Just days before the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee is scheduled to release its report on allegations of classroom intimidation, former Provost Jonathan Cole presented a comprehensive defense of the right and the necessity of academics, particularly at Columbia, to engage in controversial debates without being targeted for the content of their scholarship by outside sources.
Last night's talk, sponsored by the Center for Comparative Literature and Society, featured Cole's presentation of a forthcoming paper, followed by a response from Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and professor of Anthropology. The event was a discussion of the role of the American research university in an increasingly politicized national climate, and it provided the basis for an explicit, public critique of the David Project, Columbia Unbecoming, and other politicized attacks on Columbia professors.
Gayatri Spivak, Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities and director of the Center for Comparative Literature and Society, moderated the event. An audience of about 50, composed primarily of scholars, professors, and graduate students, as well as some undergraduates and administrators, listened attentively and responsively to the speakers, at times applauding. Their questions moved beyond Cole's more theoretical points to the current controversy surrounding academic freedom at Columbia.
"The research university was founded on the idea that professors should regulate their own affairs," Cole said. "The essence of a university lies in its multiplicity of voices ... [It] does not decide what is good or bad or what ideas are right or wrong." Indeed, he said, "the university must nurture the creation of novel and sometime unsettling ideas ... [It] must have and welcome dissenting voices and radical critics."
Cole posited that the engine of the research university is the tension and interdependence between liberality of ideas and conservatism of methodology, arguing that the rigorous requirements of evidence and scholarly skepticism support the production of innovative and challenging scholarship. Using the current allegations against Joseph Massad, professor of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, as his example, Cole argued that classroom roles are always asymmetrical, and that "students cannot expect balance to be delivered in neat packages ... The proper goal of a university is to seek enlightenment, not balance."
"Freedom of inquiry is our only reason for being," he said.
Cole compared today's debates on academic freedom with the McCarthy era. Recent attacks on professors, he said, indicate "we may well be headed for a another era of intolerance and oppression." He noted that modern American research universities, which are much larger and more dependent on federal money than their McCarthy-ite predecessors, face new challenges from federal incursions and politically motivated regulation, as well as from groups such as Students for Academic Freedom, a national conservative watchdog group with ties to David Horowitz.
Cole charged today's university leaders with defending their faculty better than did earlier leaders, who often caved to outside pressure. "In an atmosphere of increased fear ... we would be wise not to dismiss these attacks on research universities as mere aberrations," he said. He cited attacks against Columbia's Middle Eastern scholars, as well as Nicholas de Genova, Stephan Hatfield, Ward Churchill, and others, adding that "those that defend Joseph Massad or Rashid Khalidi know that not to do so" would have serious consequences for academic freedom across universities. Both Massad and Khalidi, Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies, were in the audience.
Mamdani responded to Cole's points and also brought the discussion of academic freedom back to Columbia's campus, and to a situation, he said, in which outside voices such as the New York Sun and the David Project were politicizing Columbia's classrooms.
He addressed the allegations of harassment presented in the film Columbia Unbecoming in particular: "To be sure, universities are about debate ... but professors are not neutral in this debate. Professors are not referees." On the contrary, he said, professors are hired and esteemed as proponents of certain viewpoints. "Most students are aware of a professor's views before they take a course," he said. "You don't register in Joseph Massad's class to get a Zionist view of Israel ... If a student has been wronged ... it is not because a professor has a viewpoint, but rather because he or she would not allow debate around the issue."
"This is not a critique of teaching methods," he said, proceeding to point out that students could not reasonably expect Joseph Stiglitz to allocate equal classroom time to critiques and defenses of the IMF, nor could they expect Jagdish Bhagwati to offer frequent critiques of free trade. If their debates about the nature of globalization are still valid, Mamdani said, then the David Project's insistence on classroom balance in discussions of the Middle East is based on an assertion that the Palestinian narrative is invalid. The goal of groups like Students for Academic Freedom, he said, is therefore not academic freedom, but an attempt to censor the content of professors' scholarship.
"The result," he said, "is an environment of fear, rather than freedom," noting that the top administration had been noticeably silent on these issues.
Questions on the University's response to Columbia Unbecoming dominated the subsequent question and answer session; Spivak, Cole, and Mamdani replied in kind. A graduate student recast Mamdani's last point, telling Cole that "the University you described is not the one Lee Bollinger is leading."
In response, Cole appealed to faculty members. "I don't think the members of the faculty are speaking out enough on this matter," he said, to applause. "It is not necessarily the role of the administration ... It is the role of the faculty to speak out on the matter—particularly if the faculty thinks the administration has gone astray."
"All should rise up to defend the University," he said. "The idea that Columbia or Columbia professors ... are producing material that's anti-Semitic is just farcical."
Mamdani proposed a scholarly solution of the controversy. "Let us develop a counter discourse," he said, asserting that that, ultimately, was the nature of the University.