A WEEK ago, Lee Bollinger was dismissed as a terrorist-coddling liberal egghead whose invitation for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University was a monument to everything wrong in American academia.
Today, after his brutal and unexpected denunciation of Ahmadinejad as a cruel and ridiculous tyrant, the Columbia president has suddenly gone from a leftie pariah to a rolled-gold American hero.
Carried live on cable TV around the world, Bollinger's Charles Spencer moment was not just a surprise, it was also one of the great political ambushes of modern times.
Sitting alone under a spotlight on the darkened stage, Ahmadinejad looked silly, vulnerable and under arrest as Bollinger coldly and methodically demanded the Iranian leader explain his Holocaust denial, his support for terrorism, his crackdown on academic dissent and his threats against Israel, the country he wants "wiped off the map".
As much accusation as inquiry, the questions seemed to go on forever, before ending with a putdown that was the verbal equivalent of being beaten with a baseball bat.
"Frankly, and in all candour, Mr President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions," Bollinger said.
"But your avoiding them will itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterises so much of what you say and do.
"I feel all the weight of the modern civilised world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better."
Bollinger had promised to open Ahmadinejad's appearance with "a series of sharp challenges" and had been adamant that a critical premise of free speech was that the dishonourable could not be made honourable simply by allowing it to be heard.
But nobody had expected Bollinger to pre-empt Ahmadinejad with such venomous language and in universities across the US, questions are being asked: Did the attack go too far? Was it so personal that it became culturally insensitive? Did it compromise the academic search for greater knowledge and understanding?
The concerns resonated within Columbia's own academic staff, with Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies, describing Bollinger's comments as "very harsh".
"Inviting him (Ahmadinejad) and then turning around and alienating and insulting an entire nation whose representative this man happens to be is simply inappropriate," he was reported as saying.
Not surprisingly, this was also the view of Ahmadinejad himself.
"In Iran, tradition requires that when we invite a speaker, we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgment," he said. "We don't think it's necessary before the speech is even given to come in with a series of claims and to attempt in a so-called manner to provide vaccination of some sort to our students and our faculty."
The debate lit up the blogosphere, where opinion was divided between those applauding Bollinger for his courage in confronting Ahmadinejad, and those scornful of strong-arm tactics that have no place in academe.
"Was it rude? Can the truth be rude?" one asked. "He IS a petty dictator. He DOES deny the Holocaust, ridiculously. He DOES imprison dissidents, journalists and scientists. Bollinger's speech proved to me that the freedom of speech is alive and well in America's universities."
Others were not so kind. "Afraid of losing contributions and of being denounced from all sides as 'soft on terrorism', he (Bollinger) blinked as soon as the first shot was fired," one wrote.
"Even if he believed what he was saying, his ad hominem displayed a gross indifference to the principle of academic freedom. Bollinger has disgraced Columbia."
Another accused Bollinger of a disgraceful "bait and switch" exercise aimed at appeasing US Islamophobes.
"Ahmadinejad reminded me of the Saddam execution, when he was the only one to keep his dignity, while surrounded by a pack of rabid dogs," he said.
But dignity is an elusive concept and any claim Ahmadinejad had was probably lost amid the laughter that accompanied his claim that Iran did not have any homosexuals. "I don't know who's told you that we have this," he said.