Thursday, December 9th, 2004
It's déjà vu time, folks.
Columbia University, riven by charges of bias on campus, yesterday appointed a panel of six academics to investigate. That's exactly the same number of academics university President Lee Bollinger tapped to probe the initial charges of alleged bias earlier this year. But the first panel failed miserably, handing Columbia a clean bill of health when, in fact, the rot of bigotry was still munching away at the Ivy academy's innards.
On this go-round, things will be different, Bollinger insists. Why? Two words: Floyd Abrams.
As one of the panelists, the journalism professor and First Amendment lawyer who famously defended The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case is supposed to assure the findings are honest, thorough and fair - at least to Bollinger's way of thinking.
Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar himself, would love to reduce the entire stew down to a friendly bull session over freedom of expression. And that's the unfortunate message Abrams' appointment sends - that Columbia is more interested in protecting the free-speech rights of its faculty than in ferreting out possible discrimination against its students.
Clearly, the crux of the matter should be not speech but bigotry.
In a nutshell, the charges allege that half a dozen or so professors in the Middle East studies department repeatedly have intimidated and insulted students for being Jewish and for speaking in defense of Israel. If the charges bear out, through hot words and threatening ways, these professors have browbeaten students, making it plain that they don't like Jews much, especially Jews who support Israel.
How far, under the cloak of freedom of speech or academic freedom, professors can push their political or religious agendas is a topic for another day. The issue is whether these students have been victims of discrimination.
So, who will determine that? A panel of scholars advised by a free-speech lawyer. Which raises another question. What if the panel concludes the charges are false or overblown and clears the profs? No one would believe it, since the panel reports to Bollinger and includes the likes of Lisa Anderson. As international affairs dean, she fought to create a chaired professorship honoring the late Edward Said, a vehement supporter of the Palestinian cause. She also hid the identity of the chair's financial sponsors, including some Holocaust-denying sheiks from the Mideast.
But all this seems lost on Bollinger. His misty-eyed concerns over academic freedom have gotten in the way. And his board of trustees is losing confidence in this mild-mannered man they recruited only three years ago.
As one person close to the board tellingly confessed, "Harvard dodged a bullet by not hiring him."