Months before a Columbia University dean was named to a special committee convened to investigate student complaints about professors' hostility to Israel, the dean took a trip to Saudi Arabia that she acknowledges was "largely" paid for by Saudi Aramco, the kingdom-owned oil company.
The dean, Lisa Anderson of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, was one of five members of the committee named in December 2004. The committee for the most part cleared the accused scholars of blame, prompting critics to describe their report as a whitewash.
The March 2004 junket to Saudi Arabia is described in glowing terms on a Web site for former Saudi Aramco employees that details the "delightful lunch" enjoyed by the Columbia delegation, as well as a "wonderful dinner" during which "guests watched the sunset over the sand dunes from the tent."
The tour, which the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations helped organize, took a total of 10 Columbia faculty members and scholars to Riyadh, Dharan, and other parts of Saudi Arabia to tour facilities and meet with officials of the oil company.
Ms. Anderson's participation drew criticism yesterday from people familiar with the developments at Columbia.
"Saudi money is borderline corruption," said a research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, Martin Kramer, who has been a vocal critic of Middle Eastern studies in America.
Mr. Kramer said Western academics are constantly vying for Saudi money to fund their departments, whose message more often than not is that American support for Israel is the problem in the Middle East.
Mr. Kramer said he wonders if Ms. Anderson's trip was part of an effort to raise more funds from the Saudis.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, who recently gave $20 million gifts to Georgetown and Harvard Universities, told the New York Times Magazine earlier this month that several other Ivy League universities had applied for similar gifts, but that he had turned them down. In the interview, the prince declined to name the schools, saying: "I'd rather not embarrass them."
Mr. Kramer said he wonders whether Columbia might have been one of those schools, adding that it "has a record of soliciting Arab donors." He cited Columbia's admission that among the donors of the $2.1 million Edward Said chair were the United Arab Emirates, which gave $200,000, and the Olayan Charitable Trust, a charity associated with a Saudi-based multinational corporation, the Olayan Group.
The New York Sun in March reported that Saudi Aramco since 2002 had given annual grants of $15,000 for unspecified outreach activities to Columbia University's Middle East Institute.
"I think it's pretty suspicious that the dean of SIPA ... would go tour Saudi Aramco facilities," a junior at Columbia College, Bari Weiss, said. She, too, wondered whether Columbia might have tried to secure a donation from Prince Alwaleed and failed, "fortunately for the school's ethical standards, but unfortunately for Lisa Anderson."
Ms. Weiss brought one of the complaints investigated by the committee.
Ms. Anderson said in an e-mail message that the trip was meant "to familiarize some of the faculty of our then new Center on Energy, Marine Transportation and Public Policy with the operations of Saudi Aramco." She added that she was unable to stay for the entire trip, but "found the visit very instructive."
Ms. Anderson added that the trip was not out of the ordinary. "Our students and faculty often travel throughout the world on projects funded wholly or in part by other organizations, and this was a case in point," she said.
She said she's gone on other trips funded by the State Department, Tel Aviv University, and the Bertelsmann Foundation.
She did not respond to further requests for comment yesterday.
Another member of the tour group, Michael Heller, a professor of property law at Columbia's law school, said the trip granted a balanced view of Saudi Arabia and had nothing to do with the committee to investigate bias charges.
"What I came away with was a much more subtle appreciation for the complexity of Saudi society," he said.
Other members of the tour group, Jonathan Fallet, David Nissen, Gary Sick, and Jean-Francois Seznek, declined to comment. Hurst Groves did not return multiple voice messages left yesterday and on Monday. David Cohen, David Long, and Shirley Neff could not be reached.
Representatives of Saudi Aramco and of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations did not respond to requests for comment.
Complaints of anti-Israel intimidation at Columbia continue to surface.
A professional violinist, Anat Malkin, in December told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that she dropped out of her graduate program in the university's Middle Eastern studies department because she did not want to endure bullying from biased, anti-Israel professors.
"In one class the lecturer cited an article about how the Israelis were raping Palestinian women in the prisons and then sending them back to the territories. I raised my hand and said that no friend of mine had raped a Palestinian, and he started to shout at me," she told Ha'aretz.
Columbia failed for years to comply with federal law requiring the disclosure of gifts from overseas. Among the gifts it failed to disclose to the federal government in 2003, until The New York Sun reported the university's failure to comply, was a $250,000 gift from an unnamed Saudi individual for "social science research."