University President and Chair of the University Senate Lee Bollinger reviewed the visit of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and was criticized by various faculty members at last Friday's Senate meeting.
Bollinger debriefed the visit from start to finish and commended students for their participation in actions he felt highlighted the significance of free speech. He stressed the academic purpose of the visit and said that he does not anticipate the event to have detrimental repercussions for Columbia.
"At the end of the day, despite the threats and unhappiness ... this will not have a negative effect on the institution. I am now confident of that," he said. He later added, "There are many different views on this [the visit] and I respect most all of them."
Bollinger said that he is concerned that too many universities in the United States are removed from current events and afraid to touch sensitive issues. "There is a case to be made that one of the things we want most is a University that is seriously engaged with the issues of our time," he said.
Yet some, including professor Richard Bulliet, took issue with Bollinger's introductory remarks during Ahmadinejad's visit. In these remarks, Bollinger said that Ahmadinejad exhibited "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." He sharply challenged the Iranian leader on many of his reported controversial views, including his denial of the Holocaust and desire to "wipe Israel off the map," as well as his human rights abuses.
Bulliet, who originally was contacted by Iran's United Nations ambassador regarding Ahmadinejad's interest in speaking at Columbia, charged Bollinger with belittling—rather than challenging—Ahmadinejad with his opening statement. "I listened to your remarks with intense embarrassment not at the substance of them, but the incivility and rudeness of tone," he said.
"If you are going to continue to use this as a learning opportunity, if you are going to continue to consider it appropriate to make challenging introductory remarks, I can only pray that you would decide not to belittle, humiliate, and rudely abuse guests of the University because it brings embarrassment and shame on the University," Bulliet added. "From my point of view, I think raising questions on the international stage of denial of the Holocaust puts him into a very, very special category where the expression of strongest condemnation is in order," Bollinger responded.
Other senators expressed concern that the event has not led to more events and discussions among students and faculty. Bollinger said that he feels it is a time to "regroup and figure out where to go," but encouraged faculty to propose ideas for following up on the visit. At the meeting, the Student Affairs Committee submitted a report on student reactions to the recent bias incidents on campus—including anti-Semitic graffiti and a noose pinned to the door of a Teachers College professor.
Professor Sharyn O'Halloran, committee chair of External Relations, said that she will work with the student representatives to follow up on the report.