A Little History on Columbia’s Ignorance of Its Problem

While one could go through the past twenty years of intellectual history to explain the problems faced by Columbia, and the many different ways those problems added up to create the situation of the present day, I wanted to go through a very quick timeline as to how events directly connected to the current crisis culminated in Abe Foxman’s statement today in the New York Sun regarding his loss of trust in the Columbia Administration. This will be a long one, so the story will stretch into the extended entry. And, I guess, to make a long story short, I’ll start with the events of 2002.
In 2002, at the height of what some call the al-Aqsa Intifada, the lid was lifted off of Columbia’s boiling pot of Middle East tensions. On Israel’s independence day, a number of campus organizations organized an anti-Israel rally . A number of professors, who taught a class during that same hour, led their classes to this rally–in contradiction, as I noted in another entry, to University policy. This fact was noted in the article written about the event.
Rabbi Charles Sheer, the executive director of Hillel, Columbia’s major Jewish organization, addressed what he saw as an abuse of professorial power to coerce students to attend a political rally that they might not agree with, in an article in the Columbia Spectator. Hamid Dabashi quickly answered in the Spectator, saying Sheer “has launched a campaign of terror and disinformation reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition against me and other members of Columbia and Barnard faculty who have dared to speak in terms contrary to his political views.”

Lots of debate ensued (the full story should be told one day in a book. I entered this fray in the Fall of 2002, and some of those articles can be found on my website), many other articles were written, but the next full-force professorial action was a petition put together to have Columbia divest its holdings from companies doing business with Israel. I want to make clear that I have no opposition to their right to do so–and neither does Columbians for Academic Freedom. It is important to note this development, however, because it led to the next wave of professorial abuse, and to the bringing up of the issue at the John Jay Awards of March 2003.
At those awards–where Columbia’s most famous alumni are honored–the composer John Corigliano, CC ’59, made a speech saying that:

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I felt encouraged to go on and be a composer because I wasn’t discouraged by the kind of fundamentalist ‘there is only one way’ kind of composing,” Corigliano said. “I say this because throughout this country there has been an enormous, enormous amount of publicity about the various departments of Middle Eastern Studies, and about the fact that the anti-Israeli policy in these [departments] is enormous. And one can say that of the department of Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Columbia, that that’s true here.”
Corigliano warned that, whatever professors’ personal beliefs, they must accept all views in their classrooms.
Corigliano’s comments drew raised eyebrows but also sustained applause.

These comments drew a very strong rebuke by Dabashi, who wrote that “Such malicious misrepresentations of my department are a deliberate attempt at silencing voices of civilized dissent and civil discourse in these extremely troubling times. They have created undue anxiety among our alumni on one hand and on the other unleashed scores of death threats against me personally, and against my colleague Professor Joseph Massad, by lunatic thugs.” Maestro Corigliano answered, saying that “Students deserve real self-discipline from their professors. I miss evidence of this quality in the illiberalism, sloppy research, and near-hysterical tone of these statements Dabashi has written for publication. It’s deeply disturbing to me that–at this time, of all times–such a person chairs the department.”
Why is this important? Because, along with starting another flurry of articles, it seems that it also set off the creation of an investigatory committee by President Bollinger in the early Spring of 2004 headed by Vince Blasi. As noted a number of times, that committee was read portions of the transcript of the film “Columbia Unbecoming” and was offered a screening–but never followed up. They never even asked to interview the students. And on top of that, at the end of this secret “investigation,” president Bollinger went on the record with the New York Daily News to tell them that the committee “have said to [him] they have not found claims of bias or intimidation.” “Said” is a key word, because, our sources confirm, that committee was instructed to issue a solely verbal report. In other words, it was specifically not instructed to prepare a written, comprehensive report.
“Claims” is also a key word–Bollinger, as a lawyer, knew very well what word he used. By saying that the committee found no “claims” he was basically saying that the case was closed–there was nothing to investigate.
The next step in the timeline was more drawn out. From the second that this committee allowed Bollinger to publicly whitewash the issue, the students and the David Project began meeting with members of the administration, hoping to show them that there were indeed claims of systematic bias and intimidation out there. I attended a meeting with Provost Brinkley myself, and others met with other members of the administration. But nothing happened. No movement. We had continued to hope to work with the administration to prove to them that “claims” indeed did exist, and we hoped the University would investigate them, but the president of Barnard, Judith Shapiro, cut our work short by going public and telling an audience in Washington that the film existed. The result was the article in the New York Sun that prompted us to show the film publicly in order to counter administration efforts to cover-up the fact that the film exists.
One would think that now that the administration knew it could no longer hide the problem it would call together its students and see how it can best serve their interests. One would think. In fact, it took a very long amount of time for the administration to meet with the students–and when it did it wasn’t at its own initiative–and instead the administration reached out to Jewish community leaders, along with the heads of the campus Hillel, regardless of the fact that they were not involved in the production of the film nor the hearing of the student’s complaints. Most of them–on and off campus–had not even met with the students or their representatives themselves.
Whew, is that it? Actually, no it only gets worse. Once the president and the provost met with the students–and finally acknowledged the problem somewhat–they created a committee of the most partial people they could find (as this website has been covering).
Oh–and in the month since the committee was named, none of us have been contacted by the administration. Even though the issue went before the Senate, and professors such as University Professor Jeremy Waldron noted that while the Academy has a tradition of peer review, there is also a tradition of the maximum effort for impartiality.
Anything else? You bet. There is the NYCLU, the reaction from people like the Village Voice’s Nat Hentoff–and today’s statement by the ADL. There is a lot more in-store for Columbia’s administration–all of which can still be avoided if they would simply show good faith towards their students and work together with us to heal the Columbia University community.


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