Tuesday's meeting of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is not the first time that University President Lee Bollinger—who can evoke themes like the "global university" and expansion into Manhattanville—has faced criticism from faculty over his defense—or lack thereof—of academic freedom. At the meeting, a letter—which was endorsed by 108 professors as of yesterday—was read to Bollinger stating that recent actions have inspired a "crisis of confidence" regarding his leadership of the faculty.
"The events of the past few years have created a crisis of confidence in the central administration's willingness to defend these principles," the letter read.
Bollinger's first highly visible controversy over academic freedom as University president came in 2003, when associate professor of anthropology and Latino studies Nicholas De Genova drew national criticism for saying at an anti-war teach-in he hoped for "a million Mogadishus," referring to the 1993 incident in Somalia when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed.
Ignoring calls to fire De Genova—and a letter from the House of Representatives—Bollinger condemned the message but said it was protected by his rights to free speech.
In this controversy, Bollinger drew the line between public political speech—which falls under academic freedom—and classroom intimidation, which does not.
His articulation of this distinction was shortly followed by the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department controversy, which was drawn out over months of meetings and review—some say unnecessarily. After a handful students worked with outside pro-Israel group David Project to film "Columbia Unbecoming," a 25 minute documentary alleging classroom intimidation and anti-Semitic sentiment from some professors.
In its report the ad hoc faculty committee mostly highlighted Columbia's confusing grievance procedures. Though it ruled associate professor Joseph Massad "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" when he made an angry outburst to a student defending Israel's military conduct, the committee also "found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic."
Following Bollinger's introduction to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's on-campus speech in September, in which he called the head of state "a petty and cruel dictator," several high-profile faculty members denounced Bollinger for preemptively shutting down an open exchange of ideas.
At an October event called in response to the Ahmadinejad speech, Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History and signatory of the anti-Bollinger statement, said, "What we need is vigorous leadership at the top protecting and defending academic freedom. ... I hope one day we will get that at this University."
During the MEALAC controversy and De Genova situation, many deemed Bollinger's response weak and tardy. At the Ahmadinejad event, Bollinger drew the opposite reaction and came off to many as highly political and overly aggressive. But when it comes to tenure decisions this semester, his critics complain about his silence.
In recent months, alumni pressure on the University regarding two high-profile tenure cases—and Bollinger's choice not to condemn it—has rankled many in the faculty. An online petition began by Paula Stern, BC '82, received more than 2,000 signatures in an effort to halt the tenure process of Nadia Abu El-Haj due to what some called sub-par scholarship in her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, in which she allegedly challenges the validity of ancient Jewish claims to the land of Israel.
Abu El-Haj was granted tenure in Barnard's anthropology department. The letter read at the Tuesday meeting laments Bollinger's unwillingness to match Barnard President Judith Shapiro, who issued a statement rebuffing outsiders' lobby attempts.
The other high-profile—and contested—tenure case has been Massad's. Currently, reports are circulating that he was denied tenure, at least at the ad hoc committee decision level.
Many say that regardless of a professor's work, tenure is a confidential process and discussion should be kept solely within the decision-making body. But others, like professors who signed a dissenting letter that circulated Tuesday, defend Bollinger in part because they believe that alumni are right to weigh in on the tenure cases of Abu El-Haj and Massad, whose work they think belies an anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist agenda.
"I object to calling outside opinions ‘intervention,'" Leonard Druyan, a senior research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research who signed the dissent, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "Certainly, when a professor's public profile reflects a relentless campaign to demonize and delegitimize Israel, Jewish and Zionist advocates can and should speak up in protest. I am appalled at this crude campaign to discredit Pres. Bollinger who deserves the widest support among the faculty."
The concepts of free speech and academic freedom have often been conflated over the last few years' debate, but some have used the distinction to outline why Bollinger's introduction of Ahmadinejad upset them.
"As an exercise of academic freedom, the occasion failed," sociology professor Allan Silver wrote in a submission to Spectator titled "Free Speech and Academic Freedom are Different."
Josh Hirschland contributed to this article.
Tom Faure can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.