A committee appointed by the president of Columbia University has spent several months probing allegations of bias and intimidation by faculty, particularly in Middle East studies.
The panel convened by President Lee Bollinger comes at a time when Jewish students at the Ivy League university have complained that Middle East classes are unbalanced and that faculty members have used their authority to promote anti-Zionist activism.
“We want to preserve a healthy atmosphere on campus,” said Vincent Blasi, a Columbia Law School professor who chairs the committee. “We want to make sure that classroom time is not devoted to politics or preaching by professors.”
Rabbi Charles Sheer, the campus Hillel director, testified before the commission in February.
“They wanted to know my perceptions and what I have heard from students, about how the Middle East was being presented on campus,” he said. Rabbi Sheer said about a half-dozen members of the committee were present, including the campus chaplain.
Blasi declined to provide a full list of the committee members or to discuss who else had testified.
Blasi said the committee, which he estimated had met seven or eight times in the past year, had resulted from “a series of events,” including a controversial teach-in on the Middle East in 2002 and a protest against the war in Iraq one year ago. Some professors reportedly canceled their classes in order to attend the teach-in, and they urged their students to attend as well.
That prompted debate in the campus newspaper, The Spectator, about “what kind of institutional representation is appropriate, and about professors using their authority” to promote events not directly related to their course work, Blasi said.
At last year’s rally against the war in Iraq, the call for “a million Mogadishus” by a Latino studies professor, Nicholas DeGenova, “quickly made Columbia the latest target of nearly every conservative commentator in the country,” an article in The Spectator said.
“It’s very important that professors not claim to be speaking for the university when they are speaking their own position on a broad range of issues,” Blasi said.
Columbia provost Alan Brinkley mentioned the existence of the committee in an e-mail response to an inquiry about allegations of bias in the university’s Middle East and Asian Language and Culture Department.
Rabbi Sheer and several students interviewed said they felt a “slant” against Israel both in the classroom and in extracurricular activities.
Brinkley said, “I am aware that there have been complaints from students about some aspects of teaching in this field, but I certainly do not agree that the general atmosphere on campus makes it difficult to support Israel.
“We are, of course, concerned about charges of bias and intimidation in the classroom, and the president has appointed a committee to consider, among other things, how we might respond to such problems within the framework of our strong commitment to free speech.”
Blasi is a recognized authority on the First Amendment who has written extensively on free-speech issues.
Recently, Columbia has hired an array of teachers who have come under fire by pro-Israel activists. They include Rashid Khalidi, a former aide to Yasser Arafat who was appointed to the university’s Edward Said Chair of Middle East Studies. Said, an English professor and outspoken activist for the Palestinian cause, died last year.
A more recent hire is Mary Robinson, formerly president of Ireland and a human rights commissioner with the United Nations now teaching in the Department of International and Public Affairs, and as a senior research scholar at the university’s Human Rights Institute.
Robinson has been criticized for remarks seen as supporting Palestinian violence and for her participation in the anti-Israel U.N. human rights conference in Durban, South Africa.
“Columbia is the 1927 Yankees of radical work on the Middle East,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. “You have a substantial body of extremism in the Middle East studies at Columbia, and almost nothing else to balance it.”
The department has an Israeli professor, Dan Meron, who teaches “Zionism,” but Olivia Harris, a Columbia junior, said Meron’s class is purely literary and non-ideological.
“He refuses to engage in political discussion, with good reason,” said Harris, 21, of Michigan. “Others should follow his example.”
Harris is a member of Lionpac, a pro-Israel student group that is producing a video detailing the campus Middle East wars.
“Often, students are afraid to criticize faculty because of the hierarchical position,” Harris said. “For a while, students were unsure what they could do, and they don’t know a lot of other people feel this way. The video is a first step in this direction.”
On the Web site Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability, several anonymous postings give poor reviews to Joseph Massad, whose courses include Palestinian-Israeli Politics and Societies.
“A perfect example of brainwashing,” wrote one student in a posting from September 2003. “He lets you know on the first day that he isn’t going to give you both sides of the conflict.”
Another wrote in May 2002 of the same class: “This was possibly the most offended I have ever been. Massad does not even pretend to give the entire picture.” The class, the student wrote, “should be renamed Why Palestinians Hate Israel.”
Massad did not return a call seeking comment.
But a student of the same course in May 2003 called it “one of the best, most worthwhile courses I have ever taken.”
In a recent bulletin to students and alumni, Rabbi Sheer warned that “the principal anti-Israel voices are not pro-Palestinian leaders and groups, but Columbia faculty and academic departments.”
Rabbi Sheer said he often has heard complaints about Massad. But while many other academics on campus have firmly held beliefs on the Middle East, he said he saw no evidence that they brought their opinions into the classroom.
Tensions on the Middle East, however, are apparent on campus. When the Middle East studies department sponsored a Palestinian film festival last year, Jewish students complained that posters promoting the event featured a map in which land now controlled by Israel was draped in Palestinian national colors, which they saw as emblematic of the hope of eradicating Israel.
A few months later, when Jewish students organized an Israeli film festival, including works from various political perspectives, the fliers were decorated with swastikas and the words “Israel is a racist state.”
Rabbi Sheer said he believed the university has been hearing complaints from alumni on these matters.
“I know many alumni are disturbed about the Said chair,” said the rabbi. “His expertise was in English, but the chair is in Middle East studies. This is seen as a political way of remembering him that is far from his principal area of scholarship.”
For months, Columbia, under pressure from watchdog groups, refused to release the sources of funding for the chair, but it finally did so this month. Among the donors was the United Arab Emirates.
Noting that the institute received about $1 million in federal subsidies, Pipes said “it’s disturbing that someone overseeing U.S. taxpayer money is indirectly on the payroll of another government.”
Because Middle East passions take on new dimensions in the age of the war on terrorism, some members of Congress — strongly encouraged by Jewish organizations — have called for federal monitoring of anti-Israel activity on campus, which they hope will lead to greater diversity of opinions.
But some, including former Moment magazine editor Leonard Fine, have denounced this approach.
“It’s an unprecedented intrusion of a government agency into the academy,” said Fine. “It raises thereby many more problems in and of itself than it proposes to resolve.”
Blasi said his committee at Columbia had yet to decide how and when to present its findings.
But Rabbi Sheer said its formation showed that the university “takes this issue seriously. A Columbia education must, by definition, be unbiased.”