The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, whose sharp rebuke of the President Ahmadinejad came under the most criticism from students and faculty on his own campus, yesterday defended his remarks as an example of "free speech at its best," and said the terror-sponsoring dictator did not deserve a friendlier welcome.
Mr. Bollinger said that while he approved of the event, which arose out of a request by faculty members, after which the dean of the university's School of International and Public Affairs extended the invite, he was not certain he would have invited the Iranian to campus himself.
"These are not small matters, questioning or denying the Holocaust, holding conferences on that subject, making threats against the state of Israel, dealing with the question of nuclear weapons in the way that they do," Mr. Bollinger told reporters at a press conference in Lower Manhattan, where he joined the president of Manhattan, Scott Stringer, to announce Mr. Stringer's approval of the university's West Harlem expansions plans. "These are not small matters that you can simply talk about in an ordinary sense. You need to have an opportunity in a true exchange to express as fully as you possibly can with as much emotion as is required for this."
Mr. Bollinger said his speech, in which he called the Iranian a "petty and cruel dictator" and chastised him for his views on Israel, the Holocaust, as well as his pursuit of nuclear weapons and his persecution of women and scholars, was not a reaction to the firestorm of objections from elected officials and calls from Jewish leaders for his resignation in the days leading up to the event.
"This was my effort to state as fully and deeply as I could my sense of what this man has stood for and has done," Mr. Bollinger said. Some Columbia professors, however, said the only winner was Mr. Ahmadinejad.
"I saw someone from the U.N. mission who indicated that they thought the event was successful," a professor of history at Columbia, Richard Bulliet, said. The Iranian representative said that in a culture where hospitality is venerated, audiences in the Middle East were shocked by Mr. Bollinger's rebuke, according to Mr. Bulliet. Mr. Bulliet said that in the Middle East, the event was viewed as a "big win" for the Iranian president.
Some professors said Mr. Bollinger's aggressive opening remarks did not forgive the university's invitation to the Iranian. "It continues to leave a very bad taste in my mouth," a Columbia professor who is the co-coordinator of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Awi Federguen, said. "People who rationalize to themselves that something good happened here are completely missing the point. In my view, it's a victory for the Iranians only. Everyone else is a big loser."