Recent allegations of anti-Semitism at Columbia University have prompted a formal investigation of professors in the school's department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures. When a documentary citing cases of in-class intimidation at Columbia came to light, debate flared across campuses about the line between academic freedom and politicization of the classroom.
Our neighbor to the north is right to launch an investigation into any claim of harassment. No students should fear expressing their views in class, and none should feel that their own identity - including their race, gender or religion - is being attacked.
Yet when examining such charges, we must also respect professors' academic freedom and make sure criticisms of national politics are not misconstrued as criticisms of an entire race or religion. Criticizing the Israeli government is not the same as criticizing the Jewish people, just as criticizing American foreign policy is not an inherent criticism of all Americans. Similarly, professors who are pro-Israel or defend the actions of the Israeli government are not necessarily unsympathetic to Palestinians.
That said, the burden of making these distinctions rests squarely on the shoulders of the professor. Professors must recognize that their students come from a wide variety backgrounds, political views and religious beliefs. If they are unable to hold a completely unbiased discussion on the issue, they must at least attempt to present both sides and take extra care to make all students feel that their opinions are welcome.
All universities have an obligation to encourage the free exchange of ideas. Neither Columbia's investigation nor the soul-searching it might inspire at other campuses should inhibit academics from taking principled stands on controversial issues. But there is a line that should not be crossed: Expressing political views in the classroom and promoting discussion is one thing; intimidation and prejudice are quite another. •