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Whitewash at Columbia By: Ron Lewenberg
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, April 06, 2005

On April first, many bewildered Americans woke to find headlines including “Columbia Cleared of Anti-Semitism” and “Columbia Panel Clears Professors Of Anti-Semitism”. Many must have thought this an April Fools joke. How could there even be a question of anti-Semitism at Columbia, long known as “the Jewish Ivy?”

Sadly, these news stories were little more that a tool for a cover up the problem at Columbia.


For the last three years, Columbia has been a battleground between supporters of aggrieved students and professors throwing around allegations of Anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, intimidation, outside influence, “McCarthyism”, and “a pattern of discrimination”. The campus war was touched off in the aftermath of September 11th.


On November 15, 2001 the Wall Street Journal published a story by Martin Kramer on the failure of Middle Eastern Studies scholars to address anti-Western violence or Islamism. Kramer singled out two professors who taught at Columbia, the late Edward Said, and the former president of Columbia's Middle East Institute, Richard Bulliet.


Over the next year Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, National Review, and the Columbia Daily Spectator, covered a series of anti-American, anti-Israel activism. That November, the history department offered the Professor Rashid Khalidi position of being the first Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and Literature. On January 27, 2003, the Columbia University Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture (MEALAC) held a Palestinian Film Festival, “Dreams of a Nation”, promoting the destruction of Israel. On March 5, at the John Jay Awards ceremony, award winner John Corigliano condemned Middle Eastern studies leading to a vitriolic response by MEALAC chairman, Hamid Dabashi.


With the second Iraq War looming, anti-American rhetoric quickly became vitriolic, leading to a teach-in where Professor Nicholas DeGenova called for  “a Million Mogadishus”.  This comment brought national attention including angry responses by members of Congress.  Over the next eighteen months, the Middle East Studies at Columbia received critical attention with the death of Edward Said, and the news that the Said Chair was funded by a Saudi trust and the later revelation of funding from the government of the United Arab Emirates. In the spring of 2004, the a committee headed by law professor Vincent Blasi reported on issues of freedom of speech at Columbia, but ignored student allegations of intimidation.


However, the national spotlight only returned in the fall of 2004, when charges that students had been in harassed in class for being Zionists or Jews became public. In 2002, dissatisfied with the administrations failure to address their concerns, a number of primarily Jewish students turned to the David Project. In the interim, they produced a documentary, “Columbia Unbecoming”, citing their difficulties. In February 2004, before the Blasi committee released their report, members were invited to see an early version, but declined to do so.


From October 20 2004, the Columbia Daily Spectator, the New York Sun, and the New York Daily News all ran stories and editorials on the controversy, movie, and reaction from professors. Soon students were interviewed on Fox News and MSNBC.


Almost immediately leftist papers, magazines, and online media began running stories defending the professors and attacking the students who had made allegations.


Even the British Times Higher Education Supplement got in on the act, calling the allegations part of a conservative attack on education, affirmative action, and tied it together with the 2004 election. Fortunately, liberals, including Nat Hentoff and Congressman Anthony Weiner sided with the students. The administration responded by creating a new ad hoc committee to oversee grievance procedures based on the allegations of anti-Semitism, bias, and coercion.


If President Bollinger thought that creating the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee would end the controversy, he was sadly mistaken. Of the five members of the committee, two were members of MEALAC and a third was the dissertation advisor of an accused professor. A fourth, Mark Mazower has blamed Israel for post-war anti-Semitism and furthered the theory that the US invaded Iraq for Israel, thus promoting the theory that a cabal of Zionists and neocons controls the US. (For the record, Mark Mazower is a distant relation with whom I have no current and minimal prior contact.)


In the last four months, the controversy has intensified. Professors at MEALAC, the Middle East Institute and Anthropology Departments were joined by radical students in denouncing outside pressure as coercion and intimidation. On February 22, 2005, MEALAC, the Columbia ACLU, and Stop McCarthyism at Columbia, a student group, held a panel smearing those who looked into the monolithically anti-Israel and anti-American Middle East Studies programs at Columbia as McCarthyites. On March 6th, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East held a conference at Columbia to combat institutional anti-Zionism and anti-anti-Islamism. Speakers at the conference included Democrat members of the City council, Democrat Anthony Weiner, feminist Phyllis Chessler , and Christian and Muslim former slaves from Sudan and Mauritania.


The Nation dedicated three articles to the conflict. In “The Captive Mind” alleged suppression of anti-American dissent, even though no instances were found. Moreover, given that the only “captives” are students taking classes on the Middle East, by professors with uniformly anti-American views, the only dissent possible is pro-American or Pro-Israel dissent. In The New PC, Russell Jacoby claimed that there is a conservative cabal trying to force ideological conformity on universities. Of course, the only conformity at Columbia and most universities is leftist. However, Mr. Jacoby never bothered to consult any studies or polls in his straw-man assault on those promoting a semblance of balance.


Finally, in “The Mideast comes to Columbia”, Scott Sherman did not bother to deal with the accusation but merely attacks the liberals and conservatives who support the students or cause of academic freedom.


On March 28th, the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee released its final report with the following recommendations:


1. Many Schools are now actively considering their grievance procedures. Our investigation into the matters considered in this report leads us to urge that whatever the particular structures adopted in each unit, they be accessible, transparent, geared toward the speedy resolution of complaints and the appropriate protection of privacy, and that the university devise ways to educate all members of the community as to their existence and proper use. Having good procedures in place is imperative, but widespread knowledge about them is equally important.


2. In order to remedy the lack of information, knowledge and acceptance of responsibility that we have found, we strongly urge each Dean to undertake a general examination of the advising system in his or her School to ensure that students have regular personal contact with individuals whom they know and trust throughout their career as students.


