LISA Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, purses her lips, straightens the seams of her brown pantsuit, and gracefully contemplates a visitor's impudent impression that breakfasting with a world-class despot, Iran's less than warm-and-cuddly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seems like her notion of a fabulous way to jump-start the academic day. Does this make her a despot groupie of sorts?
Instead of dignifying a silly question with an intelligent answer, she jangles an armload of exotic bracelets (from Africa, the Middle East, and her fashion-forward grandmother) and smiles a very thin smile that is more about manners than mirth. Ms. Anderson's breakfast with Mr. Ahmadinejad did, in fact, prove productive: he not only agreed to come to Columbia and share his, uh, thoughts, he wondered if it would "get her into trouble" with the anti-Iran contingent if he showed up. What a thoughtful despot. She told him not to worry about it. As it turns out, she spoke too soon. Sorry, Mahmoud; how about a rain check?
Ms. Anderson, a well-traveled Middle East and North Africa scholar with a longstanding interest in Libya, where she researched her dissertation, obtained ample involuntary notoriety a few weeks back when she hastily issued and then regretfully retracted the invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad to swing by the School of International and Public Affairs and hash things over with 500 or so students. A student organization called Iranians at SIPA had asked for the meeting: she said they thought it would be "fun" to hear from, and perhaps interrogate, Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose policies on Israel and the Holocaust are on the nihilist side. Ms. Anderson calls such requests standard operating procedure and made it happen. Almost.
However, security concerns put a kibosh on the event almost before the president, over breakfast at his hotel, had accepted the invitation. A negative reaction from alumni, from anonymous crank callers who threatened "to do something horrible" if Columbia brought him to campus, from some of her own colleagues who likened it to handing Hitler a microphone, forced the cancellation of this exercise in free speech.
Ms. Anderson, 55, who bluntly states that she probably would, granted the hypothetical opportunity, extend the same invitation to Hitler, backed off but not down. "This is of a piece with this climate in the U.S. where if you aren't the solution, you're the problem, and if you're not a friend, you're an enemy: it makes it harder to teach and to learn," she says. The fact that she and Mr. Ahmadinejad do not agree on "the facts" is precisely why she feels it is so valuable to hear him, and his ilk, out. She says — get this — he reminded her in some strange way of President Bush: deeply religious, artfully simple, confident in his own reading of the world.
"The interesting thing about many of the despots we've entertained on campus is that they are usually personally quite personable," she says, failing to find a comfort zone on the only wooden chair in her otherwise well-upholstered office. "Because of our proximity to the United Nations, we have the great advantage of being able to have a disproportionate number of rogues visiting us." Ms. Anderson believes that intelligent educating, as well as policy-making, is best fomented by exposure to ideas and "received truths" contrary to one's own.
"It's the irony of being a liberal with a small "l": you are willing to entertain the ideas of others, including and perhaps especially those of the people who wouldn't necessarily agree to entertain your ideas," she says. Makes for great policy debates.
And occasionally it makes for chaos, as occurred last week when a speech — not arranged by her — by the head of the aggressively anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project was curtailed after student protesters rushed the stage and an un-Ivy League-ish melee ensued. Ms. Anderson says the protesters are entitled to their principles and their pain, but not to bad behavior. Disciplinary action is possible.
AND if you don't want to step into the fray, you shouldn't be a dean," says Ms. Anderson, who is stepping down at the end of this year as the school's dean after a decade; she is also its James T. Shotwell professor of international relations. "One of the things a university should represent is a protected place for people to say unpopular things; free speech is important, and loathsome ideas are sometimes the cost of free speech. Ultimately the way one gets to the truth is through the marketplace of ideas." Yes, she's a 19th century liberal in the John Stuart Mill mold.
She grew up on Long Island in Bellport; her father worked for the Brookhaven Laboratory, her mother taught science, and she was unmotivated when it came to academics. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where a class on "Politics and Culture in World Affairs" briefly converted her into a Vietnam War hawk but permanently awakened a fascination with the politics of underdog nations. She received a master's degree in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University (where she palled around with a Libyan who later became prime minister), and earned her doctorate in political science at Columbia.
Married with two sons, she lives within walking distance of campus, kayaks for peace of mind and is trying to finish writing the book she put aside when she became dean. Its title? "The Failure of Liberalism in the Arab World." Maybe she'll throw in a chapter on Columbia's lecture circuit.