An earthquake by the name of anti-Semitism has cracked straight to the core of Columbia University. Yes, here in tolerant, multicultural New York City, Jewish students charge that they've been threatened, harassed and intimidated by professors and classmates. That it has been going on for years. And that no one is doing much about it.
The university bungled one attempt to face up to the mess earlier this year. But five weeks ago, the contretemps resurfaced with fresh charges of bias. This time around, a whitewash won't do. Columbia must rid itself of any hint of bias in its classrooms. Its reputation depends on it.
The long bill of particulars includes these ugly episodes:
You see, under the time-worn tradition of academic freedom, Columbia contends it must protect the rights of faculty members to say anything that pops into their noggins, even if it's hateful, ridiculous or plain dumb.
Perhaps that preserves the free flow of ideas that universities are all about. But a line must be drawn somewhere. Could a boss speak this way to a worker and not expect to be sued? What about the student's right not to be bullied or cowed? Professors can crush chances to get into a top grad school with a single F or a bad reference.
Earlier this year, Columbia President Lee Bollinger asked a panel of scholars to probe claims of discrimination on campus. The panel glossed things over, concluding there was no evidence of "systematic bias."
Bollinger accepted the findings. Strange for a man who once defended the right of his last employer, the University of Michigan, to give more weight to applicants who are members of oppressed minorities than to those with perfect SAT scores.
Now that new charges of bias have been lodged, Bollinger has tapped his chief academic, Alan Brinkley, to lead a new probe. But this is a job for a prosecutor, a Rudy Giuliani or a Mary Jo White.
Insiders say Bollinger has been read the riot act by his trustees, who insist he team Brinkley with a First Amendment lawyer. The insiders also say Bollinger "inherited" a bad situation from his predecessor, George Rupp. But having muffed one chance to set things right, he'd better not let it happen again, they say.
People will be punished after the inquiry is done, insiders insist. Heads may roll. Students' rights will be ensured. Bollinger's job may hang in the balance. And that's as it should be.