Four hundred people packed Low Library last night to hear the largest faculty teach-in on academic freedom since the allegations against members of the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures became public.
For over three hours, professor after professor stood up and slammed organizations such as the David Project and Campus Watch who have supported the charges that MEALAC professors had intimidated students.
The forum came at least partly in response to the release last week of a report by the ad hoc committee investigating the charges and the subsequent heavily publicized complaints of several pro-Israel students that their views had not received adequate representation in the committee's findings. The event featured over 20 professors in Columbia's humanities and social sciences. At the teach-in, professors lodged complaints of their own against the academic atmosphere at Columbia and administration policies that may have contributed to that atmosphere, if not the committee report itself.
The evening's energy peaked when an angered Rashid Khalidi mounted the podium to inveigh against "Swift Boat-style attacks on individuals" that he said had been made by the David Project and the students who appeared in Columbia Unbecoming, the documentary produced by the pro-Israel group.
"There is a nationwide campaign against the autonomy of universities in the broadest sense ... based on the utterly spurious assumption that universities are stronghold of radical and liberal beliefs," charged Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies, loudly banging on the podium with his fist.
"Would that they were!" he added rhetorically, listing a litany of ways in which he said Columbia and other universities were capitulating on issues of principle.
The speeches addressed disparate themes, but certain threads ran through all of them. Most of the faculty expressed the views that the student grievances submitted to the committee had been created for political reasons; that professors should challenge students' beliefs in ways that might, at times, be upsetting; that the feeling of intimidation did not always mean intimidation had occurred; and that the complaints about professors' conduct had been made by powerful groups disguising their words in the garb of dissent and powerlessness.
Several speakers reported that unregistered auditors had frequently attended their classes in order to disrupt them with controversial comments or to gather information about the professors to be used to attack them later. Noha Radwan, an assistant professor in MEALAC, said that because the committee's mandate had been to defend students, it had not addressed the issues of defending faculty against outside intimidation in the classroom. Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 professor of political science, recounted threatening phone messages received by some professors and said he was troubled that University administrators had not pursued any legal action in response to them.
MEALAC professors Joseph Massad and George Saliba, who were named as targets of student complaints in testimony before the committee, received overwhelming applause for their remarks.
"We have lost the battle already," Saliba said, calling his colleagues to action.
Massad walked on stage to a standing ovation from the audience, and for nearly twenty minutes, he delivered his response to the committee's report, quoting extensively from it and faulting the committee for concluding that disputed accounts of his behavior were "credible."
More than a few of the faculty speakers used national and global issues to contextualize the immediate dispute at Columbia. Gil Anidjar, an assistant professor in MEALAC, delivered a Bartlebyesque speech that focused at one moment on the corporatization of America and at the next on the plight of Palestinian refugees. And English professor Bruce Robbins spoke about keeping America's borders open to new immigrants and new ideas.
In conclusion, Mahmood Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman professor of government and anthropology, sounded a constructive, forward-looking note.
"The leadership of the University has been speaking freely to the press, but not so freely to [the faculty]," Mamdani said. "I believe the next question is for us to demand a dialogue, an exchange, with that leadership."