The Mideast Comes to Columbia | The Nation


The Mideast Comes to Columbia

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"Columbia's response has been a disaster," says Robert Pollack. "People across the boundaries of all disagreement on Middle East issues agree that we don't understand the silence." The administration "made a mistake in adopting an agnostic posture at the outset, in using the word 'investigate,'" says Columbia political scientist Andrew Nathan. "They should have said: 'We have confidence in our faculty governance procedures. Deans and faculty committees regularly review the quality of faculty, curriculum, courses and teaching. We will protect them from outside pressure so they can do their job.'"

Scott Sherman wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Liel Leibovitz of The Jewish Week. Fatin Abbas provided research for this article.

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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Those observing the controversy from outside Columbia are also perplexed by Bollinger's behavior. "I really think Lee Bollinger has damaged every academic in the United States by his refusal to articulate a view on academic freedom," says Stanley Katz, an expert on higher education at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. "I don't know how to construe his unwillingness to speak out, except to say that either he's afraid to, or that he does not support academic freedom. I find both alternatives disappointing and unpleasant."

It is widely assumed at Columbia that Bollinger is under considerable pressure from pro-Israel alumni, whose ire could complicate his fundraising goals, and that his caution is connected to political imperatives having to do with Columbia's planned expansion into West Harlem--a $5 billion, thirty-year project on which Bollinger has staked much of his legacy. Bollinger is not eager to discuss these political imperatives, and he is currently awaiting the report of his faculty committee (whose members are maligned in the latest version of Columbia Unbecoming, partially on the grounds that two of them signed the 2002 divestment petition).

But the report, which is expected in late March, is unlikely to end the imbroglio. The coalition arrayed against Columbia seems increasingly confident and well organized. It has begun to campaign for an external body to investigate the charges, and has enlisted Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and Village Voice journalist Nat Hentoff in that cause. Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer can barely contain their satisfaction: In televised remarks to his Columbia supporters on March 6, Kramer noted that the MEALAC controversy could mark "a turning point" in the ongoing campus ideological war over Middle East studies.

There are signs, however, that Columbia's president is beginning to rouse himself: In late February Bollinger sent a powerful letter of protest on behalf of one of his top Middle East scholars, Rashid Khalidi, who was recently dismissed from a teacher-training program run by the New York City Department of Education on the grounds that he had made "past statements" critical of Israel. But Bollinger needs to go much further in confronting his critics. Asked about Martin Kramer's assertion that he should have to jump through "a hundred more hoops," Bollinger replied, "I have no doubt that some of the attacks on Columbia are ill motivated, and I have no respect for the purposes they are trying to achieve." If Bollinger indeed feels that way, he should speak in a much louder voice about why the attacks on his institution are ill motivated; who precisely is behind those attacks; and what are the larger "purposes" those critics are trying to achieve. Five years ago, George Rupp and Jonathan Cole defended Columbia in a most eloquent and capable manner. Bollinger has yet to pass that test. Meanwhile, we haven't heard the last of the David Project: The group has announced that it will produce other films about other campuses.*

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