In order for a university to function, professors must be able to express their ideas without the fear of termination. However, they also have an obligation to phrase such views in a way that encourages dialogue. When a professor's remarks are pointed at particular students in an intimidating fashion, the system is out of balance.
"The alleged assault on 'free speech' and 'academic freedom' is nothing more than a smoke screen to obscure the realities of student intimidation on campus," said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Miller's comments highlight a problem with the Columbia controversy: that instead of dealing with the situation, many people have become too defensive of abstract principles, ignoring the issues at hand.
No one benefits in the environment currently existing at Columbia, in which professors are afraid to speak without being ostracized, and students feel so marginalized that their own education is handicapped. It is important to add, however, that this climate is unique to MEALAC and is not persistent throughout the entire Morningside Heights campus.
The department's subject matter is politically charged and controversial by nature. But that does not excuse the department from acting responsibly.
Cornell's Department of Near Eastern Studies offers classes of similar subject matter as those taught by MEALAC, yet the department does not operate under the weight of such rumors and criticism.
"One thing in my classes, I never look at students as Christians or Muslims or Jews ... I am not interested in religion; that is private," said Prof. Munther Younes, Near Eastern studies, who teaches intermediate and advanced Arabic. "If someone has something to say, I will listen. But I won't let other students disrespect each other or say something offensive."
The embroiled professors have maintained that allegations made against them by students are false, and Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger put together an ad-hoc committee to investigate the charges. Unfortunately, Bollinger's committee is so tainted that it will do little to quell the controversy. Several of the members signed Israel-divestment petitions prior to the uproar, and one member advised the Ph.D. thesis of one of the professors in question.
Such obvious bias in the committee will inevitably render its findings dubious and open to scrutiny. Ultimately, this controversy underscores one of the signature problems facing academia today: lack of ideological diversity at the front of the classroom. Groupthink-driven ideology never will -- nor should -- pass for education. In the meantime, the university must step carefully to avoid trampling academic freedom while erasing political intimidation from its classrooms.