Over the past two months, publications ranging from the left-of-center Village Voice and New York Daily News to the non-ideological New York to the right-of-center New York Sun and New York Post have explored events in Columbia's MEALAC Department. While they have disagreed on some minor factual details about the case, and have differed on points of interpretation, they all have generally portrayed this case as one of a rogue department that has, for years, hired faculty on an ideological fringe of their field, some of whom have been accused of intimidating students—accusations bolstered by the previous public responses to criticism of the very professors now under scrutiny.
Alas, as we discover in this morning's New York Times, all of these publications got the story wrong. The real story: the personal suffering of the MEALAC faculty (one received an abusive email from an assistant professor in the Med School, another developed shingles, and a third cancelled appearances at unrevealed public events) caused by complaints from a handful of students about "alleged" events, and the outpouring of disgust from faculty that Columbia president Lee Bollinger has failed to defend the academic freedom of the MEALAC professors.
Well, I'm glad that we can now move on to other matters. Before we do, however, a few little questions about the Times piece.
--1.) Reporter N.R. Kleinfield should be commended for placing the Columbia controversy in the context of broader debates within the academy. After all, over the past couple of years, we've had the chairman of Duke's philosophy department speculate that the reason his school's History Department had 32 registered Democrats and zero registered Republicans is because most conservatives are "stupid." And we've seen the recent study showing 96.8% of new faculty hired by Cal and Stanford who have party registrations are registered Democrats. And we've witnessed the case of Cal-Berkeley re-writing its academic freedom policy to cover the behavior of an English instructor who, in a course on Palestinian literature, wrote in his syllabus that conservative students should take another section.
Kleinfield didn't mention any of those cases, all of which seem to get at the questions of intellectual diversity and academic bias at the heart of the MEALAC controversy. Instead, the MEALAC debate is framed in terms of a University of Chicago case from 2002, in which a student filed a complaint against an (unnamed) professor over an (unnamed) issue that was proven to be fraudulent when it was discovered that the professor was in Mongolia at the time. Hmm.
--2.) Kleinfield notes that President Bollinger found (unnamed) viewpoints of Professor Dabashi "deeply personally offensive," to which Dabashi responded: "I find him 10 times more outrageous. What sort of president is he?"
It's peculiar that, in an article of nearly 2500 words, Kleinfield couldn't find the space to mention that Bollinger was asked about one, specific, comment of Dabashi's, about Israeli Jews, to wit, "Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people. The way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture."
Just a guess: while most people probably would say that a college president shouldn't publicly condemn a professor's "viewpoints," most also would consider Dabashi's comments worthy of condemnation by any administrator with common sense and courage. I wonder if that's why Kleinfeld couldn't spare the 72 words to include Dabashi's specific quote? By not including it, the story left, at best, a deeply misleading impression.
--3.) In a piece structured in an apparent attempt at balance, with quotes from both sides, there is one glaring absence of balance: all remarks from non-MEALAC Columbia faculty are critical of Bollinger and dismissive of the students' allegations.
It appears as if that Kleinfield didn't look very hard to get quotes from the other side, especially since the New York piece had no trouble getting comments from historian Richard Bulliet critical of MEALAC's handling of the case. But perhaps Bulliet is a minority of one, and every other Columbia faculty member willing to speak publicly agrees with the professors quoted in the Times story that, in the words of Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences, "There has been an administrative silence, when there should be a ringing endorsement of academic freedom."
If, in fact, Pollack represents the overwhelming majority of Columbia professors, then the Times has buried its lede. It is conceded by all sides that Dabashi, in violation of college policy, cancelled a class at the last minute and subtly pressured students to attend an anti-Israel rally; and that Joseph Massad states on his syllabus that he will offer a "biased" course and that students who disagree with his opinions shouldn't enroll. Is Kleinfield really saying that the overwhelming majority of Columbia faculty considers this type of teaching representative of their institution?
In the end, though, I guess that the Times considers its story appropriately balanced simply because it published anything at all. After all, Rashid Khalidi, fresh from informing New York readers that Arab-American and only Arab-American students know the truth about the Middle East, noted, "It's particularly piquant to me to hear people who have never taken a Mealac course talking about this. It's like me talking about the astrophysics department."
So, a department can make a string of hires from the ideological fringe of its field. It can then structure a curriculum to exclude any pretense of balance in the courses that these professors offer. It can, finally, develop a grievance procedure where students concerned about indoctrination can appeal to the department chair—until this past September, none other than Hamid Dabashi. And, according to Khalidi, the only people appropriate for "talking about this" are the very same professors whose conduct created the controversy in the first place. How convenient.