University President Lee Bollinger said yesterday that Columbia officials will formally investigate accusations that some professors threatened and intimidated students.
Alan Brinkley, the University's provost, will lead an inquiry into claims made in Columbia Unbecoming, a documentary film produced by non-profit Israel support group The David Project. The film was screened yesterday at a press conference on the East Side with David Project president Charles Jacobs and several of the students interviewed for the production.
"Because of the disturbing and offensive nature of incidents described in the film, I've asked Provost Alan Brinkley to look into them," Bollinger wrote in a statement. He added that it was premature to predict how University officials might respond if the allegations are shown to be true.
Bollinger also reiterated his stance on academic freedom on campus, which he publicly defined after Columbia professor Nicholas De Genova called for "a million Mogadishus" in a faculty teach-in in March 2003. He said that professors have the right to free expression in the classroom, but that they may not attempt to intimidate or indoctrinate students who disagree with them.
In the film, several students accuse Columbia professors of discriminating against them when they voiced pro-Israel views. In interviews, Israeli students recounted incidents in which they were belittled in class or in extracurricular situations, allegations that Bollinger called extremely troubling. Many of the accusations focus on Middle East and Asian languages and cultures professor Joseph Massad, who has been called anti-Semitic in the past because of his scholarly work that sharply criticized the Israeli government.
One Israeli student who has taken several classes in the MEALAC department said she has personally witnessed Massad threatening students in his classes. The student, who was not interviewed for the film, declined to give her name for fear of retribution from other professors in the department.
"There is a difference between the styles of Massad and other professors in MEALAC," she said. "I don't object to the content of his teaching even though I disagree with it. But his style is to intimidate."
Ariel Beery, GS '05 and one of the students interviewed for the David Project production, said he values several of the professors in the MEALAC department, despite the fact that he strongly disagrees with their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Beery agreed with the Israeli student in saying that Massad has "abused" students on numerous occasions.
Neville Hoad, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, is the leader of a group of people across the country vocally defending Massad. Hoad, who studied for his Ph.D at Columbia alongside Massad in the late 1990s, created an online petition that now has over 750 signatures supporting the professor.
"Any university professor should not be left unprotected against these tactics of intimidation and harassment," Hoad said. "[This] begins to look like a politically motivated smear campaign."
On Monday night, the film was shown to interested students at an emergency meeting held at the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life. According to students who were present, the group decided not to hold a protest against Massad or demand that the professor be fired.
Leaders of The David Project emphasized that they are not calling for Massad's firing, either. Instead, the group has issued a list of several suggestions to Columbia administrators, including a zero-tolerance policy for anti-Semitism, increased diversity of viewpoints within the MEALAC department, and mandatory sensitivity training for incoming first-years about Judaism.
"There is an increasing number of international students on Columbia's campus, many of whom come from anti-Semitic countries," Jacobs said. "We need to work to break down stereotypes."
Leaders of Hillel and other campus groups said they are planning a screening of Columbia Unbecoming for the student body in the next few days.