3. Simultaneously, Arts and Sciences should ensure that all faculty, particularly Departmental Chairs and Directors of Undergraduate and Graduate Studies, are familiar with their responsibilities and obligations in regard to the counseling of students and the handling of grievances.


4. Because there is particular ambiguity over the role of the Office of the University Chaplain and the associated campus ministries, we recommend a review of their prerogatives and responsibilities, with an eye to developing more regular and routinized consultation between the chaplains, appropriate faculty committees, and university offices, including those dealing with student affairs.


5. Many of the matters brought before us did not, in our opinion, constitute the basis for formal grievances but were issues that warranted sympathetic hearing and an appropriate university response. We therefore recommend consideration of a common, central university site to which students, faculty and administrators could turn to express concerns, though not necessarily grievances, about the quality of their experience at Columbia. This might be attached to the Ombuds Office, but it should be advisory to the University administration and empowered to recommend action, not merely to mediate.


In his public letter to the Columbia Community, President Bollinger treated the report as exoneration of faculty and administrative bias:


As you know, a faculty Ad Hoc Grievance Committee has been looking into various claims by students of intimidation or discrimination in the classroom on the basis of the viewpoints they expressed. Silencing students for expressing reasonable and relevant viewpoints is certainly unacceptable classroom behavior, not only to those immediately affected but also to all other students who, at that moment or over time, may have felt inhibited to speak or been deprived of a fuller discussion of the subject. Hence, the Committee was asked to identify the facts underlying these students' concerns, so that the University could then address them judiciously and in accord with our scholarly and educational norms. The Committee has completed its charge and submitted its report -- a single report -- which is now being made public.


However, the committee, which was only responsible to the administration, was not authorized to make such a determination.


The committee will hear all issues students and faculty bring before it, but its mandate will not include investigating anyone's political or scholarly beliefs or any departments or curricula.


In fact, the committee chose to look at only three of sixty-three allegations. Despite its lack of a mandate, the committee did make the following finding:


C. Across the spectrum of these concerns, we found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic. Professor Massad, for one, has been categorical in his classes concerning the unacceptability of anti-Semitic views.


These two sentences became the focus of media attention. This should not be surprising as the university press release, would lead journalists to believe that the Ad Hoc Grievance committee investigated the matters fully: “The committee met with 62 individuals, including students, alumni, faculty and administrators. They also considered more than 60 written submissions.”


However section III of the report only deals with the allegations submitted by Deena Shanker, Tomy Schoenfeld against Professor Massad, and Lindsay Shrier against Professor Saliba.


In an equally dishonest manner, Nicholas Dirks, the Vice President and Dean of Faculty for Arts and Sciences, wrote in his public response:


The report is an extraordinarily helpful document. It clarifies the facts behind various allegations and concerns, contextualizes these facts, identifies issues of relevance to the general climate of teaching around matters concerning the Middle East over the last three years, and recommends a set of concrete measures we should take to avoid these problems in the future.


However, Dean Dirks, who oversaw the committee, specifically did not charge the group to investigate context or climate of charges.


He also formally charged the committee to pay particular attention to charges of inappropriate faculty behavior in their role as teachers:


The committee is specifically not being asked to investigate political or scholarly opinions, curriculum, or departments, but to identify cases where there appear to be violations of the obligation to create a civil and tolerant teaching environment in which opposing views can be expressed." (For the full text, see Appendix III)


Though the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee failed to make time to judge all 62 complaints, it did condemn the external pressure that made its creation possible:


While the international environment had less impact upon the classroom than previously, 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

None of this is actually cited by the committee. Neither did the committee reflect on the possibility that students would be intimidated in expressing views in opposition to the professor, even if no conclusive evidence of punitive action could be found in their selective three case review. Nor did the committee question either the lack of diversity of opinion at MEALAC regarding Israel or American foreign policy or the effect this would have on students and graduate students.


 If the media coverage of the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee was inaccurate, perhaps it was also due to manipulation by the Columbia Administration. As the New York Sun reported


In an effort to manage favorable coverage of its investigation into the complaints, the university disclosed a summary of the committee's report only to the Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper, and the New York Times.


Those newspapers, sources indicated to The New York Sun last night, made an agreement with the central administration that they would not speak to the students who made the complaints against the professors.


If that was not bad enough, the university attempted to intimidate one of the student critics from commenting on the report:


According to one student, senior Ariel Beery, one of the campus's most outspoken critics of the professors, a Columbia spokeswoman told him that students were not being shown the report yesterday "for your own good."


Reaction to the report was mixed, perhaps due to its irresponsible media coverage. Both aggrieved students and those supporting the faculty denounced the findings. Professor Massad, the only faculty member scolded in the report, attacked the report. The American Jewish Committee, which played no role in the controversy, congratulated the university, while the Zionist Organization of America joined Scholars for Peace in the Middle East in denouncing it.


Given the biased composition of the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee and the censorious management of the coverage of the committee it is difficult to conclude that the findings are anything but a whitewash.


The controversy surrounding Middle East studies at Columbia encompasses far more than just this field or university. Middle East studies is vitally important in our war on Islamist terror. We cannot adequately fight an enemy, when our analysts and diplomats are trained in classes to apologize for them. Many of students at Columbia today will be the policy analysts, business leaders, and statesmen of tomorrow. Moreover, while the nation’s attention is focused on Columbia, the problems are endemic in Middle East studies (Ivory Towers in the Sand).  As the three hit pieces from the March 16th Nation indicate, Columbia has become the main battle in a larger conflict for accuracy, balance, and academic freedom.

Ron Lewenberg was the founding president of the Columbia College Conservative Club. He is currently a computer consultant in New York.

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