A faculty rebellion is brewing at Columbia University against President Lee Bollinger over his handling of the university's investigation into the conduct of professors in the Middle East studies department.
Leading the way is a former provost of the university, Jonathan Cole, who in a speech on Tuesday night before a restive gathering of professors and students strongly suggested that Mr. Bollinger wasn't doing enough to defend faculty members from accusations that they have intimidated Jewish students.
Speaking for almost an hour and drawing applause from the audience, which included some of the scholars under investigation, Mr. Cole said in no uncertain terms that Columbia is under attack by what he described as outside political forces.
When the content of a professor's views is under attack, Mr. Cole said, "leaders of research universities must come to the professor's defense."
He said the pressures bearing down on the university reminded him of the climate that existed on American campuses a half-century ago during the McCarthy era.
"We are witnessing a rising tide of anti-intellectualism," Mr. Cole said, calling the present situation at the university "another era of intolerance and repression."
Mr. Cole's talk came a day before Mr. Bollinger delivered his own view of academic freedom to a packed crowd at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York in Midtown Manhattan.
Without directly criticizing Mr. Bollinger - who took over as president in 2002, the same year Mr. Cole stepped down as provost - Mr. Cole's description of the situation at Columbia stood in stark contrast to Mr. Bollinger's public comments.
While Mr. Bollinger for the most part has taken a neutral position, promising a thorough investigation while pledging a commitment to academic freedom, Mr. Cole defended the accused professors as dissenters whose political opinions are being squelched. Mr. Bollinger has predicted that the university "will emerge from this controversy stronger than ever." Mr. Cole warned of a treacherous road ahead.
Mr. Cole, a professor of sociology, rallied opponents of Mr. Bollinger's administration at a critical juncture for the university, as it seeks to resolve a prolonged controversy that has forced it to consider the limits of faculty rights in the classroom and the line between teaching and political activism.
Mr. Cole's speech was based on an essay he wrote to be published in the spring issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The faculty committee investigating the alleged misconduct of professors is expected to release its report next week. It may include recommendations for the censuring of certain professors.
As the Columbia community awaits the recommendations, an increasing number of professors - mostly in arts and sciences departments - have publicly cast doubt on the student allegations, and say they are disappointed that Mr. Bollinger isn't distancing himself more from them.
Last week, more than 40 arts and sciences professors signed an open letter that strongly disputed the notion that there is a climate of intolerance on campus. The letter did not mention Mr. Bollinger.
"Many of the allegations that have been made during this campaign - allegations that have attempted to create the impression that an atmosphere of intolerance exists at Columbia - are blatantly false," the letter stated.
Professors interviewed by The New York Sun acknowledged that Columbia's president to some degree has been caught in the crossfire and has sought to balance the concerns of faculty members with those of some trustees, alumni, and donors alarmed over reports from Jewish students about their classroom experiences.
A professor of sociology who signed the letter, Charles Tilly, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the "vast majority" of faculty members "feel that Jonathan's position is correct," referring to the provost.
"It's fair to say a significant portion of the faculty feels that the university should be doing more publicly to dramatize its support for the right of faculty to speak freely," he said.
In recent months, Mr. Bollinger has had several meetings in his office with leaders of the Jewish community - some of whom have demanded that Mr. Bollinger seriously investigate the student complaints - to assuage their concerns.
Last night, with the public spotlight on his next moves and with a number of Columbia trustees in the audience, Mr. Bollinger delivered an exegesis on the scope, meaning, and history of academic freedom.
Mr. Bollinger said it was "preposterous to characterize Columbia as anti-Semitic" and said the university would not "punish professors or students for the speech or ideas they express as part of public debate about public issues."
He also said the university "should not elevate our autonomy as individual faculty above all other values" or accept "transgressions" among faculty members "without consequences."
Saying the classroom must not be turned into a "political convention," Mr. Bollinger said, "We should not accept the argument that we as teachers can do what we want because students are of sufficient good sense to know bias and indoctrination when they see it."
The students who have aired complaints claim that some professors in the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture suppress opinion sympathetic of Israel and inappropriately substitute political activism for teaching.
An assistant professor of modern Arab politics, Joseph Massad, is accused of threatening to expel a student from his classroom because she defended Israel's military actions. Mr. Massad denies the charge. Mr. Massad is undergoing his fifth-year review. According to a source, a committee within the Middle East studies department evaluating Mr. Massad has recommended that he continue teaching in the department.
Mr. Cole on Tuesday night cast Mr. Massad as an exemplary teacher who is under no obligation to give equal weight to student opinions expressed during class. Just as a Jewish history professor doesn't have to take seriously a student who denies the Holocaust, Mr. Massad is not required to give equal time to an argument denying the 1982 Shatila refugee camp massacre in Lebanon, he said.
"The American research university is deigned to be unsettling," Mr. Cole said. "The university must have and always welcome dissenting voices."
Mr. Cole served as the university's second highest-ranking officer from 1989 to 2002 before returning to research and teaching. As provost, Mr. Cole on numerous occasions came to the defense of Edward Said, the late comparative literature professor and Palestinian activist whose strident protests against Israel made him a frequent target of complaints from alumni and donors.
When Said threw a stone from the Lebanese border in the direction of an Israeli guardhouse, Mr. Cole interpreted his action as a protected expression of speech.
Mr. Cole's speech was arranged by Columbia's Center for Comparative Literature and Society and was followed by a presentation delivered by anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, who argued that the "classroom is being politicized from the outside."
While "outside" groups "demonize" professors at Columbia, he said, "the top administration is nowhere in sight."
Philosopher Akeel Bilgrami, a member of the audience, raised his hand and said it must be exposed that "a handful of students are responsible for the university's crisis," referring to the group of undergraduate students who have come forward with complaints. Mr. Bilgrami is a signer of a 2002 petition urging the university to boycott companies selling arms and military hardware to Israel.
The director of the center and the event's moderator, Gayatri Spivak, told the audience that an electronic recording of the event was prohibited. Asked by an audience member why no recording devices could be used, she said Mr. Cole requested that his speech not be recorded and that his decision was justified because of the way the press has manipulated her own words.
While the two panelists, Messrs. Cole and Mamdani, railed against intrusion by trustees and donors into academic governance, Ms. Spivak called for outside pressure on Columbia for it to hire more female faculty members. She called gender inequality a "real problem, whereas this is made up," referring to the complaints against the Middle East scholars.