Ad Hoc Grievance Committee Report1
March 28, 2005
Ira Katznelson, Chair; Lisa Anderson; Farah Griffin; Jean E. Howard; and Mark Mazower
1The Committee would like to thank Floyd Abrams, who has served as a valuable advisor throughout our deliberations.
Our very existence as a committee is irregular. On December 6, 2004, Provost Alan Brinkley reported to President Lee Bollinger on what he called "the inadequacy of our grievance procedures." Writing in the context of controversy, both internal and public, about various aspects of pedagogy, especially regarding contemporary issues in the Middle East, the Provost advised that
This suggestion, which followed a considerable number of conversations and proposals, was accepted by Vice President Nicholas Dirks, who moved quickly to appoint this committee, and by President Bollinger, who announced its existence to the wider Columbia community on December 8. He wrote:
Vice President Dirks made the committee's existence and mandate known to the student community in his letter of January 11, just as individuals were returning to campus after the holiday break. He also formally charged the committee "to pay particular attention to charges of inappropriate faculty behavior in their role as teachers. The committee is specifically not being asked to investigate political or scholarly opinions, curriculum, or departments, but to identify cases where there appear to be violations of the obligation to create a civil and tolerant teaching environment in which opposing views can be expressed." (For the full text, see Appendix III)
Upon receipt of this charge, the committee established a set of procedures to allow us to meet the task before us. Through public letters, emails and the creation of a new web page, we informed the Columbia community about the existence of the committee and encouraged concerned individuals to make appointments to meet with us through the office of the Vice President. The committee also reached out to students who had already made their grievances known through a variety of public venues, as well as to faculty members who had been accused of misconduct by these students. A member of the committee spoke briefly with each person who requested an appointment in order to help determine the nature of his or her concern before scheduling a meeting. Other faculty and administrators who we thought would be able to offer relevant insights and guidance were invited and kindly agreed to meet with us.
The committee has convened for a period of nine weeks. We have met with 62 individuals including students, alumni, faculty and administrators. We have also considered more than 60 written submissions, some by named persons and some that were anonymous, sent to us during the course of our deliberations. We limited the range of complaints we have closely considered to those directly related to the issues that brought our committee into existence: the very specific charges a number of students expressed concerning pedagogical intimidation or the failure to create a civil learning environment.
Our decision not to deal with every kind of claim should not be taken as a determination that they do or do not have merit. Following our charge, although many individuals raised these issues with us, we did not review the Middle East and Asian Language and Cultures Department (MEALAC), or indeed any other department, the curriculum or content of individual courses, or the relationship between the views of any instructor and his or her pedagogy. We are committed, individually and collectively, to the right of all members of the Columbia community to hold and espouse a range of opinions, including those that make others uncomfortable. We focused our attention on conduct, and on the relationship between that conduct and the obligation for all of us to maintain a civil and tolerant learning environment. To this end we began our process by first listening to student concerns and grievances.
Each member of the committee agreed to serve believing that the least bad way to move ahead in the circumstances would be to conduct a faculty review of allegations about faculty conduct. For a variety of reasons, many members of the Columbia community have disagreed, including both students who either had made complaints or wished to complain about their experiences, and members of the faculty, including some of those against whom allegations had been addressed. We thus particularly wish to express thanks to all the individuals who met with the committee, noting that these included both students and faculty who thought the committee's very existence was illegitimate. We have attempted throughout to be true to the trust they and others have reposed in us. We also wish to express appreciation to others who submitted written statements and letters of concern, thus contributing to this effort to help strengthen the university community.
Although we originally anticipated producing two documents (a confidential report to the Vice President and a public summary), in the interests of transparency we have prepared a single document. The report that follows offers (1) an overview of the norms and principles that govern our university community and have guided our deliberations; (2) findings of fact; (3) a discussion of the wider context in which the pedagogical events at issue occurred; (4) a review of how well grievance procedures and other institutional mechanisms, formal and informal, worked in addressing student complaints and concerns from 2001 to the present; and (5) our recommendations and conclusion.
II. Norms and Principles
The work of our committee has been guided by the university's stated commitments to academic freedom and to civil learning environments and student-teacher interactions. These principles are summarized in the university's two canonical documents, The Charters and Statutes of Columbia University and The Faculty Handbook of Columbia University.
Chapter VII of The Charters concerns the university's "Code of Academic Freedom and Tenure." It opens by stating that
Explicitly referring to this paragraph, Section 7 on "Obligations and Responsibilities of Officers of Instruction and Research" in The Faculty Handbook reiterates that "the University is committed to maintaining a climate of academic freedom, in which officers of instruction and research are given the widest possible latitude in their teaching and scholarship." It adds that "the freedoms traditionally accorded those officers carry corresponding responsibilities."
Among the responsibilities it enumerates are the obligations of faculty to meet all scheduled classes, to hold sufficient office hours, to bear in mind the curricular needs of the department and university in selecting which courses to teach, to follow recognized procedures to secure course approval, and to grade students solely on the basis of academic performance. In addition, this section cautions that "in conducting their classes, faculty should make every effort to be accurate and should show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own. They should confine their classes to the subject matter covered by the course and not use them to advocate any cause." Further, Appendix E, "Statement on Professional Ethics and Faculty Obligations and Guidelines for Review of Professional Misconduct," states that "The freedom traditionally accorded to members of the faculty to decide for themselves in large measure what they teach and how imposes a correlative obligation of responsible self-discipline. Every effort must therefore be made to be accurate, to be objective, to demonstrate appropriate restraint, and to show respect for the opinions of others."
These statements regarding the rights and obligations of faculty articulate a widely-shared set of principles and norms within American higher education. In October 1970, the Council of the American Association of University Professors issued a statement to reiterate the core commitments it had expressed ever since its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. These colleagues wrote:
The AAUP statement added that "membership in the academic community imposes on students, faculty members, administrators, and trustees an obligation to respect the dignity of others, to acknowledge their right to express different opinions, and to foster and defend intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry and instruction, and free expression on and off campus," and cautions that "students are entitled to an atmosphere conducive to learning and to even-handed treatment in all aspects of the teacher-student relationship."
