A bitter dispute has been roiling the waters at Columbia University for four months now. Although the Columbia conflict has stirred up a lot of local interest, there's been little national attention. That's too bad, because the Columbia controversy has just called forth an extremely important statement on academic freedom and intellectual diversity--a statement with implications that go well beyond the Columbia dispute. The commotion at Columbia began when students produced a film alleging classroom intimidation of pro-Israel students by the overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian faculty of Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. The film left many of Columbia's alumni and donors outraged at the one-sided bias and intimidation now typical at this once great university. Various faculty at Columbia have responded to the film, and to alumni threats to withhold donations, by warning of a "McCarthyite witch hunt" that endangers academic freedom. For a full review of the controversy, see this story from New York Magazine, "Columbia's Own Middle East War." (On the whole, the article is balanced, but it includes a totally distorted account of HR 3077, the bill that would reform federal subsidies to Middle East Studies.) For a powerful account of faculty bias at Columbia, see "Hate 101" by Douglas Feiden of the New York Daily News. But what strikes me as the big story in this dispute is a statement on academic freedom and intellectual diversity just released by FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). The FIRE letter is offered as a rebuttal to a statement by the NYCLU, the New York branch of the ACLU. The NYCLU letter takes the professors' side, claiming that student criticism and donor anger threaten academic freedom. The FIRE statement offers a powerful rebuttal to NYCLU's claim.
The truly important thing about FIRE's statement on the conflict at Columbia University is that it successfully shows how to draw the delicate line between concerns about a professor's academic freedom, on the one hand, and the rights of students and alumni to protest faculty bias and indoctrination, on the other. The FIRE letter also advances a key argument about a university's right to define its own mission and purpose, and to construct a faculty that advances that mission. This entails an obligation to "truth in advertising" by a university. If an institution claims to believe in the marketplace of ideas, then it has to deliver. Of course, if an institution openly admits to a desire to uphold a particular ideology, that's alright too–so long as it honestly reveals this purpose to donors and potential students. Again and again, we are confronted with conflicts between student complaints about professorial bias, and faculty claims of "McCarthyite" threats to their freedom. The FIRE statement provides a road map for doing justice to both sides of this conflict. FIRE is nothing if not a civil rights organization. In fact, FIRE is often allied with the ACLU. It took this open clash between the NYCLU and FIRE to draw out critically important principles that can guide those of us who want to respect professorial freedom, while also doing something about the terrible academic bias that is killing the marketplace of ideas on campus. After all, the very purpose of academic freedom is to foster the marketplace of ideas. Something has got to be wrong when protecting academic freedom means killing the marketplace of ideas. On this difficult issue, FIRE lights the way.