After weeks of controversy, President Bollinger on Tuesday released the results of Provost Alan Brinkley's investigation into charges of student intimidation in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. Unfortunately, the only thing the investigation concluded was that more investigating needs to be done.
That isn't good enough. Students are tired of the way the University has allowed The David Project, the New York Daily News, and The New York Sun to control the debate about MEALAC. The Columbia community needed an answer from the administration; they got another ad hoc committee.
Of course, Bollinger should treat this issue, which raises profound questions about academic freedom and the intellectual environment on campus, carefully. As he said yesterday in an interview, "We must avoid a witch-hunt on the one hand and whitewash on the other." However, his straight-down-the-middle approach has done little to reassure students concerned about these disquieting charges.
Sadly, this communication from Bollinger fits an emerging pattern. Columbia has witnessed its share of controversy since Bollinger took over as University president three years ago. When the controversy has centered around First Amendment rights, his area of expertise, it seems that his usual response is to issue a defense of the general principle of academic freedom without directly confronting the problem at hand. We couldn't agree more with his principles—it's the inaction that bothers. An investigation into the formation of a committee to investigate some more all seems like just so much brushing under the rug.
Bollinger said the abstract nature of the most recent letter was intended to remove his response from the charged nature of the debate. Unfortunately, that is impossible, and intentionally ambiguous answers can upset just as much as one that takes a definite side. This type of response is also unfair to students. We have a right to know whether or not there is widespread intimidation of students within MEALAC.
This situation has become a public relations nightmare for Columbia (painted as "Poison Ivy" in the Daily News), and responding with more hemming and hawing will only exacerbate the situation. If, as Bollinger said, the current procedures for addressing departmental complaints of this type are inadequate, then we certainly need a body to address those concerns. But right now our primary concern is MEALAC, and the University needs to deal with that issue openly and in a manner that does not expose it to further charges of bias.
The MEALAC controversy concerns a fundamental question of academic life—the way that students are treated in the classroom—and we have a right to know what is really going on. If the University is going to launch an investigation, then it must come to a more useful conclusion than those we have seen so far from President Bollinger.