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
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
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
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