After only a matter of months in the public eye, the MEALAC controversy is already drawing comparisons to the McCarthyist scandals of the Cold War era.
Columbia students and faculty gathered in Jerome Greene Hall last night to hear a discussion of the historical relevance of the current controversy surrounding the MEALAC department at Columbia during a panel discussion entitled "McCarthyism and the University: A Historical Discussion on Free Speech and the Academy from the Cold War to the Present."
The panel featured Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at the Department of Anthropology and director of the Institute of African Studies at the School of International and Public Affairs , and Victor Navasky, editor and publisher of The Nation and director of the George Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism of Columbia. The third panelist was Ellen Schrecker, professor of history at Yeshiva University and the author of Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America.
Navasky addressed the history of McCarthyism in the United States, focusing on the oppressive activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Hollywood during the Cold War period. He said he believes that the supposed trade off between national security and individual liberty in such situations is an illusion.
"In my view, McCarthyism came up again after Sept. 11th with the passage of the Patriot Act," he said. "Today to be an Arab, Palestinian, Muslim—is to be a fanatic, a terrorist," Navasky remarked.
Schrecker addressed McCarthyism's past and present existence in academia. She cited the 1954 accusations of Communist ties and the subsequent firing of three faculty members at the University of Michigan as an example of a breach of the line between politics and academic institutions.
Schrecker also criticized Campus Watch and the student group Columbians for Academic Freedom for their involvement in the current controversy, and said that they are "trying to impose orthodoxy at this University, often in the name of academic diversity." She said she believes such "interference" is detrimental to higher education.
Mamdani addressed the presence of McCarthyism at Columbia today and in the media coverage of the MEALAC coverage.
"This particular threat to the University is probably the most serious in recent history," he said of the allegations of academic bias presented by students.
Mamdani criticized Columbians for Academic Freedom for allowing Columbia Unbecoming to be produced by an organization outside Columbia, The David Project, and for refusing to allow the film to be viewed by the public.
"Columbia has been targeted by outside group," Mamdani said. "The film was shown to select audiences, including trustees," he said. "The trustees didn't just happen to walk in while it was being shown."
Mamdani also put forth his definition of academic freedom at a university, suggesting that it is "the freedom of those who do the teaching." He maintained that professors have the right to advocate unconventional ideas in the classroom, even when they are deemed "heresy" by students or society.
He emphasized that students should not expect to always feel comfortable in the classroom. Mamdani argued that students are usually aware of a professor's personal beliefs before taking that professor's course.
"You don't register for Joseph Massad's class to get the Zionist point of view. Anyone who thinks so should get his head examined," added Mamdani.
Mamdani also stated his belief that the students behind Columbia Unbecoming deliberately avoided using the University's grievance procedures to file complaints against their professors, choosing instead to launch a smear campaign against them.
At the conclusion of the speakers' presentations, a public discussion with the audience took place.
Ariel Beery, GS '05 and a leader of the student group Columbians for Academic Freedom, defended the actions taken by the students who were involved in the production of Columbia Unbecoming. Beery claimed that the University's grievance procedures had failed to provide just results, leading some students to seek other means of being heard.
Professor George Saliba of the MEALAC department—who is mentioned in Columbia Unbecoming—also commented publicly, asking, "Where are my rights if one student out of 2,500 since 2001 slanders me because they misunderstood?"
The panel was sponsored by the Columbia ACLU.
Kate Meng-Brassel, CC '06 and President of the Columbia ACLU, expressed satisfaction with the discussion that took place after the panelist's presentations.
"I'm glad we had opposing viewpoints in the debate," she said.