Columbia University's highest officials acknowledged yesterday that students with complaints against anti-Israel professors had no effective recourse because of the school's "inadequate" grievance policies.
The comments came as the university's president, saying he would not tolerate acts of intimidation against students, announced the membership of a new faculty committee that he has put in charge of resolving the crisis over faculty members' alleged misconduct. The president, Lee Bollinger, has also asked a noted First Amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams, to advise the committee.
The decision by Mr. Bollinger and the provost, Alan Brinkley, to create a special committee of professors to investigate student complaints against anti-Israel professors means the university's two highest officials have temporarily put off resolving one of the thorniest disputes to hit an Ivy League university in years.
Instead, the school's investigation will be turned over to five tenured professors - some of whom are highly critical of American and Israeli policies. Mr. Bollinger has enlisted them to hear the student complaints and determine which ones warrant further investigation. In a letter to the "Columbia community," he said it is "very unlikely that the committee will complete its work until the first two months of 2005."The committee will give university officials a report, "a summary" of which will be made public, Mr. Bollinger said.
Mr. Bollinger has faced great pressure to address the student complaints, as Jewish leaders and local politicians have reacted in disgust to interviews in a short documentary, released in October. In the film, "Columbia Unbecoming," which was produced by the Boston-based pro-Israel group, the David Project, Jewish students described how faculty members allegedly targeted them for their sympathetic views toward Israel.
In one instance, an assistant professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, Joseph Massad, is said to have ordered a female student, Deena Shanker, to leave his classroom if she continued to deny that Israel committed atrocities against the Palestinian Arabs. Another Jewish student interviewed in the film, Lindsay Shrier, said a professor in that department, George Saliba, told her she didn't have any claim to land in the Middle East because of her green eyes.
In separate letters released by the school yesterday, Mr. Brinkley and Mr. Bollinger said Columbia needed to improve its grievance procedures to protect students facing intimidation from professors. A number of the students who have spoken out against faculty members they accuse of intimidation said officials supposed to handle such complaints either ignored them or directed the students to other officials, such as deans, who were not sympathetic.
"Sometimes the complaints fall on deaf ears," Noah Liben, a Columbia senior who appeared in the film, said.
In a letter to Mr. Bollinger dated December 6, Mr. Brinkley said the grievance procedures "are not well enough understood" by both students and officials and said "the result is that students sometimes make complaints to administrators, who have no authority to deal with the issues."
Both Mr. Bollinger and Mr. Brinkley emphasized that the principles of academic freedom, as the provost put it, "must be the basis for our response," and that the committee would not be evaluating the politics of the accused professors. Mr. Bollinger pledged that "all sides" will be heard. Mr. Brinkley said the committee "will hear all issues" but its mandate "will not include investigating anyone's political or scholarly beliefs or any departments or curricula."
The members of the committee are Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and comparative literature; Jean Howard, a professor of English and the vice provost for diversity initiatives; Ira Katznelson, a professor of political science and English, and Mark Mazower, a professor of history.
A number of the professors on the committee share with faculty members in the Middle East department a sharply critical view of Israel and American foreign policy. Ms. Griffin is a signer of a petition calling for Columbia to divest its holdings from companies selling arms or military hardware to Israel. Ms. Howard has signed an online petition demanding that America remove its troops from Iraq.
Mr. Abrams, 68, said he expected his role in the committee to be one of helping the professors "strike some kind of balance between the rights of the faculty members and the rights of the students."
One of the prominent First Amendment lawyers in the nation, Mr. Abrams is a partner in the New York law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel and is a visiting scholar at Columbia's journalism school. He is currently arguing in federal appeals court in Washington on behalf of two reporters, one from the New York Times and one from Time magazine, who could be jailed for not testifying about their sources before a grand jury.
He said that Mr. Bollinger approached him 10 days ago about advising the committee members and that he plans to meet with them tomorrow.
Mr. Abrams told The New York Sun that he believes Mr. Bollinger took the unusual step of forming the committee because "there were a lot of complaints, they were very specific in nature, and there has been a great deal of publicity and focus on the complaints."
The announcement of the committee received a mixed reaction from people who have been critical of Columbia professors' treatment of Jewish and Israeli students. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who has discussed the student complaints with Mr. Bollinger - and whose organization honored Mr. Abrams last year with its Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize - said the university has taken "a major first step in dealing with the problem."
Mr. Foxman criticized Mr. Bollinger, however, for not giving a deadline for the completion of the committee's investigation, and he said: "If some of the professors acted out of line, they need to be reprimanded and put on notice."
A Columbia senior who is president of the student organization and has been a critic of the Middle East studies department, Ariel Beery, questioned whether students would want to speak out against professors in front of other faculty members. Martin Kramer, a prominent critic of Middle Eastern studies at American universities and the author of "Ivory Towers on Sand," said he has "no confidence in the composition of this committee."
"Offenders will be absolved in the name of academic freedom," he said. "Grievance procedures will be filled out on paper, and Bollinger and Brinkley will hope that by the time it's over, the commotion will have blown over."