When an Iranian U.N. ambassador invited Richard Bulliet to travel as a guest to his country, he agreed, picturing tea time with a room full of professors. To his surprise, he found himself as the diplomat's one and only guest.
"We talked about a variety of things for an hour, and he asked if I would convey a message to President Bollinger that the invitation extended to Ahmadinejad the previous year be renewed," he said. "I e-mailed the president and after about eight days of thinking about it, he said he would be willing to renew the invitation under the understanding that he would precede the speech by Ahmadinejad with remarks of his own."
The event, he hoped, would serve as an education for the University, and slow the growing possibility of war. But he failed to anticipate the fallout of inviting a media lightning rod that gave way to a public frenzy and months of debate among students and faculty. When the fated day arrived, protestors collected along Broadway, inside and outside Columbia's gates. University President Lee Bollinger's scathing introduction attracted more attention than Ahmadinejad's speech itself.
What Bulliet did not anticipate was the ensuing debate within the University. Bollinger's speech condemning Ahmadinejad's leadership "cast shame upon the University," Bulliet publicly declared at a University Senate meeting. And he told Bollinger that he could only hope he would never again "belittle, humiliate, and rudely abuse guests of the University." The debate culminated at a November 2007 meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences when professors passed around a letter condemning Bollinger for creating a "crisis of confidence" and accusing the University's administration of inadequately protecting academic freedom on campus. A contesting letter emerged shortly afterward and defended Bollinger.
While outsiders know Bulliet as a figure perpetually embroiled in controversy, his colleagues and students describe a different Bulliet altogether, one who didn't surprise when he donated part of his graphic novel collection for perusal in Butler.
He has taught classes spanning the arc of history—from Islamo-Christian Civilization, to Domestic Animals and Human History, to America and the Muslim World—and remained the only current faculty member to have taught all four humanities classes of the Core Curriculum. He has examined these disciplines, publishing award-winning works on the history of the wheel, the function of the camel, and tombstones. His reputation is just as varied as his interests.
"He is the most wonderful colleague," Barnard Asian and Middle Eastern professor Rachel McDermott said. "He advises my students, and there are very few Columbia professors who are willing to take the time to help out Barnard students. He really loves Columbia."
In an interview, Bulliet painted the University president as a leader focused more on the concerns of the students than of faculty, and fundraising over his own stature.
"Bollinger wanted the Ahmadinejad visitation to be seen in the broader context of Iranian concerns and policies," Bulliet said. "I think the criticism that he had not anticipated was less from the students and more from the faculty. I think that the student side of it, he handled better than the faculty side of it."
"He made a remark in the University Senate saying that initially he had been afraid that the Ahmadinejad would do lasting damage to the University, but then he concluded several weeks later that it had not done any lasting damage. He seemed to imply that the damage he was thinking of had to with fundraising rather than what many faculty members were concerned about—damage to his own stature."
Since Bulliet initiated the event, he has been straddling the line between the administration and disgruntled faculty, and sees himself as an opinionated intermediary.
"I have had the opinion I still have as having been a go-between," Bulliet said. "I should not be a strong critic of either party. It just seemed to me like if you're an intermediary, you don't do that."
Bulliet added that Bollinger's chiding made Ahmadinejad look good in contrast. Still, Bulliet is used to backlash against him, considering his focus on the Middle East.
A Google search yields a link to his home page, a Wikipedia entry—and a third page, which labels him "ratfink." The site, which lampooned University officials after Columbia hosted Ahmadinejad, posted an entry in honor of the "One Year Anniversary of the Death of the Reputation of Columbia University's Richard W. Bulliet" this September.
"I've had people who have criticized me for what I consider my open-mindedness towards Iran. People have been criticizing me about that for the last 30 years, and I'm kind of used to that," Bulliet said. "I don't care one way or the other. It's hard to work in the Middle Eastern field without having some people dislike you."
To categorize Bulliet's reputation according to the Web site is to misrepresent many students' and faculty members' views of him. He is regarded as a scholar and pundit across wide-ranging fields. Faculty said that Bulliet remained reserved and levelheaded throughout his conversation with Bollinger during University Senate meetings. Both Karen Green, Butler's Ancient & Medieval History and Religion librarian who worked with Bulliet to create the comic book collection, and astronomy professor James Applegate were present at the fiery October Senate meeting and described him as "guarded" and "calm."
"He has always struck me as being remarkably insightful into the human condition and able to apply that insight in his scholarship," Green said. "Our conversations have ranged from comic books, to post-domestic and non-domestic societies, to Hello Kitty. He's a polymath."