Lee C. Bollinger had the kind of week few university presidents ever do. By inviting the president of Iran to speak at Columbia University, and then delivering a blistering critique of the leader's record as he sat just 30 feet away, Mr. Bollinger brought attention to the bully pulpit of the university presidency like nothing else has in recent years.
But for many professors at Columbia, Monday's event also revived their impression that Mr. Bollinger had bungled earlier free-speech controversies on the campus and fallen short of his own billing as a staunch advocate of the First Amendment.
"Free speech is what he's been famous for throughout his career, although occasionally he hasn't been true to that part of himself," says Philip S. Kitcher, a professor of philosophy. "This time he was. This is the kind of guy we thought we were getting as president."
Still, Mr. Bollinger faces a host of questions in the wake of the speech by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
By using his introduction to castigate the Iranian leader before Mr. Ahmadinejad even had a chance to speak, some professors argue, Mr. Bollinger was not only rude but undermined his own ideals of free speech and academic freedom. And while his withering remarks may have made him look courageous, some academics believe that he misused his role as a university leader. Mr. Bollinger's own words had the effect of aligning Columbia with U.S. foreign policy against Iran, some faculty members believe. And as a result, the university president may ironically have devalued the views of those on his own campus who disagree with that policy.
"His were not intellectual statements; they were political statements," says Gil Anidjar, an associate professor in the department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures. "He has enlisted the university in the rhetoric of war and brought the power and weight of an institution into the debate. Those of us who disagree are only individuals and don't have that power."
Faculty Witch Hunt
Monday's event was the latest in a series of incidents that have made Columbia a central battleground in the academic culture wars (see timeline). "Columbia is where people are throwing a lot of intellectual ammunition around on these issues," says John K. Wilson, who writes a blog about academic freedom and is finishing a book about political correctness.
Mr. Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar and a graduate of Columbia's law school, declined through a spokesman to talk with The Chronicle. In his five years at Columbia's helm, he has regularly taught a course called "Freedom of Speech and the Press." But he has angered some faculty members with the way he has handled some campus controversies in which those issues were at stake. Chief among them is one surrounding the university's department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures, known as Mealac.
In 2004 a well-financed pro-Israel organization called the David Project produced a documentary, Columbia Unbecoming, that included testimony from students and recent graduates who said that professors in the department had sometimes made them feel uncomfortable for expressing pro-Israel views.
Mr. Bollinger took the accusations seriously and asked the provost to appoint a committee to investigate.
In the following months, politicians and the New York media called on the president to fire the professors criticized in the documentary, and those faculty members received death threats and racist e-mail messages. In the end, no professors were fired or even found to have penalized students who disagreed with them.
But faculty members in the department were bruised by the investigation and accused Mr. Bollinger of carrying out a witch hunt while hanging them out to dry in public. At the least, said many faculty members at Columbia, the president should have publicly condemned threats against their colleagues and declared that the university would not be influenced by calls for their removal.
Instead Columbia gave students a new way to complain about professors' behavior in the classroom, allowing them to file grievances in response to "misuse of faculty authority to promote a political or social cause within an instructional setting."
The Mealac episode alienated not only professors in that department but several others who felt it showed the president to be soft on academic freedom. "On these issues, the president should take an absolute defense, and I don't think he has done that all the time," says Eric Foner, a longtime professor of history at Columbia. "Over the past two or three years, he has found himself caught up, and he hasn't been prepared. This is down-and-dirty New York politics, and I think in the face of that he has found it very difficult to establish what you might call a Bollinger doctrine of free speech and adhere to it."
Others wonder whether Mr. Bollinger has merely been distracted by larger issues that demand his attention, including the university's ambitious and contested plan to expand into West Harlem. The new area would have a complex for the School of the Arts, research space, and residence halls. "So far he's been largely absent from the life of the campus because of this project," says a Columbia law professor who asked not to be named. "There have been these free-speech issues, but he has been focused elsewhere."
Mr. Foner believes that Mr. Bollinger used the invitation to President Ahmadinejad to try to reverse widespread sentiment among faculty members that he has been AWOL on crucial free-speech issues. By standing his ground and inviting comments from a world leader who denies the Holocaust and supports terrorism against Americans, Mr. Bollinger looked to many like a champion of open debate -- albeit a rude one.
The talk also gave the president a chance to make up for canceling an earlier speech that Mr. Ahmadinejad was scheduled to give on the campus last September. Mr. Bollinger said then that Columbia had disinvited Mr. Ahmadinejad because of concerns that Columbia could not provide adequate security or insure that the event would allow the Iranian leader to be challenged by his audience. But people on the campus considered the disinvitation another sign that Mr. Bollinger couldn't handle thorny free-speech issues.
Although Monday's event may have helped polish Mr. Bollinger's record, some academics say he threw the university into the middle of a political quagmire by calling the Iranian president "ridiculous" and "a petty and cruel dictator."
During all of the controversial episodes at Columbia, Mr. Bollinger has said repeatedly that even as the university's president, he has free speech. He said it again in his remarks before Mr. Ahmadinejad's talk. "I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for," the president said.
But Stanley Fish, a legal scholar who served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Mr. Bollinger unwisely heightened the stakes for himself and his university. "By seizing the reins, he set this up as King Kong versus Godzilla," says Mr. Fish. "I was a little surprised to see him inserting himself into this event in an aggressive way."
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who served as president of George Washington University before stepping down in August, says Columbia doesn't need the kind of publicity that the Iranian president's speech drew. And he believes that Mr. Bollinger failed to justify the invitation by making use of Mr. Ahmadinejad's presence to push Iran to advance peace initiatives. "I don't think Columbia got value for the exposure," says Mr. Trachtenberg.
Others believe that the Iranian president's appearance on the campus has already tarnished Columbia's image. Martin Kramer, a senior fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, at Harvard University, says Mr. Ahmadinejad never should have been invited to the campus in the first place. The event, he says, devolved into "the academic equivalent of a freak show."
But to others, Mr. Bollinger's willingness to mix it up with a world leader was refreshing and harked back to a time when university presidents were more bold public intellectuals than careful bureaucratic managers.
"Presidents walk around with a gag on most of the time, thinking they can't say what they think," says Mr. Wilson, the blogger. "In this one situation, a president really said what he thought and felt he had the freedom to do that."
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says he is "still nostalgic for the university president as philosopher king or queen."
"I happened to live through that time 40-some years ago when the chief administrator was someone you could admire and look up to," he says. Now, Mr. Nelson says, presidents are more circumspect, lest they risk offending alumni, donors, politicians, or the public.
"I would rather see the president be someone who sparks debate, takes articulate stands, and defends positions," says Mr. Nelson. By that measure, he says, Mr. Bollinger carried the day.
Paula Wasley and Aisha Labi contributed to this article.