A backlash against the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, who on Monday delivered a harsh rebuke to President Ahmadinejad, is coming from faculty members and students who said he struck an "insulting tone" and that his remarks amounted to "schoolyard taunts." The fierceness of Mr. Bollinger's critique bought the Iranian some sympathy on campus that he didn't deserve, the critics said, and amounted to a squandered opportunity to provide a lesson in diplomacy.
Mr. Bollinger opened a two-hour program during which the Iranian president spoke and answered questions at the Roone Arledge Auditorium in Morningside Heights by calling Mr. Ahmadinejad a "petty and cruel dictator." He chastised the Iranian for calling for the destruction of Israel, funding terrorism, persecuting scholars, women, and homosexuals, denying the Holocaust, and for fighting a proxy war against America within the borders of Iraq. Mr. Bollinger also tauntingly predicted that the Iranian would lack the "intellectual courage" to offer real answers to questions from the audience.
"It's odd to invite someone and then deal with the objections to inviting him by insulting him before he gets to talk," a professor of political science at Columbia, Richard Betts, said during an interview in his office yesterday. "He's having it both ways in a sense, honoring the principle of free speech by not choosing speakers on the basis of how nice they are, but being sharp to him before he speaks."
Mr. Betts said a more appropriate introduction would have been to make clear that an invitation to speak at Columbia did not qualify as approval of the content of the speech. He said the message should have been delivered as a "less in-your-face assault."
Students said they interpreted the severity of Mr. Bollinger's opening, in which he called Mr. Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," as a cowing to political and financial pressure from elected officials who in the days leading up to the event criticized Columbia for providing a platform for Mr. Ahmadinejad and said they would consider reducing capital aid to the university.
"It felt like Bollinger responded out of fear because he still has to be able to get money," a second-year Pakistani SIPA student, Noni Durrani, said. "It showed a serious difference of class, the way Bollinger behaved and the way Ahmadinejad behaved. Ahmadinejad could have walked out, and he handled it very well."
The professor of history and Iranian expert who had a role in bringing Mr. Ahmadinejad to campus, Richard Bulliet, said that if Mr. Bollinger led a mission of faculty and students to Iran, which he has expressed interest in doing, he would likely receive a more courteous welcome than was provided to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
In a meeting of the Columbia faculty senate on December 8, 2006, before the university extended and then rescinded an invitation to the Iranian president to speak on campus, Mr. Bulliet argued in favor of providing him a platform. Mr. Bulliet said he attended a breakfast meeting with the Iranian and found him to be a "very reasonable speaker, a very effective debater."
"There are students in SIPA who feel very strongly that President Bollinger didn't teach an enlightening lesson in diplomacy," Mr. Bulliet said in an interview yesterday.
Mr. Bollinger's opening speech "was pitched in a deliberately insulting tone, descending almost to the level of schoolyard taunts. (I hope students did not take away the lesson that this is how international politics should be conducted.)," a senior fellow at Columbia's Middle East Institute, Gary Sick, wrote on Gulf 2000, a listserv created to allow academics, analysts, and journalists to discuss Iran and Iraq issues.
"We all know who Ahmadinejad is and what his capabilities are. But where was the courtesy? If Mr. Bollinger knew a bit about the Iranian culture and custom of hospitality, he would have acted differently," a professor of Middle East politics, Mehdi Noorbaksh, wrote on Gulf 2000.
The director of the Middle East Studies department at Columbia, Rashid Khalidi, said he would not comment for this article.
Columbia's campus was buzzing with discussion yesterday of Mr. Bollinger's reception of the Iranian leader. Students at the university's School of International and Public Affairs said they were planning to send a petition to Mr. Bollinger later this week telling him that his behavior was out of line.
Students said they thought it was rude that Mr. Bollinger did not remain on stage to listen to Mr. Ahmadinjad's response to his accusations. Mr. Bollinger never thanked Mr. Ahmadinejad for speaking on campus, and he didn't extend him the common courtesy of shaking his hand, a first-year Palestinian Arab student at SIPA, Maher Awartani, noted. "I was personally offended by the way they were patronizing Ahmadinejad," Mr. Awartani said. "It was intellectually impairing the way the president introduced him."
Some faculty members on campus jumped to Mr. Bollinger's defense yesterday.
"I don't think he went overboard," the acting dean of SIPA, John Coatsworth, said. "The president made his own decisions, and had informed the audience that he would sharply challenge the president of Iran. The Iranians understood before they came that he would be challenged on the very outset." Mr. Coatsworth moderated the question and answer portion of Monday's event, and was responsible for extending the university's invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
A professor of history, Eric Foner, said faculty members objected more to the content than the form of Mr. Bollinger's remarks. "He accepts as true claims that are being made about Iran's role in Iraq, which are being put forward by people whose credibility on weapons in the Middle East has not always been 100% reliable," Mr. Foner said.
A professor of political science, Robert Shapiro, said Mr. Bollinger's remarks and tone were not out of line. "He stated in advance what he was going to do. He didn't blindside anyone," Mr. Shapiro said.