Middle East politics roil a US campus

At Columbia U., pro-Israel students and pro-Palestine faculty each charge academic freedom is at risk.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

On Monday evening, about 400 faculty members and graduate students gathered in the imposing rotunda of Columbia University's main administration building. Photographs of street protests from the Ukraine's Orange Revolution last winter decorated the walls, which seemed appropriate given the whiff of rebellion in the room.

The professors who took the podium over the course of three hours all expressed some variation on a theme: that their academic freedom was under attack, and that the university's administration had not adequately protected them.

Political science professor Brian Barry, one of the more vehement speakers, went so far as to suggest actions to force President Lee Bollinger's resignation or removal. "A policy of non-cooperation by the faculty would certainly bring the campus to a grinding halt," he said.

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The professors were responding to the formation and findings of a faculty committee which investigated student complaints that professors in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department intimidated students who expressed pro-Israel views.

When the committee released its report last week, it found no evidence of anti-Semitism in the department, but faulted one professor, Joseph Massad, for exceeding "commonly accepted bounds" by angrily criticizing a student for a statement about Israel. However, the report also noted that at the time Prof. Massad was coping with "a campaign against him" that involved surveillance by other faculty members and outside groups, as well as frequent classroom disruptions by students who were not registered for his class.

Some observers see irony in the fracas at Columbia in that, even as events in the Middle East generate fresh hope for peace, discussions about the region in college classrooms seem to grow increasingly bitter. On a number of campuses across the United States, controversial lectures and debates on the topic have been cancelled and professors have been criticized for expressing views seen as too partisan.

But others say the angry exchanges on this New York campus represent tensions in academe that are not confined to departments of Middle Eastern studies. More students, they say are asserting the right to make their views heard, even as professors charge that this is a generation less tolerant of ideas that don't jibe with their own.

The upheaval at Columbia perfectly mirrors this national debate, with both sides

claiming to be victims of intimidation and harassment, and both accusing their opponents of ideological motivation. Both factions proclaim themselves as the real champions of academic freedom.

On Monday night, Columbia's faculty aired their grievances, with many professors declaring the committee's formation a sop to outside pressures. "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," said Massad.

"If we let these people chill our passion in the classroom, if we let these people make us afraid not to provoke our students," said Cristia Mercer, a philosophy professor at Columbia, "then we won't have done our duty."

Experts on academic freedom were divided on the validity of the student complaints against the Middle East department, but agreed that the temperature is likely to keep rising at Columbia, and that other universities around the country are watching for the outcome.

"What's happening at Columbia reflects issues that a number of campuses have seen unfold in their precincts," says Jonathan Knight, director of the department of academic freedom at the American Association of University Professors. "There have been calls, sometimes strident, for faculty members to be called on the carpet, if not worse, because of the substance of what they teach in their courses on the Middle East."

At Columbia, the debate may well intensify in coming weeks, says David French, president of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia. The committee's report will be "fuel to the fire," he adds, because it satisfied neither the faculty nor the pro-Israel students who felt discriminated against.

One of the unappeased parties is the Columbians for Academic Freedom, a newly formed group whose members include students whose complaints led to the creation of the committee.

Sophomore Bari Weiss, one of the group's founders, expressed her dissatisfaction with the committee's work, saying students had reported many other incidents of harassment that were not discussed in the final document. She says students are being bullied because of their belief in the state of Israel's right to exist.

"The high idea," she says, "is to make the university a place where dissent is appropriate, no matter who the dissenter is. For a lot of other people, academic freedom is only invoked to protect those whose political opinions they agree with."

It's a goal Columbia professors might well insist is identical with their own.

At least the two sides are talking, says Columbia spokesperson Susan Brown.

"The report was designed to be a catalyst for discussion," she says. "That discussion is going on now, and that's a good thing."

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