The recent tenure battles regarding professors Nadia Abu El Haj and Joseph Massad have led to renewed allegations that undue "outside political influence" is threatening the academic freedom that is at the heart of Columbia University. Yet, even though the principle of academic freedom is critical to the spirit of any institution of higher learning, should it stand as a blanket protection for all discussion that occurs within academia? Despite what some of its proponents would have us believe, academic freedom is a selective term and is limited in the actions it protects.
While it is apparent that the tenure process in certain departments has become politicized, it is also important to remember that the charge of politicism is a double-edged sword. I do not doubt that a large part of the criticism against professors Abu El Haj and Massad is the result of the political views of members of the Columbia community. However, it is essential that, when we evaluate scholars, we examine their work and actions in order to see if they actually deserve protection under the auspices of academic freedom. Ultimately, what this debate comes down to is not whether or not people should be able to voice their opinions, but whether those opinions constitute legitimate academic inquiry, or are merely an exercise of free speech.
It is imperative to the functioning of a university that faculty be given the latitude to engage in all manners of scholarship. However, it is also necessary to draw a firm line that shows where scholarly discourse ends, and political activism begins. A poignant example of this fact is when a professor abandons notions of fairness, truth, and reason, and instead engages in a counterproductive political discourse designed to inflame passions and further radical political goals.
For instance, in 2000, when Israel unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon, the late Edward Said threw a rock at an Israeli guard post from across the Lebanese border. Columbia deemed this action to be protected by academic freedom, yet it seems perplexing how an act of childish aggression qualifies as academic engagement.
More recently, Columbia has seen members of its faculty, such as Massad, make absurd claims that Israel is an "apartheid state," and some professors have gone as far as to sign onto Britain's University and College Union's boycott of Israeli academics, a measure that President Lee Bollinger rightly decried. The idea that Israel is an apartheid state is not an academic assertion but a political one, lacking any reasonable grounding in reality. Arab-Israelis make up 20 percent of the population of Israel, hold full citizenship, and occupy 10 percent of the seats of the Knesset. To ignore facts that effectively contradict the definition of apartheid is to move against the very principle of legitimate, constructive academic inquiry. Academic freedom is a tool designed to protect scholarly discourse, not political opining. If professors wish to make such outlandish statements, they should seek protection not from Columbia University, but rather from the First Amendment.
Given that academic freedom is the right to engage in inquiry based on truth, fairness, and rationality, it is apparent that some of the actions taken by members of the Columbia faculty do not qualify for its protection. Professors are certainly entitled to their opinions, but not in their capacity as scholars of repute. That is, a professor cannot claim that his or her unscholarly actions are protected by the principle of academic freedom, nor should he or she be permitted to teach such opinions as statements of fact or use them to further his or her career. Columbia should allow professors to voice their nonacademic opinions, but shouldn't sully the University's reputation by rewarding them for it.
Ultimately, our notion of academic freedom is only as strong as the work it protects. Individuals are asserting that it has become so threatened only because scholars are hijacking the term and using it to cover their own personal political agendas. The idea of academic freedom has developed since the Renaissance, and throughout its existence it has always been predicated on fact and constructive reason. Academic freedom does not indiscriminately protect everything a professor does; rather, its relevance is dependent on the quality of work produced. If professors continue to spout vitriolic, unqualified rhetoric under the guise of scholarship, the academic freedom that has served as the cornerstone of this University will be tarnished, and usurped by a twisted form of academic anarchy.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.