Many critics have already denounced Columbia University's "ad hoc" committee report investigating professor intimidation as a whitewash. It is clearly that. For the most part, the professors in the Ivy League university's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department (MEALAC) get off scot free. Even the New York Times had to concede that the report, commissioned by Columbia President Lee Bollinger, was "deeply unsatisfactory." We say this: The report exhibits a decay in academic freedom that surpasses even our already low opinion of the modern American university.
The central problem is bias, which the committee doesn't even pretend to address. Some might recall the Columbia professor who, in the lead-up to Iraq war, called for "a million Mogadishus" -- a reference to the 1993 massacre of U.S. troops in Somalia. As it turns out, this was just the beginning of a series of revelations of a deep-seated anti-American/anti-Israeli sentiment within the Columbia faculty, especially by members of MEALAC. As the New York Sun reported, MEALAC's chairman, Hamid Dabashi, wrote last fall that Israelis suffer from "a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture." A MEALAC professor who would later be accused of intimidation, Joseph Massad, allegedly had once told a class that it was the Israelis themselves who had killed the Israeli athletes held hostage in Munich in the 1972 Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, the university seemed prepared to ignore student complaints of professor intimidation until an outside group produced a film documenting the practice. When the controversy boiled over last fall, Mr. Bollinger finally decided to create an Ad Hoc Grievance Committee to investigate the allegations. The project was laughable from the start. To head the committee, Mr. Bollinger chose Nick Dirks, a university administrator whose wife co-teaches a class with Mr. Massad. The five-person committee was made up of professors and administrators with obvious conflicts of interest that dealt with anti-Israeli bias. The committee's mandate only extended to a bare handful of student complaints, and was explicitly directed by Mr. Dirks not to investigate "political or scholarly opinions." From these less-than-encouraging beginnings, the committee set forth on its task.
In one of the three complaints the committee investigated, a student accuses Mr. Massad of losing his temper at her in class and shouting: "If you are going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom." This was the only complaint of intimidation that the committee found "credible," and it lectured Mr. Massad for having "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" of appropriate classroom conduct. Another student, this one a former member of the Israeli army, accused Mr. Massad of responding to a question by asking how many Palestinians the student had killed. But as the incident occurred at an out-of-class lecture, the committee reasoned that it fell into "a challenging grey zone." Finally, when a student complained to Professor George Saliba that she thought a video Mr. Saliba had shown in class was too pro-Palestinian, she says he "looked right into my eyes, and said, 'See, you have green eyes; you are not a Semite. I am true Semite. I have brown eyes. You have no claim to the land of Israel.' " Although this was the only incident not corroborated by witnesses, Mr. Saliba, according to the report, "acknowledges it did likely take place." On this complaint the committee ruled that "it is impossible to judge imputation," and that Mr. Saliba's comment was "more likely to have been a statement that was integral to an argument ... than an act of intimidation."
Taken together, these three incidents show not only intimidation, but a departmental hostility to opposing points of view. As for conclusions, the committee focused on ways the university could be more responsive to student complaints. Pursuant to its mandate, the committee refused to respond on political or scholarly bias other than finding "no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-semitic." It even praised Mr. Massad for his "warmth, dynamism, and candor."
The university must have known that the "ad hoc" report would be met with general outrage. Otherwise, how to explain its decision to release a summary of the report only to the student newspaper and the New York Times under the conditions that they would not speak with any of the complaining students, as the New York Sun reports? Also, why would a Columbia spokeswoman need to tell one inquiring student that the report wouldn't be pre-released to the student body "for your own good," as the Sun reported?
Columbia seemingly has no sympathy for "academic freedom," as it has been understood by Western Civilization for centuries. Whatever concern it does have about its own institutional bias extends only as far as to keep inquisitive alumni and journalists off its back. With apologies to Israelis, Mr. Bollinger's Columbia suffers from a radicalism that is "bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture."