A generation or more ago, Columbia University in the City of New York (as its official title reads) was considered a hotbed of radical activity, and made news for campus student strikes, police riots and other unpleasantness.
Today, Columbia is again in the headlines amid charges that its Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department is a hotbed of anti-Israel activism, where Jewish students are not only bombarded with Palestinian propaganda but made to feel unwelcome.
Though a Jewish student being told by a professor that if she wishes to contest his slanted version of events then she can just get out of his classroom isn't nearly as dramatic as the mayhem that disfigured the Morningside Heights campus in 1968 and 1972, the consequences are just as bad. The university's place in the pantheon of elite American educational institutions, as well as in the hearts of alumni such as myself, has been placed in jeopardy.
But the difference between the two situations is that the driving force behind today's campus radicalism, whose focus increasingly seems to be on anti-Israel activity, is not the student body. There is no question that the career-oriented and loan-encumbered students of today are not as likely to confront professors and administrators as their predecessors.
Instead, all the incidences of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli indoctrination that were documented by disgruntled students were the result of faculty misbehavior.
As intimidating as mobs of unruly students might have seemed to academicians in the past, the weight of official authority now stands behind the titled radicals of the present. The effect is a growing perception that some forms of discussion — namely, the defense of Israel — are simply off-limits in some university departments and classrooms. The result is an atmosphere where bad scholarship thrives and academic freedom withers on the vine.
And when university administrations whitewash this situation and treat the victims — students who were intimidated by faculty extremists, and those who spoke against the practice — as the threat to university protocol, then what hope is left for the reputation of the institution?
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened this month at Columbia when a report on the complaints of anti-Israel bias was issued.
Though the report admonished professor Joseph Massad for threatening to throw a Jewish woman out of his classroom for questioning his rants about Israel, it took no action against him. Nor did it choose to take seriously other incidents concerning other faculty members.
Far worse, the report heaped most of the responsibility for the problem on the protesters, including some outraged Jewish faculty members who wanted the school to take action. In particular, it singled out the school's Jewish chaplain for supporting the victims of anti-Semitic bias as lacking "collegial civility."
Most egregious is that the investigating committee (which included supporters of the campaign to divest university holdings of any company that does business with Israel, in addition to close colleagues of Massad) treated the willingness of students to try to monitor anti-Jewish bias as an attempt to intimidate those faculty members who were themselves guilty of bias.
By allowing a department to enforce a rigid anti-Israel orthodoxy in its classrooms, Columbia is stifling academic freedom and chilling dissent by students who remain vulnerable to intimidation.
But this disgraceful abandonment of principle by Columbia is not the end of the story. Just as bad is the collusion that another great New York City institution played in the cover-up.
Prior to the release of this slanted report, university officials contacted The New York Times and offered them an exclusive look at the document. But, as the rival New York Sun later reported, there was a catch. The newspaper could have the report only if it agreed not to contact "other interested parties" — in other words, the very students and protesters whose outrage had prompted the investigation.
Oops, we forgot!
That led to a March 31 front-page story that gave only one side of the story, except for a comment from Massad, who was given the opportunity to blast the report for its mild criticism of him. Only later, after other media reported a more balanced version of the tale, did the Times allow the Jewish victims to have their say, but, of course, not on Page 1.
This was a violation of New York Times policy, (as well as a widely accepted cannon of journalistic practice) as was later conceded in an editor's note. According to an explanation that appeared on April 6, the "editors and writers did not recall the policy" when they agreed to Columbia's terms. This "apology" reminds me of comedian Steve Martin's old routine in which he advised tax evaders to simply tell the IRS, "Well, excuuuuse me!"
A week later, the Times compounded its misreporting with a fawning Public Lives feature about Massad, who was portrayed as a courageous advocate of unpopular beliefs committed to academic freedom.
And when, on April 10, Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent had his say about the incident, the attitude of this erstwhile scourge of the Grey Lady's staff was a barely concealed yawn.
For Okrent, the desire for a "scoop" excused the scandalous collusion with Columbia. Though he conceded that readers "deserved better journalism than that," the whole thing was "as surprising as a tuition increase," said Okrent. The tone of the article screamed indifference.
So in order to save its good name and avoid confrontations with leftist foes of Israel, Columbia whitewashed a record of prejudice. And America's newspaper of record allowed its news pages to filter out a version of the tale that might disagree with that of the university.
It is sad to contemplate what Columbia has let Joseph Massad and others do in its classrooms. It's even sadder when you realize that Columbia is probably far from alone in this practice.
As for the Times' role in all this, it may be no great surprise to friends of Israel to learn that its news pages are just as biased, but it is a sorry day for American journalism when its foremost outlet is willing to conspire to cover up prejudice.