The film Columbia Unbecoming returned to campus last night in the midst of an increasingly publicized controversy concerning academic freedom at Columbia.
Over 350 students crowded into Lerner Cinema to view the film, which is a compilation of student testimonies regarding intimidation by professors inside and outside the classroom. The film was followed by public discussion of the issue, moderated by University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis.
Only three and a half hours earlier, Columbians for Academic Freedom, a student group dedicated to "the promotion of intellectual freedom for all at Columbia University," released a public statement announcing that those students who had previously made known their unwillingness to testify in front of the University's ad hoc committee recently formed by the administration to investigate such incidents had now agreed to do so.
Starting in December with the announcement of the committee's members, Columbians for Academic Freedom had communicated in writing to President Bollinger and other members of the administration that many students were uncomfortable testifying in front of a committee whose members they believed had personal and scholarly connections to some of the professors in question and the issues at hand.
According to the press release, the decision to testify was a result of the assurances of Floyd Abrams, the committee's adviser and a renowned first amendment lawyer, that they had little to lose in agreeing to go in front of the committee.
"While we continue to distrust the composition of the committee, we have faith in Floyd Abrams because of his great reputation and we believe that he may help the members of the committee overcome the influence of their personal and professional connections. We have been assured of this by Floyd Abrams," said Bari Weiss, CC '07, and one of the leaders of Columbians for Academic Freedom."
The showing was prefaced by a statement from Davis, urging students who have experienced academic bias in Columbia's classrooms to testify in front of the committee.
The film was screened on campus in November, but since then has been further edited and developed. Weiss said that the film was edited again because some students who were identified in the first version wanted their identities to be concealed in the second.
In the 40-minute discussion that followed the showing, students voiced their reactions and concerns about the film and its significance to the Columbia community at large.
One student criticized the lack of balance in "Columbia Unbecoming," saying that it had no right to accuse the Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures department of bias when the film itself presented only one point of view.
Daniella Kahane, BC '05 and a member of Columbians for Academic Freedom, responded by saying that the film was not intended to present a balance of opinions, but rather to present student testimony.
Kahane said that the film was originally intended only to be seen by the administration, but was shown to the student body after Barnard College President Judith Shapiro referred to in front of members of the press.
Aharon Horwitz, CC '04, also a member of Columbians for Academic Freedom, acknowledged that the film conflates various complaints, but that the lack of clarity doesn't reduce the allegations of intimidation in the classroom.
"I hope everyone walks out tonight believing there should be no academic intimidation in the classroom," he said.
Yael Fischer, BC '04, said she was concerned about the lack of a distinction between the bias in the behaviors of professors in the classroom and their writing in open publications. Columbia Unbecoming interprets as racist various statements written by some MEALAC professors in publications such as the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.
Weiss responded, "We put the mentions of the publications in the film to expose the racism of these professors. I want everyone to think about what it would mean if these things were written about any other race."
At the conclusion of the discussion, however, Weiss added that Columbians for Academic Freedom is dedicated to representing any student who has experienced bias in the classroom, regardless of sex or race.
Weiss said she thought one of the best questions raised in the discussion regarded the appropriate place to discuss the issue of academic bias.
"We are wholeheartedly in support of dialogue," she said. Upon entering the cinema, CAF handed out flyers outlining the key incidents involving academic bias described in the film. The flyer also announced six more CAF-sponsored events, several of which are intended to promote healthy dialogue about the issue on campus.
Weiss said she did not know how far the group is willing to pursue the allegations of intimidation within the University.
"I cannot know that until I know the what the ruling of the committee is," she said.