We have been guided by these norms, and would like our report to be read as an effort to strengthen them in all their aspects. The faculty's right to decide what to teach, and in what manner, is the premise upon which the university is built. It guarantees that in the pursuit of knowledge officers of instruction may explore novel and unpopular ideas; they may express views which give offense to some who hear them. Free inquiry requires nothing less, and the purpose of a university education is in part to introduce students to novel and unsettling ideas and to the process of debating and testing their adequacy.
Such academic freedom in the classroom brings attendant responsibilities. Through review and tenure procedures, faculties assume the collective obligation to assess the quality of the research and teaching of their colleagues. This process must be free from outside interference, including pressures to espouse any particular point of view in scholarship, and must be guided by established norms for assessing effective pedagogy and scholarly contributions to knowledge. In their day-to-day interactions with students, faculty assume the responsibility to promote free and civil inquiry and to hold themselves and their students to high standards of argument and evidence. As a matter of course, faculty should not ridicule, threaten, or discriminate against students because of their beliefs or identities.
Great care must be taken in determining when such breaches occur and whether faculty members have failed to meet their obligation to create civil learning environments conducive to free and open critical inquiry. In exercising their responsibilities, faculty may adopt a variety of responsible pedagogical styles. They may energetically challenge student views and see such challenges as a sign of respect for those ideas and the students who hold them. They may express views that make students genuinely uncomfortable, but such discomfort is not of itself proof of irresponsible pedagogy. Indeed, it may be an intentional part of the pedagogical experience or an essential aspect of free and open inquiry. In an academic environment, charges of 'intimidation' are particularly difficult to adjudicate because the term itself is very capacious. Some students feel intimidated by a professor's brilliance or rhetorical skill. Some choose not to speak in class for fear of being unable to match the instructor in the give and take of intellectual debate. Moreover, the conditions that one student finds intimidating are precisely those that motivate others to public argument, whatever the potential embarrassment. By contrast, instances in which a student is ridiculed, threatened or silenced for holding certain views contrary or inimical to those of the instructor constitute serious breaches of academic norms. They are distinct from the expression of uncongenial views, or the strong reactions such views can provoke, and from rhetorically combative but respectful modes of classroom interaction.
With full recognition, therefore, of the complexity of the task, we have attempted to discern which, if any, among the issues brought before us, has constituted a serious failure of pedagogical responsibility.
III. Student Grievances: Fact-Finding
Some of the events reported to us occurred as many as four or five years ago. Memories are fallible; students who might corroborate or refute particular statements have moved on. Nonetheless, from among a larger set of complaints, there are three particular episodes reported to us from the academic year 2001-2002 about which the committee has been particularly concerned because they challenge in varying degrees our collegium's widespread normative expectations concerning a civil and tolerant learning environment.
1. The most serious incident was reported in both oral and written testimony to the committee by Deena Shanker concerning Professor Joseph Massad's Spring 2002 class on Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies. She recalls:
Two students have corroborated the main elements of Ms. Shanker's account. One was a registered student; another was a visitor for the day. In a detailed account, the former recalls that Professor Massad "leaned over the lecturn, raised his voice considerably, and said 'I will not stand by and let you sit in my classroom and deny atrocities'."
Professor Massad has denied emphatically that this incident took place, telling the committee, "I would never ask a student to leave my class." Further, three participants in the class who were interviewed by the committee -- two graduate student teaching assistants and an undergraduate -- do not recall such an episode. Nor is it recorded in the teaching evaluations made available to us.
Ms. Shanker did not report the incident to anyone in authority at the time, nor did she speak to Professor Massad about it, although she did discuss it with family and friends. Not until she saw another student, who was in the class at the time, describe the incident in "Columbia Unbecoming" did she identify herself as the individual so described in the movie.
Upon extensive deliberation, the committee finds it credible that Professor Massad became angered at a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and that he responded heatedly. While we have no reason to believe that Professor Massad intended to expel Ms. Shanker from the classroom (she did not, in fact, leave the class), his rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism. Angry criticism directed at a student in class because she disagrees, or appears to disagree, with a faculty member on a matter of substance is not consistent with the obligation "to show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own," to exercise "responsible self-discipline," and "to demonstrate appropriate restraint."
2. Tomy Schoenfeld, a former student at the School of General Studies, spoke with the committee about an incident with Professor Massad. Mr. Schoenfeld reports that he attended a lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict given by Professor Massad in the late fall or early spring terms of the 2001-2002 academic year. He does not recall the exact location or the sponsors of the event, but believes it convened in a building adjacent to campus on 113th or 114th street and to have been sponsored by a student group. Having found Professor Massad's views offensive and inaccurate, he chose to wait until the question and answer period before expressing his disagreement. Then, he reports,
Another former student in the School of General Studies accompanied Schoenfeld and concurs that the incident happened as he describes it. She also does not recall with any precision when or where the alleged incident took place. Mr. Schoenfeld told the committee that he had not spoken to a dean or advisor about the incident. By contrast, an assistant dean of student affairs in the School of General Studies recalls that Mr. Schoenfeld spoke with her about the incident shortly after it occurred. Although he seemed upset, she remembers that at the time he did not think this episode warranted further action.
Professor Massad responds that Mr. Schoenfeld never took a class with him, that no date or location is associated with the allegation, and that he has no recollection of the event. Further, since it is not said to have taken place on campus, he firmly believes this incident does not lie within the committee's purview. He also emphatically claims never to have met Mr. Schoenfeld.
In light of the confirmation of the event by another student and the contemporaneous reporting to a dean, the committee finds it credible that an exchange of this nature did occur at a location adjacent to campus. It is conceivable that Professor Massad did not know that Mr. Schoenfeld was a student. An evaluation of the seriousness of this event is a good deal more difficult, especially as it is not possible to pin down issues of time, venue, and sponsorship. It appears that this incident falls into a challenging grey zone, neither in the classroom, where the reported behavior would not be acceptable, nor in an off-campus political event, where it might fit within a not unfamiliar range of give and take regarding charged issues.
3. Lindsay Shrier was enrolled in Professor George Saliba's Introduction to Islamic Civilization in the fall 2001. She reported being troubled by a video that dealt with the modern Muslim world that she considered to be very one-sided, and she was disturbed by the absence of a post-film class discussion. Ms. Shrier reports that as the class session ended she "approached Professor Saliba with many questions and thoughts that the documentary/video provoked. I started to challenge him on many aspects of the video and question the validity of some of its claims." The discussion, which began inside Schermerhorn Hall, then moved outside to the area in front of Philosophy Hall. "We discussed the history of Jews in Israel …. Saliba told me I had no voice in the debate. I was puzzled by his comment. Then he slowly came towards me, moved down his glasses, looked right into my eyes, and said, "See you have green eyes; you are not a Semite. I am a true Semite. I have brown eyes. You have no claim to the land of Israel."
Though "stunned and horrified," and though she reported the incident to close friends and her parents, Ms. Shrier stated that "I never made a formal complaint against him. At the time, I thought that this was a terrible isolated incident and I did not want to get Professor Saliba in trouble," and she feared for her grade and reputation. On reflection, after graduation, she is convinced that "Saliba wanted to intimidate me into silence." If not for this session, she told the committee, "the class would not have stood out."
Professor Saliba first discussed this allegation in public in a Columbia Spectator op-ed article on November 3, 2004. He wrote that he had "no memory of the student in question nor of the conversation that she claims took place," and characterized Ms. Shrier's representations as "blatantly false," while adding that "I do not accuse the student of fabricating the conversation." He then attributed "what seems to have happened" to "a misquotation of an argument I sometimes make and may have made then" to the effect that biological or genetic continuity arguments are not persuasive as the basis for claims to land.
Professor Saliba referred the committee to this article in his statement before the committee, reiterating that his failure to recall the student was likely the result of teaching very large classes. The argument he believes Ms. Shrier misunderstood and misquoted is one "I sometimes use…to demonstrate the absurdity of making historical claims for land on the basis of religious premises…I am sorry she obviously did not understand the argument and garbled the reference made to the color of eyes to make it sound like I did not like the color of her green eyes."
As these were the only participants in the reported exchange, and as, ultimately, Professor Saliba acknowledges it did likely take place, we find it credible that this conversation did occur and that a reference to eye color was made near its conclusion. But as it is impossible to judge the imputation, and since more than one reading of the statement is viable, we conclude that however regrettable a personal reference might have been, it is a good deal more likely to have been a statement that was integral to an argument about the uses of history and lineage than an act approaching intimidation. A 45-minute conversation outside of class or office hours is not consistent with such an effort at intimidation. Indeed, Ms. Shrier has indicated that she is not entirely sure "exactly what this incident meant."
In addition to these three specific incidents, the committee heard testimony about a larger array of concerns:
A. The majority of complaints focused on what a number of students perceived as bias in the content of particular courses. Complaints also were lodged that particular professors had an inadequate grasp of the material they taught and that they purveyed inaccurate information. The committee judged that our charge did not encompass the examination of such matters. The adequacy of a faculty member's scholarship and teaching should, however, in the normal course of university life, be stringently assessed by hiring and review committees, and by peer review of teaching. The adequacy of courses and syllabi should be judged by departments and School Committees on Instruction.
B. Another area of concern focused on the cancellation of certain classes in April 2002 so that professors could attend or speak at a pro-Palestinian rally to protest the incursion into Jenin by Israeli military forces. Two particular issues were brought to our attention regarding that day. Some students felt they were inappropriately enjoined to attend by particular faculty members or their teaching assistants; other students complained about the cancellation of classes, especially when no make-up session was offered. The committee received conflicting testimony about both matters. It is not clear to us whether, in accordance with university policy, every professor who cancelled class later offered a make-up. Nor is it clear exactly what was said by those, whether faculty or teaching assistants, who dismissed particular classes. During that spring, a number of people in authority, including the Ombudsperson and the Dean of Academic Affairs in Columbia College, did respond with varying degrees of success to the complaints lodged by students, faculty and the Executive Director of Hillel about these incidents. This committee wishes to underscore that as a matter of course faculty should make up any classes they miss or cancel in accordance with the policy set forth in Section 7 of the Faculty Handbook regarding "Instructional Responsibilities." Moreover, in the event of cancellation for political events, faculty should not assume, or attempt to compel, the coincidence of their political views with those of their students.
C. Across the spectrum of these concerns, we found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-semitic. Professor Massad, for one, has been categorical in his classes concerning the unacceptability of anti-semitic views.
D. We found no evidence that students had been penalized for their views by receiving lower grades.
IV. Pedagogy in Context
No interaction between professors and students can fully be evaluated on the basis of isolated statements divorced from the context in which they were made. For this reason, our findings should be considered in the context of several factors bearing on the period 2001-2004. In 2001-2002, political developments in the outside world made themselves felt with unusual directness within the university. The attack of 9/11 and its aftermath, as well as the consequences for Israelis and Palestinians of the Second Intifada, and the subsequent incursion by Israeli forces into Jenin and other areas, heightened the tension on campus on general, and in the classroom in particular, as far as the Middle East was concerned. The intensity of feelings created by these events imposed an unusual burden, but also additional responsibilities, primarily upon the faculty, but also upon students, to ensure that discussion of these issues took place in an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect.
These difficulties were exacerbated with respect to Professor Massad's spring 2002 class on Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies. Testimony that we received indicated that in February 2002 Professor Massad had good reason to believe that a member of the Columbia faculty was monitoring his teaching and approaching his students, requesting them to provide information on his statements in class as part of a campaign against him.
This appears to have been a particularly tense class. Some students referred to "emotional outbursts," another to the atmosphere being "combative." A significant number of students found Professor Massad to be an excellent and inspiring teacher, and several described his class as the best they took at Columbia. But even some of the students who found the class valuable noted Professor Massad's repeated deployment of a tendentious and highly charged vocabulary, and some complained about what they felt was his repeated, even unremitting, use of stigmatizing characterizations and his sometimes intemperate response to dissenting views. Some reported that they were deterred from asking questions by the atmosphere this created.
We have no basis for believing that Professor Massad systematically suppressed dissenting views in his classroom. To the contrary, there is ample evidence of his willingness -- as part of a deliberate pedagogical strategy -- to permit anyone who wished to do so to comment or raise a question during his lectures. For many students this approach itself became problematic because it allowed a small but vociferous group of fellow students to disrupt lectures by their incessant questions and comments.
Outside the classroom, there can be little doubt of Professor Massad's dedication to, and respectful attitude towards, his students whatever their confessional or ethnic background or their political outlook. He made himself available to them in office hours and afterwards. One student, critical of other aspects of his pedagogy, praised his "warmth, dynamism and candor" and his unusual accessibility and friendliness. One of the group of students who questioned him regularly and critically in class told us of their friendly relations outside class where their discussions often continued. A student who has complained that he was mocked in class by Professor Massad in the spring of 2001, was still in email contact with him one year later.
Over the next two years, circumstances changed in the following ways:
While the international environment had less impact upon the classroom than previously, the involvement of outside organizations in the surveillance of professors teaching the Middle East increased. The watch-list of professors published online from late 2002 by a group called Campus Watch which invited students to send in reports on their instructors, led to the named professors receiving hate mail. We heard credible evidence that in spring 2004 someone began filming in one of Professor Saliba's classes without permission and left after being challenged. The inhibiting effect upon classroom debate was noted by a number of students. One undergraduate in Professor Saliba's class told us that she was afraid to defend her views in the classroom "for fear of attack from students but also from reporters who may continue their investigations of our school undetected." Graduate student teaching assistants reported that they no longer felt able to express their views freely for fear of retribution from outside bodies and that their teaching was affected as a result. Some expressed anxiety about how press attention would affect their job prospects.
In the spring of 2004, a significant number of students attended Professor Massad's lectures on Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies because of reports about his class two years earlier. One student told Professor Massad directly that he wished to audit his class because he had heard from numerous people about its controversial nature. He was permitted to do so, and he found no signs that Professor Massad treated students with any kind of systematic bias. What he did find, however, was, as he put it, "a professor who was constantly harassed by outside agitators." A small group of unregistered auditors attended Professor Massad's lectures, and their frequent interruptions and hostile asides disturbed many of the students.
Almost none of the issues enumerated in the preceding pages found their way into the normal channels for addressing student concerns about curriculum and instruction, particularly complaints about individual faculty and specific courses. The establishment of this committee was a response to the failure to address such concerns clearly, promptly, and consistently. These failures reflected both the negligent or misguided behavior of individuals and widespread systemic confusion about responsibility and authority. As a result of these failures, outside advocacy groups devoted to purposes tangential to those of the University were able to intervene to take up complaints expressed by some students, further confusing the location of responsibility and authority for addressing student concerns about instruction at Columbia.
In the fall of 2001, as now, students would have been directed to the Bulletin of the appropriate school for guidance about how to register a complaint or grievance. The Columbia College Bulletin lists a variety of possible problems, from sexual misconduct to plagiarism, and ends with the statement that "The Dean of Student Affairs Office is responsible for all College disciplinary affairs not reserved to some other body." [http://www.college.columbia.edu/ bulletin/universitypolicies.php] Exactly to whom in the Dean's Office such a student might turn was unclear. Facets ( Facts about Columbia Essential to Students) told Columbia College (and Engineering) students that
Students with whom the Committee spoke repeatedly reported that in their experience, the Advising Centers, staffed by Class Deans, were, as one student observed, " a place to discuss formalities as transcripts and requirements" but not academic matters of personal concern.
Several students reported registering concerns about the content of courses with the Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia College. Since they had not had regular contact with this Dean, they typically did so as a last resort, on the advice of the Dean of the College or another informal advisor, and some found the experience daunting. One student reported having brought a friend as moral support only to find that she was asked to discuss her concerns privately; this same student had arrived at the Dean's office through the intervention of a parent, who had called the College Dean on her behalf. Although the College's Dean of Academic Affairs is typically attentive to student concerns -- she has described these encounters to the Committee as efforts to extend the educational purpose of the College by encouraging the students to consider the context of their concerns -- her office, by its nature, is somewhat remote from student affairs.
In both the School of General Studies and Barnard College, entering students were assigned individual advisors whom they could expect to get to know over several years. In General Studies, the "advisor serves as the student's main link to GS throughout the student's career at Columbia, providing guidance on core requirements, choosing a major, and University as well as School-specific policies and procedures." (http:/www.columbia.edu/cu/facets/academic.pdf) At Barnard, "every student is assigned an adviser for her first two years at the College. This adviser is a member of the Barnard faculty or a dean who is particularly interested in taking on this responsibility." Indeed, Barnard's website addresses the student herself, continuing that, "You can count on your adviser for information about course selection, procedures, and guidance on how to plan your program in order to satisfy the College's degree requirements. He or she is a valuable resource during your first two years." [http://www.barnard.columbia.edu/dos/advising.html]
The student affairs arrangements at Barnard and General Studies appear to have elicited more candid reports of discomfort in the classroom than did Columbia College's, and, at least at the outset, allowed students to register complaints when they felt they had been mistreated. That said, neither students nor advisors had an easy time figuring out what to do with those complaints.
