The chairman of Columbia University's board of trustees, David Stern, said he has confidence in President Lee Bollinger's ability to steer the university past a damaging public relations crisis involving Jewish students and anti-Israel professors that shows little sign of abating. Mr. Stern, the National Basketball Association commissioner, told The New York Sun in a recent telephone interview that he supports Mr. Bollinger's response to the controversy that erupted last fall after reports came out about complaints by Jewish students against professors in the Middle East studies department.
Speaking publicly about the issue for the first time, Mr. Stern, who attended Columbia's law school, defended Columbia as an Ivy League trailblazer when it comes to relations with Jewish students. "For those who see some virulent anti-Semitic history and customs, or whatever, at Columbia, I would remind them that when quotas were abolished, Columbia was first to accept Jewish students," said Mr. Stern. As chairman of the board, he is essentially Mr. Bollinger's boss.
Some have faulted Mr. Bollinger for not taking swifter measures to defuse the scandal and for appointing faculty members sharply critical of Israel to investigate the complaints. Others sympathetic to the anti-Israel professors have accused Columbia's president of impinging on the professors' academic freedom.
In response to critics of Mr. Bollinger's handling of the matter, such as the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, Mr. Stern said, "I would expect them to be impatient." But he said he did not find fault with the make-up of the committee investigating the complaints and urged critics of the president to wait for the committee to complete its work.
"I think the president appropriately decided - in terms of the complaints - that this is a matter for a faculty committee to deal with," Mr. Stern said. "That was an appropriate and correct decision, as unpopular it may have been with just about everybody."
Some faculty members have criticized Mr. Bollinger for dragging his feet and for appointing what they believe is a biased committee.
"I don't understand Bollinger's handling of the situation," said Judith Jacobson, an assistant professor of clinical epidemiology in the Mailman School of Public Health and a leader of an academic group called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. "If I were naming a committee to investigate a problem in a particular department, then I would select people who didn't have a conflict of interest with respect to the subject matter or the people involved."
She is among several Columbia professors who have called on Mr. Bollinger to appoint a more "fair-minded" committee, and she said the student complaints that have come out recently are "just the tip of the iceberg."
Meanwhile, as pressure has mounted for Columbia to make changes to the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department, the administration has taken the unusual step of wresting departmental control away from tenured professors in the department and giving it to a newly established committee of outside faculty members.
Columbia's vice president for arts and sciences, Nicholas Dirks, said the purpose of such a committee is to help departments "overcome specific challenges." He said the one advising the Middle East studies department "will independently advise and work the department chair and me." The chairman of the department is Marc Van De Mieroop, a professor of ancient Near East history.
The committee members are a professor of philosophy, Akeel Bilgrami; a professor of South Asian art, Vidya Dehejia; an Arab studies professor, Rashid Khalidii, a sociologist, Gil Eyal; and an anthropology scholar, Brinkley Messick. Two of the professors, Messrs. Messick and Bilgrami, signed a 2002 petition condemning Israel and calling for Columbia to divest itself from companies that sell arms and military hardware to the Jewish state.
Mr. Khalidi's professorship was named after Edward Said, a Columbia scholar and author of "Orientalism," and was paid for partly with a donation from the United Arab Emirates.
In an interview with the Sun, a Hebrew literature professor, Dan Miron, said the university's decision to establish the new committee has enraged members of the Middle East studies department. "Some people see it as a punishment" against the department as a whole, he said.
Mr. Miron, who perhaps more than any other professor at the university has spoken out in defense of the Jewish students, said tensions inside the department did not warrant such a handover of academic power.
About a dozen Jewish students have accused some professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department of treating them hostilely because of their sympathetic stance toward Israel. One scholar, Joseph Massad, an assistant professor of modern Arab politics, is accused of ordering a student in 2002 to leave his class if she continued to deny Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. Mr. Massad denies that the incident took place.
Mr. Massad is undergoing a fifth-year review, the final step before his tenure review, which could begin in less than a year. Mr. Stern said Mr. Massad's employment at Columbia is not a matter for the board of trustees to handle but "for academics to deal with and for educators to deal with."
Top university officials were aware of the complaints months before they first surfaced in the press in October. Since that time, Columbia has seen an academic dispute balloon into a major public relations disaster as news of the student complaints circulated around Jewish communities across the country. Just last month, Israel's ambassador to America, Daniel Ayalon, refused to attend a conference at Columbia "in view of complaints by Jewish students of intimidation by faculty members." Earlier this week, Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz fanned the flames when he came to campus and told a gathering of hundreds that Columbia's anti-Israel professors encourage Islamic terrorism and are an embarrassment for the school.
While some alumni have threatened to withhold donations to Columbia, Mr. Stern said he doesn't believe that the university should expect any significant difficulties in fund-raising because donors see the problem of anti-Israel sentiment on campus as a nationwide issue affecting many schools.
"We think that people ... will come to understand that this is a broader subject than what's going on at Columbia," Mr. Stern said.