Saudi Arabia has funneled tens of thousands of dollars into the "outreach" programs of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, which until last week was training some of the city's public-school teachers in how to teach students about Middle East politics.
Since 2002, the government-owned Saudi Aramco has given the institute annual grants of $15,000 for unspecified outreach activities. The institute's outreach activities have included a 15-week teacher-training course on Middle East politics led by Columbia faculty members and graduate students.
In a letter dated April 27, 2004, a scholar of Arab nationalism who took over the Middle East Institute in 2003, Rashid Khalidi, wrote to a senior executive in public affairs at Saudi Aramco, Mustafa Jalali, thanking him for "your generous contribution to the Middle East Institute's outreach activities in 2004." The money, Mr. Khalidi wrote, "will enable us to be more proactive and seek out wider outreach opportunities."
A student provided a copy of the letter to The New York Sun, along with a separate document, which the student said Mr. Khalidi had attached to the letter, containing a description of the 2003-04 outreach activities conducted by the institute.
"The faculty and a group of advanced graduate students are also an important resource for the dissemination of information on the Middle East for non-specialist audiences such as schools, colleges, and community groups," the document stated. It then described the institute's course for public-school teachers.
A Columbia spokeswoman, Susan Brown, denied the money from Saudi Aramco was used to finance the program that the institute coordinated for the city's Department of Education. Rather, she said, the program - for which participating teachers paid tuition of $145 - was supported through federal funds. The institute must demonstrate a certain level of community outreach activity to qualify for federal funds.
Ms. Brown would not disclose how the Middle East Institute, which is part of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, spent the Aramco money. Other outreach activities carried out by the institute include a public lecture series and a one-day educational program in 2002 for New York public-school teachers that provided participants with a special "sensitivity" curriculum for teaching issues related to Islam.
Mr. Khalidi, 56, refuses to speak to the Sun. A message was left last night with an individual who answered the phone at his residence. Mr. Khalidi did not return the message.
The institute at the Morningside Heights campus has won annual certification as one of the country's 19 Middle East National Resource Centers, which each receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies from the federal Department of Education.
Columbia was not required by law to disclose the donations from Saudi Aramco, because they fell below the state and federal levels requiring disclosure.
The front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor, Fernando Ferrer, urged Columbia not to accept the Saudi gift. "Whoever is in charge of that should probably grab a checkbook and send the $15,000 back," the former Bronx borough president said.
Another mayoral candidate, Rep. Anthony Weiner, who has urged Columbia's administration to deal harshly with professors accused of intimidating Jewish students, told the Sun in a telephone interview yesterday that Columbia should return the Saudi gift.
"The money from the Saudis should have automatically raised strong concerns in President Bollinger's office, especially when this controversy erupted in public," Mr. Weiner said. "It should have been quickly disclosed."
The controversy he referred to erupted last month when the Sun reported that Mr. Khalidi was one of the lecturers in the professional development program for city teachers. Mr. Khalidi has blamed Israel for carrying out "racist" policies and has argued that Palestinian armed "resistance" against Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank is legitimate. The day the article appeared, the city schools chancellor, Joel Klein, removed Mr. Khalidi as a lecturer in the course.
Mr. Klein's decision infuriated Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, who wrote the chancellor a letter accusing him of violating First Amendment principles and suggesting negotiations to determine whether Columbia would continue to participate in the professional development program.
After their lawyers met and Mr. Klein refused to take back Mr. Khalidi, Columbia's president, in a letter dated March 4, told the chancellor "the University will discontinue its participation in the course."
"Columbia has valued its involvement with the Department in this course over the past decade and regrets this turn of events," Mr. Bollinger wrote.
In neither of his letters to Mr. Klein did Mr. Bollinger disclose the Saudi Aramco grants to the Middle East Institute.
The press secretary to the chancellor, Jerry Russo, said the department was not aware of any Saudi financing. He said the department would continue to operate the Middle East course without Columbia faculty members.
In the past two years, Columbia has come under greater public pressure to disclose its foreign donations, especially from governments suspected of supporting Islamic terrorism.
The New York Sun reported last year that Columbia had failed for years to disclose to the federal Department of Education the foreign gifts it received.
Columbia gave Washington an updated list of foreign gifts and later disclosed the donors behind Mr. Khalidi's professorship, named after the Palestinian advocate and literature scholar Edward Said.
Among the 22 foreign gifts of $250,000 or more that Columbia disclosed having received in 2003 was a contribution of $250,000 from an unnamed Saudi individual for "social science research."
Among the donors of the $2.1 million Edward Said chair, Columbia reported, were the United Arab Emirates, which gave $200,000, and the Olayan Charitable Trust, a charity associated with a Saudi-based multinational corporation, the Olayan Group.
Saudi Aramco, which the Saudi government purchased from American oil companies in 1980, gives grant money to a number of other Middle Eastern programs at American universities.
In 2003, the oil company's in-house journal, Saudi Aramco World, ran a 6,000-word article on the importance of Middle East centers in helping policy-makers understand the region after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The article did not mention criticism that Middle Eastern studies has received from lawmakers and some scholars, who argue that the academic field has been corrupted by scholars who oppose America's foreign policy, particularly its friendly terms with Israel, and who gloss over Islamic terrorism.
A research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, Martin Kramer, who has been a vocal critic of Middle Eastern studies in America, said the Saudi kingdom is a logical benefactor of the institute.
"If you're a Saudi, it's very convenient for Rashid Khalidi to claim that the source of America's problems in the region is not their special relationship with Saudi Arabia, but their special relationship with Israel," Mr. Kramer said. "All he has to do is say it's Palestine, stupid."
Since news of student allegations against professors in Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures surfaced last fall, Mr. Khalidi has publicly railed against outside groups for putting pressure on Columbia to make changes to the department.
He is a member of a special faculty oversight committee for the department appointed by the university administration.
The department "has been one of the high-profile targets of extreme pro-Israel advocacy groups," an unsigned editorial in the Journal of Palestine Studies, which Mr. Khalidi edits, states.
The editorial, which appears in the Winter 2005 issue, continues: "This activity at Columbia and on other campuses has several common features: students play a key role; outside nonstudent groups are involved in coordination, financing, and other aspects of the campaigns; and there is sophisticated manipulation of the press."