Advisors in all of the undergraduate programs reported that their first advice to students with complaints about faculty is for the student to speak to the faculty member in question, or for the advisor to do so on the student's behalf; generally (indeed, "98 percent of the time," according to one dean), the issue is satisfactorily resolved this way. Should this not work, or should students feel uncomfortable addressing the faculty member directly, they are sent to the Department chair. The chair is responsible for assessing faculty performance, including examining the teaching evaluations submitted by students at the end of each course, although many chairs seem to be confused about the extent of this responsibility. Moreover, should the Department chair be one of those against whom complaints are lodged or otherwise "part of the problem," the system begins to get, as another Dean put it, "murky."
The Rules of University Conduct do not clarify the question. In its section on "demonstrations, rallies and picketing," which is available on several pages of the University website, it seems to come close, stating that
It is evident in the succeeding language, however, that the drafters of these provisions anticipated that only students would be charged with violations, whether in demonstrations or elsewhere, and it is not at all clear how a complainant might find the University Senate's "Rules Administrator" to register a complaint in any event.
In addition, students may find their way to the Ombuds office. Because this University-wide office provides advice and undertakes informal conflict resolution, it can be an appropriate address for a complaint. However, since it can only address issues in which both parties to a dispute agree to mediation, it often sends complaints back to the administrative unit in which they arose. Indeed, in a moment of unguarded understatement, the Ombuds office identifies part of the problem:
Columbia and Barnard students therefore found themselves in a thicket of confusing procedures, few of which seemed likely to produce the desired outcome: an opportunity to attend to concerns about faculty and courses. Many students therefore addressed their complaints to members of the chaplain's offices or faculty they deemed either particularly influential or sympathetic. They often came away feeling stymied.
Students expressed their concerns about classes and faculty to members of the Chaplain's Office, particularly to the staff of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel. There is evidently active informal information-sharing about classes and faculty in this context; students reported being warned about particular courses by other students at Hillel. In an article in the Columbia Spectator in the spring of 2002, then Jewish Chaplain Charles Sheer expressed his dismay with reports by students that classes had been canceled to permit faculty to attend a rally in support of the Palestinians, describing the faculty behavior as "not kosher," and provoking an angry exchange in Spectator with MEALAC department chair Hamid Dabashi. It was not then, nor is it now, clear what responsibilities the members of the Chaplain's Office, the Campus Ministries, or the Columbia/Barnard Hillel have in matters of academic affairs, nor how they should discharge them. That faculty construed Rabbi Sheer's intervention as inappropriate is understandable; that Rabbi Sheer and the students whom he believed he was supporting were frustrated by that response is equally unsurprising.
Students also reported registering their concerns with faculty. Indeed one faculty member acknowledged having heard "plenty of complaints about [particular faculty members] … over two years" although he acknowledged that he did nothing to alert the University about them. He said he did not even know who his department's Director of Undergraduate Studies was, nor had he considered to whom else he might have reported this information. Another faculty member reported that "over the past three or four years, I've had a steady stream of complaints…" Astonishingly, these faculty did not know nor did they attempt to establish how to bring these concerns to any responsible authorities. As one stated, "Truth is I didn't know what to do… I couldn't advise them. I listened and I was very sore about it but didn't know what to do." Another said: "In some ways its none of my business. It would be wrong. I'm really criticizing my colleagues."
Yet the failure of faculty to take up the concerns expressed by students with senior administrators, particularly the Vice President for Arts and Sciences, in a timely way had two very harmful effects. It left the students who complained feeling that they had no recourse within the University, and it left the faculty in question subject to continued innuendo without a University venue in which to respond to the claims.
During the several years in which reports of complaints circulated without being formally or effectively registered so that the faculty might address them and the students might get definitive answers, the faculty themselves became aware of complaints through outside groups. In September 2002, the Middle East Forum announced "a new project to monitor campus-based academic work and activitism [sic]--"Campus Watch." The press release avowed,
Among the first eight faculty targeted for Campus Watch attention were two at Columbia: Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad. By that time, students were finding a receptive audience for their concerns outside the University.
Over the course of the next several years, it became apparent that the "murkiness" of grievance procedures at Columbia was not only a problem for students. There was, as well, no place in which faculty might lodge complaints about harassment by students, about administrative negligence, or even about each other. Nor were there procedures for graduate students, who often serve as both students and teachers simultaneously. Finally, instructors expressed concern to the committee that policies on who is allowed to attend classes are unclear, which seems to have contributed to the presence of unregistered and sometimes disruptive auditors.
In late spring of 2003 events took a new and what in retrospect was a complicating turn when the President established a committee on academic freedom chaired by Professor Vincent Blasi of the Law School. The purpose of that committee was to advise the President on issues of academic freedom in the light of the controversy that had followed a teach-in on the war in Iraq. Between September 2003 and April 2004, the committee canvassed the views of approximately twenty people, mostly administrators. Although the committee was not charged with investigating specific allegations or grievances, it was presented with some of these in the course of the interviews it conducted. Among those with whom it met were representatives of two student bodies -- three members of the Black Students Organization, who reported complaints and experiences of their members, and the president of the Hillel student body. The latter, in response to the committee's invitation to meet with it, collected several testimonies concerning complaints about MEALAC which a group of students was then assembling, and presented them to the committee. These students believed that the committee was an investigative body and that it had asked for these materials in order to pursue their complaints. In fact, the committee's mandate had explicitly precluded their acting as an investigative or fact-finding body. Indeed, believing that even to pass on such complaints as were presented to them might give the appearance of finding some merit in them, the committee felt it was not in a position to bring them to the attention of those bodies and persons in the university charged with handling student grievances, and did not do so.
The committee met as well with Professor Hamid Dabashi, the chair of MEALAC; he was the only chair of a department to be interviewed. The committee discussed with him both his personal experience of receiving hate mail following the publication of articles he had written and the procedures existing in his department for tackling student complaints and grievances. Following this meeting and a prior communication from the committee chair, Professor Dabashi believed that the committee had exonerated his department. To President Bollinger, the committee orally conveyed the view (there was no written report) that [a] any investigation of a course or curriculum on grounds of bias or one-sidedness jeopardized academic freedom; [b] there was no evidence of a systematic problem of the faculty abuse of students; and [c] there was evidence of what one member described to us as a "local problem" in MEALAC.
