Columbia's campus is rife with tensions surrounding the question of academic freedom in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department, but for people living in the surrounding neighborhoods, the debate remains an academic one, irrelevant to their lives and to their relationship to the University.
The controversy has been covered extensively by local and national media outlets, including The New York Daily News, The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, and The New York Sun, which addressed the question of anti-Israel bias as early as October 2003. But while the MEALAC controversy may merit news coverage, many residents and people who work in the area remain unaware of it.
"We just go to work and go home," said Angel Hernandez, a 30-year-old building mechanic from Harlem speaking for himself and Robert Cruz, a colleague who had not heard about the controversy. When told about the tension on campus, he remained unaffected. "Nah, no reaction," he said. "That doesn't pertain to us."
Even those who live in the immediate vicinity of the University were often in the dark. "I haven't heard anything. I live across the street from Teacher's College," said Denise Thomas, 38, an administrative assistant. When informed of the conflict, her eyes widened. "Oh my God, all because of what is going on [in the Middle East]?"
Turning to her boyfriend, she asked if he had heard anything. He shook his head. "You work at Teacher's College and you haven't heard anything?" she asked with a tone of surprise. "I just do my job," he said.
Though the recent controversy was news to most people interviewed, there were some residents who have been following the media's coverage. Reactions were mixed, but all agreed that the incidents have had little effect on their perception of the University as a whole.
Stacey Billing, 39, a bus operator who lives on Riverside Drive, read about the MEALAC storm in a recent Daily News editorial.
"It seems there is a lot of anti-Israel talk coming from the faculty. I was kind of surprised. It seems Columbia has made a right turn," he said, contrasting his perception of today's campus with its historical reputation garnered from the '60s. Still, he was optimistic about the University and its relationship to the surrounding area. "Whatever [Columbia] does would be good for the community," she said.
While Billing said the controversy signified a political shift, others saw it as an isolated incident. Columbia "is not just one professor, it's a university. [Controversial professors] are part of it," said Michael Zoulis, 39, the manager of Tom's Restaurant on Broadway.
"I don't think a professor should push his political views," said Zoulis, who learned about the conflict through coverage in The New York Daily News and Spectator. "He should teach what he has to teach and let the kids decide."
Others who followed the story were reticent to give an opinion. "I'm not sure I can understand the impact," said a lawyer who works in the area but declined to be named. "It's a matter of how the professors who have been accused of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment have been presenting themselves. I can't tell from the press coverage."
While she said that the media did not present a complete picture of the situation, she felt that some of the tension could have been minimized earlier by President Bollinger. "I sense that he could have handled the situation differently," she said. "I don't know if his actions have flamed passions or diffused them."
"It's complicated," said a resident who also wished to remain anonymous. "I don't know what to say. Why can't people just get along?"
But for some, getting along was not necessarily the answer. John Kapner, a retiree and resident of Harlem, followed the story in The New York Times.
"My general opinion is ‘let it rip,'" he said. "I'm a firm believer in the old idea of the free play of ideas. So long as discourse is truly free, bad ideas tend to be self-defeating. The academic world has its fair share of fools. [Columbia] is not exempt. Hurt feelings should not be the basis of suppression of opinion."
But Kapner's wife, Joanna, wasn't convinced. "I'm not sure I would agree that words are harmless. Sometimes so much attention is made, that you get bad results. Let someone get up and make a statement, [and then let everyone else] form an opinion."
Joan Ybera, a 50-year-old resident of a Columbia-owned apartment, was familiar with the allegations against the department and advocated for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. "I have Jewish-Israeli friends, I have Pakistani friends; I'm like the League of Nations," she said. "Everyone should just live in peace."