Middle East Politics Roil a US Campus ; at Columbia U., Pro-Israel Students and Pro-Palestine Faculty Each Charge Academic Freedom Is at Risk

Article excerpt

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.

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. …