More than 200 faculty members and students have signed an open letter to University President Lee Bollinger. The letter, delivered to the president's office on Monday, calls on Bollinger to publicly denounce Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, which the signatories see as a threat to academic freedom.
The letter is the latest flare-up in a series of tensions between the president and faculty, which tend to crystallize around allegations of bias on Middle Eastern issues.
The letter recalls Bollinger's usually vocal support for free speech and urges him to act on that principle by releasing a statement on the situation in Palestine. Bollinger has previously faced criticism from faculty on his responses to a variety of Middle East issues, from his condemnation of the boycott of Israeli universities in summer 2007 to his controversial introduction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his September 2007 appearance on campus to his handling of allegations in 2004 that Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) professors intimidated Jewish students.
"He has remained silent on the actions by Israel that deny that freedom to Palestinians," anthropology professor Brinkley Messick wrote in an e-mail. "We expect President Bollinger to issue a public call to his fellow presidents to stand up for academic freedom in Palestine."
Bollinger was unavailable for comment at press time.
The departments with the most faculty members signing the letter were Anthropology, English, History, and MEALAC.
"I thought it was essential for Columbia faculty ... to make a public comment on the fact that academic freedom is not respected in Gaza," classics professor Stathis Gourgouris said.
"I signed because I believe academic freedom is a value every free society has to defend," Barnard art history professor Anne Higonnet wrote in an e-mail.
History professor Richard Bulliet said he does not usually sign petitions but that this letter asked Bollinger "to express a view on academic freedom, and that seemed to me to be within the more narrowly construed parameters of academic activity."
The letter "didn't ask for a change in University policy, didn't ask him to do something that is not in keeping with his own positions on academic freedom," Bulliet said.
Bollinger's statements and actions on various issues have spawned divisions among students and faculty, some of whom allege that he has allowed subjective considerations to shape tenure decisions and that he has been selective in his defense of free speech.
"Although I feel like it [the letter] may be too gently worded, I agree wholeheartedly that Bollinger can't continue with the extreme hypocrisy of making public statements about 'academic freedom' in response to calls for an academic boycott of Israel yet remain silent on the matter when the Israeli military specifically targets and destroys Palestinian academic institutions like the Islamic University of Gaza," Francisco Salas, CC '11, who writes for the Commentariat, said in an e-mail.
"I don't see it as pressure on him [Bollinger]," Peter Marcuse, a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation said. "It's a suggestion of something he might wish to consider and that others think is squarely in his field of expertise."
But several signatories noted that their support was not contingent on their belief that the letter would or would not compel Bollinger to act.
"Standing up for what you believe in doesn't have to depend on whether you think you will win," Higonnet said.
"It's an issue that's difficult to talk to people in Israel about from the outside because one doesn't have the experience of living there and of feeling threatened and insecure," Marcuse said. "This [the letter] might be one way of raising some issues that one could talk about rationally."
As of 6:30 p.m. on Monday, 120 faculty members and 106 students, alumni, and community members had added their names to the letter at academicfreedomcolumbia.org.