living in Haifa.

Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Columbia University
  • BY TOPIC: Campus Watch