The Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, has recently been the center of a controversy surrounding their website, Campuswatch.org, which encourages students to monitor anti-Israel bias and pro-Palestinian campus activism.
Campuswatch.org invites students to submit web reports on campus activity involving "Middle East-related scholarship, lectures, classes, demonstrations and other activities relevant to our work." Although the site previously published "dossiers" regarding specific professors with allegedly anti-Israeli views, a recent site reorganization downplayed the specificity of accusations.
Although no Dartmouth students have participated thus far, students at several peer institutions -- including Columbia, Georgetown, Harvard and Stanford Universities, as well as University of California at Berkley -- have accused their professors of pro-Palestinian bias.
Much of the controversy surrounding Campuswatch.org has come from the negative response in the academic community, with over 100 professors asking to be added to Campuswatch.org to indicate their solidarity with their peers.
Despite public outcry however, the site, a non-profit organization maintained by private donations, claims that it supports "the views of most Americans."
In response to protest in the academic community and public attention from the national press, Campuswatch.org changed its format on Sept. 30 and organized their information by institution instead of by individual professor. The original material from the "dossiers" about individual professors, however, can still be found on the site.
Despite the change in format, Professor Hamid Dabashi, chair of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia, told The Dartmouth that the dossiers have already caused problems for those named on the site.
After Dabashi incited conflict at Columbia last April by canceling classes to attend a pro-Palestinian rally -- and allegedly encouraging his students to do the same -- Matthew Pellow, a senior at Columbia, submitted Dabashi's name to Campuswatch.org.
"I have no real way to gauge this, but it was my feeling that Jewish students on campus were uncomfortable," Pellow said.
According to Dabashi, after being listed on Campuswatch.org, he not only received many negative, racially-motivated emails, but his computer was hacked and used to send spam.
John Esposito, a Professor of Islamic Studies and Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown who, according to the site, has made several statements construed as excusing militant Islamic movements, told The Dartmouth that he has also received negative emails since his name was listed on Campuswatch.org.
However, Esposito continues to defend his so-called "un-American" views.
"Freedom of thought and speech are not only embodied in notions of academic freedom," he told The Dartmouth, "but also most importantly in the role that all should play in assuring that the American people and our policymakers have a multiplicity of viewpoints that inform their decision making."
Both professors added, however, that not all of the response has been negative.
"I have also had many private and public expressions of solidarity by many friends as well as by many strangers who are outraged by this cyberspace McCarthyism launched by failed academics," Dabashi said in an email.
Though the Middle East Forum claims that the purpose of Campuswatch.org is to increase balanced perspective in academics, critics in the academic world have repeatedly told the press that its idea of balance is skewed by their own beliefs.
Student leaders at Dartmouth involved in both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activism shared mixed views on the utility of Campuswatch.org. While the site does not include examples from Dartmouth, several professors on campus declined to comment due to the sensitive nature of the story.
President of Dartmouth Hillel Evan Konwiser '03 stated that he was skeptical that this website would have any real effect on the academic community.
"A website is only as good as the people who go to it," Konwiser said.
Though Konwiser said that it is important for students to know the bias of their professors if they want to gain a true understanding of the issues presented in an academic course, he objected to the site's propagandist feel.
Nida Zaidi '04, president of the Al-Nur Muslim student organization, said she respects the right of the Middle East Forum to publish their own opinions and exercise their freedom of speech, but she disagreed with political finger-pointing. Zaidi added that it is dangerous for one-sided political organizations to try and influence -- and possibly restrict -- academic thought.
Zaidi said she particularly feared that Campuswatch.org, which claims that part of their purpose is to "keep the public apprised of … debates over [professorial] appointments and [research] funding," could discourage innovative, young, but untenured professors from exploring controversial ideas.