On May 7, 2004, President Bollinger was reported in the New York Daily News as having referred to the findings of the committee. He was asked: "Has the committee found bias or intimidation in classrooms?" He was quoted as responding: "It was not set up to investigate that but of course they would talk to people about it. They have said to me they have not found claims of bias or intimidation." The complaining students, who had heard no more up to this point about how their complaints had been received by the committee, believed that they had been disregarded and their complaints ignored. Members of MEALAC believed the committee had investigated and exonerated them. Neither belief was correct yet each was a reasonable inference to be drawn from the events and pronouncements mentioned above.
In the lengthy and unfortunate interregnum between the conclusion of the Blasi committee and the appointment of this ad hoc committee, control of the situation passed out of the university. The group of students whose testimonies had been conveyed by the Hillel student president to the Blasi committee had met in late 2003 with representatives of an outside organization, the David Project. Based in Boston, the David Project agreed to help Columbia students produce a video-film of student interviews. It was reported to us that the film was intended to serve as an archive of complaints and grievances to be shown internally to senior university administrators. A version of it appears to have been finished in March or April 2004: on April 16, a press article alluded to the student production of "a video detailing the campus Middle East wars."
Leaders of the David Project contacted and soon met in mid-June with the then Acting Vice-President for Arts and Sciences, Professor Ira Katznelson, to show him the film. Professor Katznelson was coming to the end of his term. He suggested to the David Project personnel he met that students with grievances should contact the appropriate university bodies directly; he also reported the contents of the film to the Provost. No attempt, however, was made by senior administrators to contact the students themselves. In this way, an outside organization came to serve as an intermediary between the university administration and the students.
There were two principal drawbacks to this arrangement. University officers could not be as sure that their suggestions would reach the students as if they had spoken with them directly. More importantly, the students' grievances remained in the charge of an outside organization. The proper investigation of any grievance requires privacy and the highest degree of confidentiality possible. Outside organizations, on the other hand, have a multiplicity of goals, not all, or sometimes any, of which require privacy.
By the spring of 2004, extraordinary efforts should have been be made either to use existing procedures (which is always preferable), or, given the shortcomings of grievance mechanisms, to establish an ad hoc committee. Yet it was not until December 2004 that the ad hoc committee was formed, a delay that led to an acute erosion of trust between faculty and students. Particularly in classes where the Middle East was being taught, but not only in these, the atmosphere became tenser after semi-public showings of the film began in October 2004.
Throughout this semester, both students and faculty felt constrained, watched and inhibited in the free and critical exchange of ideas. All this, as both students and faculty subsequently complained to us, had a detrimental effect upon the quality of their educational experience. The deeply negative impact of these events upon the pedagogical environment in the university as a whole serves as a further reminder of the importance of insuring that in future grievances are handled in a regular and credible fashion by established university bodies with due regard for the privacy of all the parties involved.
We propose the following:
1. Many Schools are now actively considering their grievance procedures. Our investigation into the matters considered in this report leads us to urge that whatever the particular structures adopted in each unit, they be accessible, transparent, geared toward the speedy resolution of complaints and the appropriate protection of privacy, and that the university devise ways to educate all members of the community as to their existence and proper use. Having good procedures in place is imperative, but widespread knowledge about them is equally important.
2. In order to remedy the lack of information, knowledge and acceptance of responsibility that we have found, we strongly urge each Dean to undertake a general examination of the advising system in his or her School to ensure that students have regular personal contact with individuals whom they know and trust throughout their career as students.
3. Simultaneously, Arts and Sciences should ensure that all faculty, particularly Departmental Chairs and Directors of Undergraduate and Graduate Studies, are familiar with their responsibilities and obligations in regard to the counseling of students and the handling of grievances.
4. Because there is particular ambiguity over the role of the Office of the University Chaplain and the associated campus ministries, we recommend a review of their prerogatives and responsibilities, with an eye to developing more regular and routinized consultation between the chaplains, appropriate faculty committees, and university offices, including those dealing with student affairs.
5. Many of the matters brought before us did not, in our opinion, constitute the basis for formal grievances but were issues that warranted sympathetic hearing and an appropriate university response. We therefore recommend consideration of a common, central university site to which students, faculty and administrators could turn to express concerns, though not necessarily grievances, about the quality of their experience at Columbia. This might be attached to the Ombuds Office, but it should be advisory to the University administration and empowered to recommend action, not merely to mediate.
The classroom is the principal venue for student-faculty interaction in the pursuit of learning. Safeguarding it as a place where students and faculty can meet in an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect is a responsibility shared by all who enter it. The primary responsibility belongs to the professor. For him or her, the question is how to balance the rights and privileges enshrined in the principle of academic freedom with the special obligations that come with the power and authority membership in the professoriate bestows. In times when, or on subjects where, feelings run high, it becomes all the more important that professors do their best to ensure that a classroom atmosphere is maintained that preserves the possibility of critical enquiry and permits discussion and debate. In such cases, tone and delivery may count as much as content. The issue is not about trying to avoid offense, for while we do not go out of our way to give offense we recognize that no great institution of learning can flourish unless it accepts the importance of allowing the expression of ideas which some may find offensive; the growth of knowledge, insight and learning is served through the clash of ideas rather than the silencing of criticism. Rather it involves an ongoing and self-critical effort to match language to pedagogic purpose, and to show consideration for the feelings and beliefs of others. An uncompromising or deliberately provocative style may have a real pedagogic value, but shock, hurt and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly.
Students, too, have a lesser but no less real responsibility to preserve classroom civility. This is true as regards their dealings with their instructor, but it also means remaining mindful of their fellow students, and of the way their own behavior and utterances may affect the pedagogic experiences of their classmates. There is a thin line between participating fully and enthusiastically in a discussion, and intervening in a fashion which significantly disrupts the class. The former is often a sign of pedagogic success and real engagement. Disrupting classes, on the other hand, serves to fray the threads that bind together the common members of a group in the pursuit of learning. As for unregistered auditors, we believe that the cases cited above make a powerful argument for banning them from classes except where they have the explicit, prior permission of the instructor.
