Columbia University has been roiled for months by a contentious dispute over allegations of intimidation of students in the Middle East studies program. Sad to say, the school has botched the handling of this emotionally charged issue from the start, thereby allowing festering concerns to erupt into a full-scale boil.
A faculty committee's report, released last week, cited the frustration of students who felt they had no place to register complaints about what they considered abusive treatment by outspokenly pro-Palestinian professors. The university had no clear mechanism to handle such grievances.
Only after a film by an outside group brought the students' complaints to broad public attention did the university appoint a panel to look into the issue. It botched this job, too, by appointing one member who had been the dissertation adviser for a professor who had drawn criticism and appointing three members who had expressed anti-Israel views that, critics allege, might incline them to soft-pedal complaints. It also limited the panel's mandate to include only some of the areas of complaint.
People involved in the deliberations believe that the panel proceeded carefully and objectively in evaluating the evidence, but its composition ensured that the results would be greeted with skepticism. The members aren't to blame for that - it's the fault of the administration, which approached the project with such political ineptitude. Fortunately, Columbia is belatedly rising to the challenge. It will establish new grievance procedures shortly. And it has recognized that the Middle East studies department was out of control and, with the goal of strengthening its scholarship, has wrested away its power to appoint and promote faculty.
Only one member of the department, Joseph Massad, was judged clearly guilty of inappropriate conduct. The panel found that he had replied angrily and heatedly to a student who had simply asked whether Israel sometimes gave advance warning before bombing a building so people could get out and avoid harm. It also cited a second "gray area" incident, when the same teacher, in an off-campus lecture, responded testily to an Israeli student who had served in that country's armed forces by asking how many Palestinians he had killed. Had that incident occurred in the classroom, the panel concluded, it would clearly have been out of bounds.
Given the generally high marks accorded the panel by dispassionate observers, its findings seem to indicate that the controversy over Middle East studies at Columbia has been overblown. There is no evidence that anyone's grade suffered for challenging the pro-Palestinian views of any teacher or that any professors made anti-Semitic statements. The professors who were targeted have legitimate complaints themselves. Their classes were infiltrated by hecklers and surreptitious monitors, and they received hate mail and death threats.
But in the end, the report is deeply unsatisfactory because the panel's mandate was so limited. Most student complaints were not really about intimidation, but about allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the part of several professors. The panel had no mandate to examine the quality and fairness of teaching. That leaves the university to follow up on complaints about politicized courses and a lack of scholarly rigor as part of its effort to upgrade the department. One can only hope that Columbia will proceed with more determination and care than it has heretofore.