Despite concerted efforts by the University and student groups to address the multiplicity of issues raised by the ad hoc committee report, external agendas continue to distract many of the parties involved in this controversy.
Specifically, the faculty and grads in the MEALAC department and concerned students and student leaders need to meet and begin a conversation about their mutual pedagogical concerns. It was the absence of such a dialogic environment that largely allowed what should have been an intra-departmental conversation to fester into such an unproductive and unnecessary crisis. If the absence of collegiality was the main problem—"incivility"—as the ad hoc report had it—then MEALAC ought to begin addressing that problem proactively by extending an open invitation to students and student leaders for a direct dialogue.
The ad hoc committee report underscored the lack of formal or well-defined grievance procedures at the university level. But such procedures would and should only be a last resort, and the fact remains that "grievance procedures" initially met their failure not in Low Library but in Kent Hall.
As per President Bollinger's April 11 statement, most student concerns are best dealt with in "informal and collaborative ways" at the school level, and it is imperative that we—the administration, faculty, and students—work together to facilitate that kind of resolution of initial complaints related to teaching and other student concerns.
MEALACers ought to be very interested in reestablishing such a conciliatory, open, and dialogic environment with their students and colleagues, rather than hunkering down in a defensiveness that will only create further misunderstandings between the department and students.
Admittedly, it is a difficult time to be an educator at Columbia. How can we tell the difference between probing questions from students who are merely trying to put recent history into perspective, and a conniving partisan hack sent to spy on us by some external lobby? It's a daunting challenge indeed. How do we differentiate between a question and an interrogation, between comment and condemnation, between critique and provocation? Or advocacy and brainwashing? How do we teach controversial issues in the most constructive way possible, avoiding polarizations that inhibit dialogue? These are valid questions—but they need to be asked, and asked freely and often, in order to be answered.
MEALAC has not yet displayed such a constructive response. The "my department—right or wrong" crowd, both in the department and on campus, has focused thus far on two somewhat defensive responses to the crisis. Students who raise such questions are given a choice between confessing to petty vendettas or to an anti-Columbian conspiracy. Faculty and grad students who dissent are given the same options. For that matter, the ad hoc committee was tacitly given the same set of choices by this crowd. Obsessed as it is with the external groups, MEALAC does not seem to be a department prone to introspection right now. But at some point (it probably has already passed) the "giant conspiracy" theory will begin to stretch past credibility. And the "pettiness" argument turns out to be a catch-22, since it insists somewhat ludicrously that only those who have never experienced any problems ought to be the ones to complain.
We know that scholarship in MEALAC has never been this shallow, and we know how substantial, rich, and intellectually diverse the department and its students really are. So we're bewildered as to why the "MEALAC do-or-die" crowd has been unable to do better than mere defensiveness. Such a limited response has only helped fuel a highly charged and unnecessarily polarizing campus climate surrounding these valid questions.
Enterprising students and Columbia's student leaders, for their part, have shown a much more productive and constructive response to the crisis than MEALAC has so far. They have been immensely concerned about and invested in healing the campus climate, and the University administration has so far demonstrated the desire to partner with students in this endeavor. They have asked and re-asked the question: How do we, as the student community, address these sensitive issues? How do we move ahead from this impasse?
Student leaders within LionPac (Hillel's pro-Israel advocacy group) have brainstormed with other student leaders on campus to assess the needs of the campus community and have articulated a number of issues to be addressed: the "murky" grievance procedures, the breakdown of campus coalitions, and the lack of serious dialogue about the stereotyping of identities that is being done by all sides. Leaders from a number of these student groups (including Turath, MSA, USCC, and OPA), together with the Student Governing Board, organized a forum last Monday to educate student leaders about the different grievance procedures that were in place and possibilities for improvement. The SGB invited deans from all of the major schools, as well as Provost Brinkley and Chaplain Davis, to sit on the panel. Within 24 hours, President Bollinger had contacted each of the student organizers and asked them to come to a meeting about the proposal he presented on Monday.
The grievance procedure forum accomplished much in terms of educating student leaders about the resources available to them, but it also pointed student groups in a really positive direction in terms of partnership and dialogue with one another over their mutual pedagogical concerns.
An extremely powerful example of how student groups are partnering with each other is an innovative program called Project Tolerance. The Project is sponsored by a coexistence group called Towards Reconciliation and has been initiated by LionPac and Turath (Arab students' organization). Members of both groups—which include graduate and undergraduate students—participate in weekly educational seminars, in which they discuss issues pertaining to their respective identities and how those issues play out in a university environment. They have addressed some of the more substantial questions that are involved with studying the Middle East and have begun a conversation that is a model for others to follow. Participants have so far described the program as illuminating and personally meaningful, have high expectations for the program's potential in the coming semesters, and continually re-assess the needs of the group based on the campus climate.
This continued process of needs assessment and self-evaluation, articulated by President Bollinger in his letter, is an integral part of this forward-moving process. MEALAC, however, has not yet publicly begun such a process and continues to respond to the concerns of external groups instead of their own.
At some point, if the department's response does not change course, it will find itself complicit with the external groups' agendas. At some point, it will achieve an undeniable collusion with these external groups to keep underlying issues—and real constructive solutions—out of the public debate. And at some point, MEALAC will also be complicit with them in encouraging polarization and emotionality over nuance and introspection.
Too many parties have been racing to co-opt the language of victimhood and helplessness, but in reality we are all empowered to take control of this situation. And we ought to be suspicious of anyone who, along with MEALAC, refuses to introduce any conciliatory tone in this public debate. It is the lack of such a tone that is ensuring the external groups' ability to shape the terrain of our debate.
At the moment, MEALAC has a real opportunity to take charge of this crisis by inviting an open discussion of these central issues. The only way to begin to address these issues is to get to know the real and sheer diversity—intellectual and experiential—that everyone knows exists in the student body. MEALAC and Columbia students are no less diverse, and no less capable of nuance, than MEALAC and Columbia grad students and faculty. If there is indeed a lack of dialogue leading to misunderstandings and suspicions, then this is something we must work as a community to remedy. We hope MEALAC will find the will to be as constructive in their response to this crisis as these students have been and will take the initiative in making room for campus dialogue.