In the current issue of the American Association of University Professors' publication "Academe," Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Elliott Colla makes public a previously private dispute over academic freedom on Brown's campus. In his essay, Colla alleges that Rabbi Serena Eisenberg '87, executive director of Brown Hillel and an associate University chaplain, attempted to "send students to disrupt a forum on academic freedom at Brown" that he co-hosted at the Watson Institute for International Studies on May 3. Colla's heated essay casts the supposed "attacks" on his conference as part of a larger trend of opposition nationwide to Middle East studies.
In response to Colla's article, which was titled "Academic Freedom and Middle East Studies," four Brown faculty members have written a letter to the publication refuting Colla's claims, and President Ruth Simmons has personally expressed her support for Eisenberg in the dispute.
Eisenberg, Colla and Bryant University Professor of History and Social Sciences Marsha Posusney, who co-coordinated the conference with Colla, all declined to comment to The Herald for this article.
Concern about the May conference
In his essay, Colla alleges he became aware of "organized efforts" to disrupt "The Study of the Middle East and Islam: Challenges after 9/11," a conference he coordinated last spring with Posusney. Colla writes that these efforts involved "at least one member of the Brown staff," whom he later identifies as Eisenberg. Colla states that at an April meeting of Brown Students for Israel and the pro-Israel advocacy group David Project, Eisenberg "encouraged students to intervene 'confrontationally' at the workshop and to record clandistinely the presentations of the speakers."
A Brown student who attended the meeting sent an e-mail criticizing Colla's conference to Omri Ceren, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California and editor of the pro-Israel blog "Mere Rhetoric."
On April 24, Ceren quoted the e-mail in a blog post. "We're determined not to let this conference go by without making it clear to the University that this disregard of academic standards/norms and disrespect for Brown's Jewish community is not acceptable," the e-mail said.
Though the conference focused on academic study of the Middle East and not the Arab-Israeli conflict, the student complained in the e-mail, "There are no pro-Israel speakers, and neither Hillel nor Brown Students for Israel were even asked for input on a conference about the future of Middle East studies."
In a phone interview with The Herald, Ceren said he was not surprised to see Colla's essay in "Academe."
"I would have been shocked if the debate hadn't progressed in that direction," Ceren said. "(The conference) was such an obvious attempt to push everyone's buttons."
"They wanted to claim they were being silenced, so now they get to claim they were silenced after instigating an absurd conference dedicated to open dialogue and debate among people who all agree with each other," he said. "Just because they want someone to object to their outrageous conference doesn't mean that the conference isn't so outrageous that it shouldn't be objected to."
BSI President Zack Beauchamp '10 attended the April meeting, where he said part of the David Project's presentation "was critical of Middle East studies at universities as a whole for being biased." Brown was not specifically mentioned until the Middle East studies conference came up at the end of the meeting, he said.
Beauchamp, a Herald opinions columnist, said the BSI meeting attendees discussed an "appropriate reaction" to what some perceived as hostility toward Israel among the conference's speakers. "One of the very first conclusions was that nobody should attempt to shut it down or do anything - as Colla alleges in the article - confrontational. No one said we should try to disrupt the meeting," he said, adding that taping the conference "was never a position advocated by BSI."
Describing Colla's characterization of BSI in the article as "offensive and incorrect," Beauchamp said he saw no connection between the meeting he attended and the situation Colla describes in "Academe."
But one student involved in Hillel, who attended part of the BSI meeting but left before Eisenberg spoke, told The Herald on condition of anonymity that a group of students - not all of whom were present at the David Project meeting - grew very concerned about the comments Eisenberg made at the meeting and in private to certain students about Colla's conference.
"Each of us had different ideas about what should be done in terms of how to treat this issue of academic integrity," the student told The Herald. "We all agreed that we weren't comfortable with the way Serena and several other people were talking about this call to action."
"I was aware of an effort on the part of Serena and others at Hillel to tape the conference in a private way," the student told The Herald. "There was that effort going on even though it was never fulfilled."
The student and others met with Eisenberg and with University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson to express their concerns.
In his essay, Colla further alleges that Eisenberg directly expressed to him her concern with what she viewed as some speakers' bias and complained that he had organized an event on Middle East issues without consulting her. He also suggests Eisenberg may have been responsible for criticism of the conference on Campus Watch, a Web site that has been critical of many Middle East studies programs for perceived anti-Israel bias.
The tensions, he writes, prompted "students from Hillel itself ... to raise complaints to campus administrators" about what they saw as growing tensions. Faculty were also concerned, he wrote, stating that "many colleagues were alarmed that a non-faculty Brown employee had attempted to interfere so brazenly in the content and form of an academic event."
Despite the controversy, Colla writes that "the workshop went off without a hitch." He said Eisenberg appeared at the beginning of the event, and "representatives from the David Project attended and announced themselves as they asked prickly questions, but that was all."
Though he describes the lead up to the conference as "a tempest in a teapot," Colla speculates, "it could have had very different consequences had we organizers been untenured faculty."
Response to "Academe"
In response to Colla's accusations, Eisenberg released a statement in which she claims "the article contains many distortions and untrue insinuations" and commends the "moral leadership" of faculty and administrators who have "publicly and privately repudiated many of the claims Professor Colla made in his article."
Four Brown faculty members have drafted a letter to the editor of "Academe" in support of Eisenberg - Professor of Sociology Emeritus Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Professor of Pediatrics Edwin Forman, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Steven Hamburg and Professor of Medical Science Arthur Landy. In a copy of the letter Eisenberg provided to The Herald, the professors describe Colla's article as "full of inaccuracies, mistaken interpretations and malevolent insinuations."
Rueschemeyer, who drafted the letter, described Colla's essay as an "intensely hostile piece" that was "on its face problematic."
"Basically nothing happened, and this personal attack ... is really, for a Hillel rabbi, damaging of her reputation," Rueschemeyer said.
The faculty letter dismisses Colla's accusation that Eisenberg instructed students to be confrontational at the workshop, contends that "Rabbi Eisenberg was not involved in any claims made by Campus Watch," and praises Eisenberg's efforts to "facilitate dialogue and cooperation between Jewish and Muslim students."
Though the University has not officially responded to Colla's essay, President Ruth Simmons personally thanked Rueschemeyer for his response to Colla's article in an e-mail provided to The Herald by Eisenberg. In the e-mail, Simmons calls Colla's article "incorrect as to the facts of what transpired" and expresses support for Eisenberg.
"I agree completely with your comments about Serena," Simmons wrote. "It is hard to imagine that anyone could have been more supportive of open discourse. I admire her greatly and am grateful for all that she has done for this community."
Beauchamp said he thinks the two conflicting accounts of what happened last spring illustrate larger issues related to the study of the Middle East on U.S. campuses.
"Like so many issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict, there are basically two narratives and two descriptions of what actually happened," he said. "Both sides in this issue are claiming that their side is being silenced and that there is something wrong with the academy that means that this discussion cannot be had," he said."