The ad hoc committee created to investigate the controversy over academic freedom at Columbia is itself creating controversy—and the committee hasn't even started its work.
Two individuals connected to the committee have close ties to Joseph Massad, a Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures professor accused by students in the film.
School of International and Public Affairs Dean Lisa Anderson acted as Massad's Ph.D. advisor, and Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks' wife—MEALAC professor Janaki Bakhle—is currently co-teaching Topics in Asian Civilization: the Middle East and India with Massad. Dirks will work closely with the committee.
Additionally, Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives Jean Howard and professor of English and comparative literature Farah Jasmine Griffin signed a petition in October 2002 calling for the University to remove its investments from any fund that manufactured arms for or sold arms to Israel. The divestment campaign, which occurred simultaneously on campuses nationwide, was highly criticized by Bollinger and other university professors.
Howard and Griffin declined to comment.
Bollinger said that Katznelson had strongly opposed the divestment petition at the time. Katznelson did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.
In an e-mail to the Columbia community sent Wednesday, University President Lee Bollinger announced the creation of the faculty committee to investigate charges of intimidation and harassment in classrooms that were raised after the release of Columbia Unbecoming, a film produced by the Boston-based Zionist group The David Project, as well as the larger questions of academic freedom that the allegations raised.
The questions raised by David Project supporters about the background of some of the committee's members have caused them to doubt its ability to resolve the questions the film and the ensuing controversy have raised about individual professors, perceived bias in the MEALAC department, and established procedures for addressing grievances.
The faculty committee was created to investigate the concerns raised by the film and write a report to publicly announce its findings. The group, which Bollinger said was selected with input from a large number of people from within Arts and Sciences and the administration, is comprised of Ira Katznelson, professor of political science and history; Mark Mazower, professor of history; Griffin, Anderson, and Howard. The committee will be working together with Dirks and will be advised by Floyd Abrams, a visiting professor at the School of Journalism.
"To think that Dean Lisa Anderson, who has an intimate relationship with one of the professors implicated with abusing his students ... can lend an impartial ear to students making complaints is to not be sensitive to the enormous pressures upon the students," said Ariel Beery, GS '05 and a student interviewed in the film.
Anderson did not reply to e-mails or phone calls seeking comment.
Bollinger defended the selection of committee members. "Someone can take a position that I strongly disagree with and they can still be ... capable of looking into something like this objectively," he said.
"If we're going to be serious about this we have to pick people who we think can rise above their own emotions and feelings about the particular issue at hand and I really do believe that every one of these people can do that," Bollinger said.
Bollinger said that the committee would address the systemic problems that had prevented these issues from being addressed at the level of individual professors and departments.
"I believe there is a profound problem in our ability to talk about these issues in a meaningful way ... we would never want issues like these to reach this stage," he said.
The president also emphasized that the issues in front of the committee were larger than just the actions of individual professors, saying "We must avoid a witch hunt on one hand and a whitewash on the other."
The charges of anti-Israel intimidation have prompted other students and faculty to express concern that the film represents an effort to stifle criticism of Israel, and that the backlash will reduce freedom of speech in the classroom.
Eric Posner, GS '05 and a critic of The David Project film, said that he was worried about the controversy's implications for academic freedom around campus. He expressed concern that some of his instructors feel uncomfortable voicing their views.
"Who knows [if] they're going to be accused of anti-Semitism ... forget about getting tenure somewhere, they're not going to get an adjunct position ... they're going to be branded," said Posner, who served in the Israel Defense Forces. "I'm concerned that my educational opportunities are being hurt. And they already have."
Other students, however, feel their educational opportunities are suffering from being intimidated not to speak up about Israel.
"This isn't an issue about stifling professors," said Josh Goldkind, CC '07 and the Israel Coordinator for Hillel, though he agreed that there must be "sensitivity to students' viewpoints."
Beery said that it is in the interest of the entire academic community to reassess intimidation in the classroom for holding opposing viewpoints. "When some of these students [who oppose The David Project] have said, ‘We felt stifled,' we don't deny these experiences."
Bollinger said he is seeking to balance the two arguments.
"Claims of intimidation are surrounded by heightened controversy," Bollinger said. He quickly dismissed some claims, like what he called "really scurrilous charges" of anti-Semitism against history professor Rashid Khalidi since the film was released.
"I think that a lot is rumor, based on unfounded rumor, " said MEALAC department chair Marc Van De Mieroop, referring to the multiple allegations against MEALAC professors.
According to both Bollinger and Van De Mieroop, there are no current plans to censure Massad or other professors accused by the film. Because Massad does not have tenure, he could potentially be fired or subject to other disciplinary actions.
While Van De Mieroop said he and the MEALAC department have not made any changes because of the film, "individuals may take steps to protect themselves against similar accusations."
The fallout from this issue is something that does not "just affect the MEALAC department ... alone," Van De Mieroop said.
He said that "outsiders" have scrutinized not only MEALAC but other departments at Columbia and at other universities for many years, and that their criticisms did not merit action.
"I believe that they should not affect us," he said.