It must also be said that faculty have a duty of collegial civility and respect towards one another. We find it deeply disturbing that faculty were apparently prepared to encourage students to report to them on a fellow-professor's classroom statements. Such behavior undermines the standing of the professoriate as a whole, erodes the relationship of trust that ought to exist between a teacher and his students, and threatens to turn the latter into informers.
Responsibility also lies with the individuals who hold the most senior administrative positions in the university. Their first responsibility is to attend to the health of the regular institutions and practices that allow the members of the university community to make sure their concerns and grievances receive a fair and expeditious resolution. When these institutions cease to function effectively, the senior administrators should make every effort to repair and reinvigorate them. Should there be circumstances, because of such a failure, where they feel obliged to intervene directly, it is vital to do so in a timely and scrupulously fair manner, meeting with all affected parties and taking account of the interests of all members of the university community.
In general, what we believe is most needed at this point are not further formal rules or regulations to codify behavior or sanction specific categories of action so much as the reassertion of certain norms. We need to reaffirm that sense of collective responsibility which is vital for the well-being of every community of scholars, and to nurture the mutual respect required to sustain us in our common quest for the promotion of learning and the advancement of knowledge.
LETTER FROM PROVOST ALAN BRINKLEY
TO PRESIDENT LEE BOLLINGER
DECEMBER 6, 2004
As you know, several weeks ago you asked me to look into the controversy that has arisen around claims by students and faculty of threats to academic freedom and civil discourse on campus. We agreed then that these claims were serious enough to require our attention, and both you and I have spent a considerable portion of our time in recent weeks trying to understand what has happened and how we should respond.
In the course of these efforts, I have met (sometimes alone, sometimes with you) with many groups of students and faculty. We have talked together with students who have complaints about their classroom experiences, including many of those who appeared in the David Project film. I have spoken as well with the heads of the four undergraduate student councils and with other groups of students of very diverse views. We have both heard from and met with many individual students as well. In addition, I have met with several dozen members of the faculty individually, with members of the University Senate, with the Executive Committee of the Arts and Sciences, and with many department chairs. We have both received countless letters, e-mails, and other messages. I cannot claim that these inquiries have given me a complete and reliable picture of these controversial events, but I do believe I understand better than I did what our challenges are and how we might address them.
It is, I believe, important to begin by reaffirming our unequivocal support of the principles of academic freedom that are among the core values of the University and that must be the basis for our response to the present situation. We must continue to protect the right of all members of the University community to express their views on any issue, no matter how controversial, without fear of reprisal. We must affirm again the right of faculty to teach as they wish and to express their views freely in the classroom as long as they do so with academic integrity and in an atmosphere of tolerance and civility.
We have heard claims in recent weeks that some members of the faculty may have violated their responsibility to treat students with tolerance and respect in the classroom. Those claims are extremely troubling, since the well-being of our students and their ability to learn in an environment of civility and trust is one of the University's most important missions. We need, therefore, to determine if these claims are true, and, if they are, to take steps to address the problem.
Let me summarize, then, the steps I think we need to take in response to the various claims before us and the broader controversy that surrounds them.
Many of us began our consideration of these claims believing that our existing grievance procedures could adequately resolve the questions before us. But those procedures have not proved adequate to this task, for several reasons. First, it is clear to me that the procedures we have are not well enough understood, either by the students who might wish to file complaints or by the administrators and faculty who might receive them. The result is that students sometimes make complaints to administrators who have no authority to deal with the issues, and those administrators, unable to address the problems themselves, have not known where to send students for help. Much of the frustration that many students feel is, I believe, a result not just of their reaction to experiences in the classroom, but also of their feeling that there is nowhere to go to express their concerns. I believe as well that our existing grievance procedures, even if they were better understood, are not sufficiently robust to deal effectively with controversies of this kind.
My first recommendation, therefore, is that all schools look carefully at their existing grievance procedures (as Arts and Sciences is already doing) and that they make whatever changes may be necessary to allow them to deal effectively with unusual challenges such as those we now face. Identifying the necessary changes should entail consultation with students and faculty, who are the users of and participants in these procedures. I also recommend that schools make a major effort to educate students, faculty, and administrators on what the procedures are and how they can be used, so that in the future students with grievances will feel that they have a place where they can express them.
Evaluating the Current Controversy
Given the inadequacy of our grievance procedures, I believe it is important not only that we work to strengthen them, but also that we move quickly to create a process capable of responding now to current complaints by students in a serious, fair, and comprehensive way. I recommend that the Vice President for Arts and Sciences convene an ad hoc committee, drawn from the faculty, to hear student complaints and, when appropriate, investigate them. This committee will help us resolve some of our existing grievances while we await the formation of the permanent grievance processes that Arts and Sciences is committed to creating. The committee will hear all issues students and faculty bring before it, but its mandate will not include investigating anyone's political or scholarly beliefs or any departments or curricula.
I have great faith and pride in the quality and integrity of our faculty and our students. I believe that we can rely on our community to respond positively to this controversy – both by protecting our core principles of academic freedom and by assuring that the University is doing everything possible to make certain that Columbia remains a place in which students and faculty can discuss controversial issues freely and in an atmosphere of tolerance and trust.
LETTER FROM PRESIDENT LEE BOLLINGER
TO THE COLUMBIA COMMUITY
DECEMBER 8, 2004
Whenever we find ourselves embroiled in conflict and controversy, as we are right now, it is important to begin by recognizing the enormous pride we all take in being part of an institution unmatched in its historical and continuing commitment to the highest standards of intellectual life. An extraordinary and committed faculty and student body are ready to help us confront whatever problems we may face and find constructive solutions.
