A School of Law panel last night warned that academic discourse is increasingly decided by partisan lobbies, the media, the government, corporations, and other forces outside the university itself.
"Censoring Campuses: Academic Freedom and Partisan Politics" was held in Jerome Green Hall at the law school and moderated by political science department chair Andrew Nathan. The panel, which drew just over 100 people, discussed the necessity of maintaining academic freedom amid the context of a partisan university and nation.
Academic freedom "is being attacked not only at Columbia but at other universities ... even when the Daily News doesn't report on them, it's happening nonetheless," warned New York University Middle East and Islamic Studies professor Elliott Colla.
The panel also included NYU professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies Khaled Fahmy, Columbia anthropology professors Brinkley Messick and Elizabeth Povinelli, Arthur Eisenberg, the legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Columbia English and comparative literature professors Bruce Robbins and Gauri Viswanathan.
Discussion centered around the film Columbia Unbecoming and allegations of anti-Israel harassment and intimidation from individual professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department it discusses. The panelists claimed that the charges are a politicized attempt to stifle criticism of Israel.
"People support the First Amendment and academic freedom only when it does not criticize the U.S. or Israel," Fahmy said.
The scholars unanimously agreed that academic freedom includes the right to criticize.
"Students have a right to a congenital learning environment ... but [they don't] have the right to be immune from provocative, disturbing, or even offensive ideas," Eisenberg said.
MEALAC professor Joseph Massad was implicated by the film for harassing and intimidating students. The panelists, however, said that Massad is a mainstream academic who was attacked for criticizing Israel.
Massad "has vigilantly and courageously argued that [Israel's] democracy is a sham," Fahmy said.
"Ignoring the scholarly evidence about how Israel drove the Palestinians out of their homes in 1948—what we'd now call ethnic cleansing—is the scholarly equivalent of being a flat-earther," Robbins said.
"Personally I felt a chill. I have never felt such a threat to my academic freedom ... we have discovered as a community that there are some issues we took for granted," Nathan said.
The panelists defended Massad and cast doubts on the legitimacy of the film.
"I think it's relevant to say that when I tried to see Columbia Unbecoming I was thrown out of the room," Robbins said, calling it a "cocktease."
While the panelists supported Bollinger's announcement Wednesday of an ad hoc faculty committee to investigate the issue, they were critical of the University response.
The panelists said that by focusing on this issue so closely, the University is giving it unwarranted credence. Robbins said, "I'd be more comfortable if the president had said, ‘There are grievance procedures. If you have grievances, grieve.'"
But Messick said, "I have great faith in this particular committee."
Nathan also said he supported forming an all-faculty committee, highlighting the need for faculty governance to maintain academic freedom.
Threats to academic autonomy run deeper than Columbia Unbecoming, some panelists said. Viswanathan warned about "the kinds of monetary instructions that make it hard for these hot potato departments to thrive independently."
The panelists also connected the controversy to a larger national context that they said is hostile to criticism and seeks to stifle open discourse.
This takes place "within a wider political and cultural war," Colla said.
"Academic freedom will not survive within these walls, as large as Columbia wants to build them," unless universities gain allies outside of academia, Colla said.