Columbia University has tapped a veteran First Amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams, to advise a special faculty committee that will look into charges against professors accused of intimidating Jewish and Israeli students.
Mr. Abrams, 68, told The New York Sun he expects the committee to hold hearings concerning the charges against the professors and that he will "provide any advice I can" to the committee on the process. He said the committee would be composed of arts and science faculty members.
The creation of the committee and the selection of Mr. Abrams to advise it mark a critical turning point in Columbia's handling of what has amounted to a public relations crisis. It was only last spring when Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, stated that a committee he formed to examine issues of academic freedom found no evidence of systematic bias in the classrooms.
Since that time, concern among Jewish leaders and local politicians over intense anti-Israel sentiment in the classroom and in the school's Middle East studies department has grown considerably with the release of a short documentary film featuring interviews with students recounting incidents of abuse. In one case, a professor is alleged to have told a student to leave the classroom if she kept on denying that Israel committed atrocities.
Mr. Abrams, a partner in the New York law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel and a visiting scholar of First Amendment issues at Columbia's journalism school, said the university would make an announcement about his advisory role today.
Mr. Abrams is currently involved in an important press freedom legal battle. He is set to argue before a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., that Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine are not legally required to divulge their sources to a prosecutor investigating the disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity.
A graduate of Cornell University and Yale Law School, Mr. Abrams is known for his broad interpretation of the First Amendment and has taken on a number of high-profile freedom of speech cases, notably when he served as co-counsel to the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case. He is the father of MSNBC anchor Dan Abrams.
Columbia's decision follows an ultimatum last month from City Council Member Michael Nelson, who said he would call for an independent investigation into the student complaints if Columbia's own internal investigation led by Provost Alan Brinkley failed to turn up any wrongdoing.
The selection of a First Amendment lawyer to advise a faculty committee reflects the freedom of speech issues at play. The students accusing the professors of intimidation argue that the faculty members prevented them from expressing their opinion in the classroom. The accused faculty members say the students are attempting to silence criticism of Israel. Also at issue is whether Columbia can punish a tenured faculty member for something he or she said to a student in the classroom.
Mr. Brinkley, who has left open the possibility that faculty members could be disciplined if found to have intimidated students, has said Columbia would take "forceful steps" to protect students if an investigation determines that they have been intimidated.
Meanwhile yesterday, a group of anti-Israel students came to the defense of the professors, saying the scholars are victims of a politically motivated witch-hunt. Led by many of the same students who helped stage protests against the American-led war in Iraq, the group, the "Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Academic Freedom at Columbia," dismissed the accusations against the professors as a campaign to suppress criticism of Israel.
"The students are conflating criticism of Israel with intimidation," said Monique Dols, a history major who is a member of the Campus Antiwar Network. She said there is "no proof" that Columbia professors acted hostilely to the Jewish students who voiced their complaints in the documentary film, "Columbia Unbecoming."
The group of students who staged a press conference yesterday is hoping to rally university support for the accused professors. About 40 students showed up yesterday, including a batch from the Spartacus Youth Club who held signs that read, "Down with the Zionist witch hunt on campus."
Noah Liben, a 22-year-old political science major who was interviewed for the film, said he is opposed to censorship in the classroom but believes some professors at the school are trying to silence those who disagree with the anti-Israel professors.
"This is about allowing for free discourse in the classrooms," he said.
He said he saw the creation of a committee of faculty members advised by Mr. Abrams as a positive sign. "Hopefully, the panel can get to the bottom of this."
Produced by the David Project, a Boston-based group that combats anti-Israel bias at universities and in the press, "Columbia Unbecoming" comprises interviews with several current and former undergraduates who say they were mistreated by professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department.
Joseph Massad, an assistant professor of modern Arab politics in the department who has written that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state, is said to have screamed at a female student, Deena Shanker, in a spring 2002 class concerning the Israeli and Palestinian conflict after the student defended Israel's military actions in the West Bank. Students in the class say Mr. Massad told her to leave the class unless she stopped denying that Israel committed atrocities against the Palestinian Arabs.
The executive director of the David Project, Avi Goldwasser, said the film is not directed against Mr. Massad but is intended to focus attention on "Columbia and the environment for those who support Israel and speak out on its behalf." Since the film was first publicized in October, other Columbia students have come forward with complaints against professors. A Columbia graduate, Scott Schonfeld, who was a student in Professor Hamid Dabashi's course on Middle Eastern cinema in spring 2002, said the professor cancelled class on Israel's independence day in order for the students to attend an anti-Israel demonstration. He said teaching assistants wearing black armbands urged students who showed up for the class to attend the protest.