In conjunction with its efforts to facilitate a campus dialogue about the ongoing concerns over academic freedom, the office of the University Chaplain sponsored a two-hour Common Meal forum Tuesday evening in Earl Hall. The official guest was University President Lee Bollinger, who addressed the audience of around 100 and answered questions regarding academic freedom at Columbia and elsewhere.
Bollinger spoke for roughly 20 minutes on the MEALAC controversy and then fielded the audience's questions and comments on a wide range of topics related to academic freedom.
"I'm not going to talk about whether the accusations are true or not. Let's just assume they're true," Bollinger said of the allegations put forth by students in the David Project's film Columbia Unbecoming.
"It's a very, very complicated time. The best thing we can do is live by our values on every front," Bollinger said.
In addressing the MEALAC debate, Bollinger separated the claims put forth by students in the film into three parts, commenting on each separately.
First, he responded to the students' statements about the scholarship of professors in the MEALAC department outside of the classroom, saying that "outside scholarship and teaching cannot be judged by the University."
Bollinger established a strict division between offensive opinions expressed publicly and privately, maintaining that the University has no right to punish professors for advocating their views outside of the classroom.
The second claim made by the film, according to Bollinger, was that some professors did not permit students to voice their own opinions about matters of discussion in the classroom. He identified this action as a clear violation of academic freedom.
The third claim was that some MEALAC courses are blatantly biased, presenting only one side of the spectrum of opinions on contentious subjects. Bollinger said that the warnings professors gave ahead of time about the one-sidedness of their courses were "unacceptable."
Bari Weiss, CC '07 and one of the leaders of the student group Columbians for Academic Freedom, asked Bollinger to comment on the controversy at Harvard University over university president Lawrence Summers' remarks on the gender gap in science.
"The debate about Larry Summers' comments taps into very significant issues in American life ... how we think about differences between us," Bollinger said.
He acknowledged that different sets of academic freedom guidelines apply to university faculty and administrators and that Summers had already acknowledged these differences and publicly apologized for his behavior.
Bollinger also briefly discussed the New York City Department of Education's decision to exclude Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and Literature, and Director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, from its education program for secondary school teachers instructing on the Middle East.
"We are withdrawing from any part in the program given that Professor Khalidi has been barred," he said.
Tuesday's Common Meal was a follow-up to the Feb. 23 Common Meal on academic freedom in which University Provost Alan Brinkley addressed students.
According to Reggie Gossett, CC '06 and the Senior Chaplain's associate, the goal of the Common Meal program on academic freedom was "to build on the conversation we had last time," and to "create a space where conversation is active and ongoing."
The Common Meal Program is nine years old and, according to University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, was initiated to provide students with "the opportunity to have more informal conversations with administrators."