On Tuesday, the New York Sun published an op-ed by the Columbia University Faculty Action Committee arguing that the academic environment at Columbia is too constricted and that faculty are largely unrepresented in the formation of University policy. At the forefront of the coalition's concerns is the tenure process, which they believe fails to encourage a free exchange of challenging ideas due to lobbying and political pressure from outside the University. It is detrimental to the academic life of Columbia if professors do not feel fully empowered by the administration to express their views, especially when they come under assault from external influences. The University must reaffirm that while the marketplace of ideas may expose professors to criticism, the intrusion of non-academic pressure on the tenure process is unacceptable.
Each tenure candidate must be reviewed by his or her department; the Tenure Process Review Committee, comprised of faculty from across the University; and, finally, President Lee C. Bollinger. But while many decisions occur quietly, recent tenure reviews for professors such as Nadia Abu El-Haj have been marked by public pressure from individuals and groups outside the academic community. The tenure process is intended to be confidential to ensure that the Committee's decisions focus on the scholarly value, rather than the political implications, of his or her work.
True academic freedom must allow for the pursuit of ideas that challenge past research and further the discourse within a particular field. While a professor's work is always open to public scrutiny, untenured professors or professors up for review should be able to face such criticism without the fear that it will unduly affect the tenure process. Faculty members, both tenured and untenured, should feel protected by the University and assured that the tenure process will be thorough but fair. It is essential that administrators make clear publicly that faculty review cannot—and will not—be hijacked by those with purely political motives.
President Bollinger has said repeatedly that he values academic freedom, and he showed that he was above external pressure in his initial invitation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such actions are hollow, however, if faculty members do not feel that they have the ability to be as controversial in their academic pursuits. The Sun article amounts to a partial vote of no confidence in the administration and cannot be ignored. The tenure review of Joseph Massad has already been met with significant protest and outside attacks. Whatever the outcome, this will be a good opportunity for Bollinger and other administrators to make clear that Columbia values academic freedom on all levels.