Former Columbia Provost Jonathan Cole has presented an intriguing theory on the American research university. In remarks to Columbia's Center for Comparative Literature and Society, he fired also in effect fired a preemptive shot back at the administration in advance of the Ad Hoc committee's report on student grievances against faculty members in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures.
Cole's first assertion is that the university is self-regulating, completely self-regulating. "The research university was founded on the idea that professors should regulate their own affairs," Cole said. "The essence of a university lies in its multiplicity of voices ... [It] does not decide what is good or bad or what ideas are right or wrong." Indeed, he said, "the university must nurture the creation of novel and sometime unsettling ideas ... [It] must have and welcome dissenting voices and radical critics."
Cole's assertion that self-regulation does not include deciding which ideas are good and which are bad is refreshingly blunt as it is absurd. Shall we bother pursuing this logic? Flat earth, good idea or bad? Law of gravity, good or bad? Alien base deep beneath the Denver airport, good or bad? I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords, and refuse to judge.
And as much as Cole casts this homeostatic vision in noble terms of "Freedom of inquiry is our only reason for being," outside criticism, even from students, is completely unacceptable. Leave us alone. Unless we are left completely alone to regulate our own affairs and think our thoughts without input from anyone, "we may well be headed for a another era of intolerance and oppression." Woe the dark ages to befall humanity when college students complain about their lousy educations.
This argument from authority is hardly original, or convincing. If professors pronounce on politics inside or outside of the classroom, are they to be exempt from criticism? Evidently. Aside from the sheer hubris this suggests a strong disbelief in the concept of democratic politics. They can dish it out, but they can't take it. Cole's complaint can be put another way, "This is the worst kind of discrimination. The kind against me!"
Cole's colleauge Mahmood Mamdani made a second and more telling assertion: "You don't register in Joseph Massad's class to get a Zionist view of Israel ... If a student has been wronged ... it is not because a professor has a viewpoint, but rather because he or she would not allow debate around the issue."
In effect, the student should know that what he is she is getting is a skewed and polemical viewpoint. How, exactly, are students supposed to know this? From laconic course descriptions? From a quick reading of the syllabus on the first day of class? From carefully reading between the lines of on line student evaluations of professors? Columbia students are smart, but they're not that smart.
But then again, many Columbia students have told us that, among Jewish students at least, there has long been knowledge, passed down over the years, that MEALAC is a department profoundly hostile to Jews and Israelis. Many know to stay away. So on this evidence, perhaps we see Cole's self-regulating system at work, its just that outsiders such as the David Project, Campus Watch, and the New York Sun should be forbidden from speaking out.
Forget any academic aspiration to impartiality. That's not our thing. Shut up and send in your check. If for any reason you're not satisfied with our service, I hate you.