A professor who signed a letter supporting the academic boycott of Israel is the most recent addition to Columbia's Middle Eastern studies department, which has come under scrutiny in the past over allegations of political bias.
Timothy Mitchell, who was a politics professor at New York University and a previous director of the center for Near Eastern studies there, is now a professor of Arab studies at Columbia and the head of the graduate studies program in the Middle Eastern studies department.
Mr. Mitchell, who specializes in modern Middle East politics, has authored several books on modern Egypt and postcolonial theory. A Hebrew and Arabic literature graduate student in the department, Suzanne Schneider, said Mr. Mitchell is "a big deal in the field."
In 2004, he signed an open letter, along with several hundred other academics calling themselves "defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott against Israel," demanding that Israeli academics take a stand on Israeli government policy towards Palestinians.
"Given the destructive nature of Israeli government action against Palestinian education and academic freedom...we feel that it is only fair to ask the Israeli academic leadership where it stands on the issue of current Israeli policy...and to share with us what Israeli academic institutions are doing to challenge the behavior of your government," the letter stated.
Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, came out strongly against a renewed boycott effort against Israeli academics in 2007, calling it "intellectually shoddy" and a "biased" attempt "to hijack the central mission of higher education."
Mr. Mitchell is taking a leadership role in a department that found itself at the center of the storm four years ago when pro-Israel students accused some Middle Eastern studies professors of intimidating them in the classroom. The controversy led Columbia officials to temporarily place the department into a receivership. It is now chaired by a professor of South Asian politics, Sudipta Kaviraj.
Mr. Mitchell is married to Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at Columbia. She also signed the letter in support of the Israeli academic boycott, along with other professors in the department, including Joseph Massad, Hamid Dabashi, George Saliba, and Gil Andijar. She is the daughter of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, to whom the Columbia comparative literature professor, Edward Said, who has since died, dedicated his most famous book, "Orientalism."
Mr. Mitchell is not teaching this fall, but will begin teaching next semester.