Dan Miron, a Columbia University professor of Hebrew literature, is concerned that students are subjected to academic intimidation by faculty members who believe Israel is a racist state, Zionism is a racist movement or Israel should not exist.
Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia professor of Arab studies, has a similar concern about the throttling of classroom expression, only he worries that the targets are professors who teach about Middle Eastern issues from, say, a pro-Palestinian perspective.
Fears of those natures have no place at a university, let alone one as fine as Columbia - in cosmopolitan New York. Yet they're very real in Morningside Heights, and it's incumbent on Columbia's administration to ensure that students are not being force-fed advocacy in the guise of academics regarding the Middle East.
The question of bias in Columbia's classrooms centers largely on the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures, a unit in which many teachers are no friends of Israel. Two-thirds signed a petition calling on Columbia to stop investing in companies that help produce the arms Israel needs for self-defense.
The impression of one-sidedness on campus was only heightened when Columbia President Lee Bollinger disclosed under pressure recently that the school had accepted $200,000 from the United Arab Emirates to help endow a chair dedicated to Middle Eastern issues.
Now, prompted by a protest last year at which a teacher said he hoped the U.S. had "a million Mogadishus" in Iraq, Bollinger has a panel studying the limits of free expression and academic freedom. He expresses his views in an interview on the opposite page.
The committee's charter does not include rooting out propaganda in classrooms. That responsibility resides with Bollinger, and he must pursue the task based on carefully drawn standards. While he does not believe professors are grading based on agreement with political positions, there is at least a perception that some students, and teachers, are being stifled, as witnessed by the concerns voiced by Miron and Khalidi. No one on the campus should feel that way.
Bollinger also admits that Columbia's Middle Eastern scholarship has not been comprehensive. It's astonishing, for example, that Columbia does not offer much in the way of courses on 20th-century Israel. Bollinger says he's working to fill that gap. The sooner the better, because the university must have rigorously academic firepower on all sides of the debate.