As Columbia University awaits a report on charges of intimidation of Jewish students in classes in Middle East studies, a small group of graduate students began circulating a petition yesterday calling for the resignation of Columbia's president, Lee C. Bollinger, because he "failed to defend our faculty, thereby nurturing an environment of fear and intimidation throughout the university."
Last week, in a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Mr. Bollinger said that academic freedom had some limits when it came to the classroom and that when there were lapses, they should not be "accepted without consequences."
Partly in response to those remarks, the ad hoc student group has scheduled a forum in "defense of academic freedom" for Monday evening. The eight students in the ad hoc group come from various schools on campus, including two from the Middle East studies program.
Alan Brinkley, Columbia's provost, said yesterday that the administration had tried to be "consistent and responsible" in its defense of academic freedom, but that he could not say it had always acted quickly or forcefully enough. He said he knew that some professors and students were unhappy.
"My sense is that there is a wide range of views, as there always is, at any university," he said.
Some professors expressed surprise that anyone was calling for Mr. Bollinger's resignation. And few appeared to have any interest in signing such a petition.
But Columbia's faculty is clearly divided about Mr. Bollinger's performance since last fall, when a small group of pro-Israel students created a videotape charging that some professors of Middle East studies were intimidating Jewish students in classes and on campus.
Some professors say they are disappointed that top administrators have not made a vigorous defense of academic freedom and professors' right to express views publicly, no matter who might take offense.
That dissatisfaction was still simmering earlier this month, when nearly 50 professors signed an academic freedom statement asserting that "no one associated with the Columbia community, including students, faculty and others, should have reason to fear reprisals or sanctions of any kind for expressing unorthodox or unpopular views of any political stripe."
Some professors, like Robert E. Pollack, a former dean of Columbia College, applauded Mr. Bollinger's speech last week.
Dr. Pollack, a professor of biological sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia, called the speech "excellent," and said that while he would have liked it to be made earlier, it was "well worth waiting for."
But others disagreed.
Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of anthropology and international affairs, faulted Mr. Bollinger for what he called "his failure to protect the faculty at Columbia and the autonomy of the university."
While he said he was not ready to call for the president's resignation, he expressed concern that Mr. Bollinger was seeking a "balance of views in the classroom, which is a direct attack on academic freedom" and "a recipe for total mediocrity."
But Eric Foner, a history professor who was a co-author of the academic freedom statement this month, said he thought that Mr. Bollinger was defending the campus against outside influence more forcefully than some of his colleagues realized, by saying,
"Faculty should assess the teaching of colleagues."
Separately, Columbia has begun a search for a professor to fill a new endowed chair in Israeli and Jewish Studies, to focus on modern Israeli history, politics and society, and is also creating a visiting professorship in the same field. Four trustees have pledged $3 million toward the endowed chair, which is expected to cost $5 million.
Michael Stanislawski, a professor of Jewish history who is leading the search committee, said that discussion about the chair began about a year and a half ago, when there was already friction on campus but before the current conflict erupted.
"It would be naïve to speculate that there is an absolute disconnect between the controversy in previous years and this chair," Mr. Stanislawski said. "But this was not meant to be a political response; it was meant to be purely academic."