We have heard a great deal in recent weeks about academic freedom, and I want to say just a few words about that fundamental principle. Academic freedom is at the center of University life. It makes what we do possible and gives what we do meaning. A spirit of free and open inquiry, born of an impulse to know and understand and uninhibited by prejudice and fear of the unknown, is the hallmark of great universities and a direct cause of their success over the centuries. The broad allowance for imaginative freedom is most certainly the source of almost all scholarly creativity and contribution.
In the classroom, students as well as faculty share in the inherent right to explore and to speak to the subject under discussion. I believe it is imperative that we see students as colleagues in the pursuit of knowledge. The University faculty handbook states that "in conducting their classes, faculty should make every effort to be accurate and should show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own." Acts of intimidation or discrimination against students or any other members of our community on the basis of ethnicity, gender, political beliefs, race, religion, or for any other reason are antithetical to University policies and principles and are an affront to our community. I am confident that we all agree that such behavior is inconsistent with our values and must not be tolerated under any circumstances.
For more than a month now, Provost Alan Brinkley and I have been meeting with faculty and students to inform ourselves about student concerns over being intimidated and excluded from participating in some classroom discussions because of their viewpoints. These claims by our own students must be taken very seriously, while recognizing that before any judgment is reached all sides must be heard. Until we do this, we will find ourselves unable either to protect students from unacceptable intimidation or adequately defend faculty members from unwarranted attacks.
On Monday, I received a letter from the Provost containing his evaluation of the recent controversies and his recommendations. A copy of his letter is included below. Based upon his evaluation and my discussions with him, we believe it is important to respond to students who feel that they have legitimate grievances about classroom experiences.
Questions of this nature must be dealt with at the faculty, departmental, and school level. In this case, we must turn first to Arts and Sciences and to the Vice President for Arts and Sciences, Nick Dirks. The outcome of extensive and careful discussions is a decision to convene an ad hoc faculty committee to listen to, and when appropriate, investigate student complaints. Arts and Sciences has already conducted a review of its grievance procedures and proposed the creation of a standing faculty committee to respond to future complaints. The ad hoc committee that will be created will allow us to resolve the current controversies in the period before the formation of the permanent committee. The committee will hear all complaints brought to it, investigate those it thinks require investigation, and deliver a factual report to the Vice President, with copies provided to the Provost and me, for appropriate action. A summary of the committee's report will be made public. The committee will not investigate anyone's political or scholarly beliefs and will not review departments or curricula.
The ad hoc committee is composed of the following members: Lisa Anderson, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; Farah Jasmine Griffin, Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Jean Howard, William E. Ransford Professor of English and Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives; Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History; and Mark Mazower, Professor of History. Floyd Abrams, William J. Brennan Visiting Professor at the School of Journalism , will serve as an advisor to the committee. Floyd is a highly accomplished First Amendment scholar and lawyer and has spent his professional career writing and working on many of the most important First Amendment issues of our times.
We will take the necessary steps to make sure that students and faculty are fully aware of how they can bring information to the committee. We hope that the committee will work quickly. We recognize that the approach of finals and the end of the fall semester will make it very unlikely that the committee will complete its work until the first two months of 2005. It is essential that the committee be given enough time to administer complete and fair reviews.
Let me state again that our commitment to freedom of inquiry lies at the heart of what we are undertaking here. An important part of that commitment requires ensuring that we, as a university, teach and discuss the most controversial topics of our time without chilling discourse in the classroom while preserving an atmosphere of civility, trust, and mutual respect within the community at large. When – as here – a challenge goes to the heart of what we profess to stand for, we must be ready to make a full accounting of the situation through earnest reflection and self-evaluation and act accordingly to affirm our values and uphold our commitment to the community.
CHARGE TO AD HOC COMMITTEE
FROM NICHOLAS DIRKS, VICE PRESIDENT FOR ARTS AND SCIENCES
The ad hoc grievance committee was established as a result of the expression of concern by a number of students that they were being intimidated by faculty members and being excluded from participating fully in classroom discussions because of their views. When it became clear that the existing procedures were not adequate to resolve those questions, this ad hoc committee was formed.
The significance of the issues raised by the students' complaints was emphasized by President Bollinger in his letter to the Columbia community on December 8, 2004:
In the classroom, students as well as faculty share in the inherent right to explore and to speak to the subject under discussion. …Acts of intimidation or discrimination against students or any other members of our community on the basis of ethnicity, gender, political beliefs, race, religion, or for any other reason are antithetical to University policies and principles and are an affront to our community. I am confident that we all agree that such behavior is inconsistent with our values and must not be tolerated under any circumstances.
To assure that these deeply rooted values are protected, I have asked this committee to hear the complaints and grievances of students who choose to speak with it; to evaluate accusations that it considers appropriate for further examination; and to determine the facts surrounding the claims it investigated. Since the determination of the merits of such complaints and grievances is obviously more complicated than simply determining what happened, it may also be necessary for the committee to consider the context within which events occur. I have also asked the committee to take notice of any related complaints that may come to its attention in the course of its consultations.
In the course of the committee's investigations, it will naturally want to listen not only to those who lodge complains, but to those against whom complaints have been lodged, as well as those deans and faculty members to whom complaints were previously brought, and others who in the committee's judgment might have relevant information. The committee is asked to pay particular attention to charges of inappropriate faculty behavior in their role as teachers. The committee is specifically not being asked to investigate political or scholarly opinions, curriculum, or departments, but to identify cases where there appear to be violations of the obligation to create a civil and tolerant teaching environment in which opposing views can be expressed.
In the committee's report to me, the committee will describe in appropriate detail the factual findings on which it has agreed. Any other observations the committee makes are welcomed, although the committee is not asked to offer any judgments on how the University should respond to the findings. However, the committee should recommend any necessary changes in Arts and Sciences grievance procedures, or in the training of chairs, deans, and others charged with receiving student grievances. The Committee will begin its work the first week of classes and hold regular sessions every Monday and Friday until its work is completed, scheduled to be the end of February.
Published: Mar 30, 2005