Mr. Khalidi was born in New York, and his Big Apple roots run deep. His father earned his Ph.D. from Columbia, his brother studied there as an undergrad, and Mr. Khalidi taught at the university from 1985 to 1987.
Columbia offered him the Said chair this past fall, but it wasn't until mid-January that Mr. Khalidi, 53, made the "wrenchingly difficult decision" to leave Chicago. One reason: better access to the news media.
"The U.S. is about to go to war with an Arab country, and there is a gross misunderstanding of the Middle East in the public here," he says. "There's an obligation to do everything we can to help people understand the region, and I think I can do that better at Columbia."
When he returns to New York in the fall, he'll also direct Columbia's Middle East Institute. He will be the first to hold the Said chair, which was created through an anonymous donation two years ago and named for the Columbia comparative-literature professor who is famous for his staunch defense of the Palestinian cause.
"Everyone in the Middle East area is thrilled," says Richard Bulliet, a Columbia history professor, who adds that the university hasn't had a historian of the modern Arab world for three years.
But critics of Mr. Khalidi's views on the Middle East, like Martin Kramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, say that Mr. Khalidi will make the Columbia faculty too anti-Israel. Mr. Kramer writes that Mr. Khalidi "won't be the worst of the lot at Columbia, but that doesn't say much."