A Not-so-Academic Debate · 18 January 2005

The New Republic--Issue dated 01/24/05

You won't read much about the crisis at Columbia University in The New York Times. But the crisis is real, as the assiduous reporting of The New York Sun and the New York Daily News makes clear.

Over two decades, Columbia has become America's chief outpost of anti-Israel polemics disguised as serious scholarship and teaching. As some Columbia luminaries themselves admit, the university's program in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures is a scandal. Columbia's most eminent Arabist, Rashid Khalidi, has cannily steered clear of his colleagues' antics. He is the Edward Said professor of Arab studies, faithful to the now-uncertain reputation of the name on his endowed chair, but punctilious in his academic demeanor. Unfortunately, others are not so careful: Joseph Massad, a tenure-track professor, stands accused by Jewish and other students of disparaging them for holding views different from his own on Israel. Hamid Dabashi, among other acts, recently canceled a class so that he might attend an anti-Israel rally. After years of being intimidated, students have finally raised their voices--and now, even an underground filmmaker has documented their subject.

At the outset, Columbia President Lee Bollinger did not take the grievances seriously. Then, a few months ago, he began to listen--more to the point, he had his provost, American historian (and frequent tnr contributor) Alan Brinkley, listen-and take them seriously.

Many faculty said the students' charges amounted to a witch-hunt and constituted a threat to academic freedom. But, in fact, a university with ideologically uniform appointments on a subject as controversial as Middle Eastern history and politics itself threatens scholarly standards and intellectual liberty. And it is those who bludgeon students into silence or conformity who are the true little dictators of the moment. Bollinger has recently appointed a five-person committee to look into the matter. Two of those appointed--Jean Howard, professor of English and vice provost for diversity initiatives, and Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature--were signatories to the petition to have Columbia divest from companies selling military hardware to Israel. A third is Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. She is on record (in the current Harvard Magazine) as dismissing Daniel Pipes, a learned scholar of Islam and the Arab world, as "a conservative polemicist" with "anti-Muslim bias."

Anderson accuses him and others who want to examine the narrow range of "respectable" academic opinions on the Middle East of posing "a serious threat to our scholarly integrity." And she complains that "self-appointed guardians of the academy now use websites like CampusWatch to 'invite student complaints of abuse, investigate their claims, and (when warranted) make these known' presumably to university presidents." By announcing that she feels threatened by the very questions the students have raised, Anderson has disqualified herself from sitting on this panel as well. Bollinger should go back to the drawing board. His initial indifference to the student grievances has harmed Columbia enough. A suspect committee judging them will only exacerbate the damage.