The widely-reported controversy surrounding Middle East studies at Columbia University is following one of its most prominent professors to Princeton.
In recent weeks, Jewish students and alumni have voiced their concern to Nassau Hall about the candidacy of Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi for a new position on Princeton's faculty.
Khalidi, the director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, is a candidate for the newly-endowed Robert Niehaus '78 Chair in Contemporary Middle East Studies, history department chair Jeremy Adelman confirmed Thursday. While the position is not attached to a department, Khalidi, who specializes in the history of Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, would serve in history if appointed.
Nearly a month ago, Columbia released a 24-page report concerning allegations of anti-Semitism on its campus. Though Khalidi was not the subject of the report, he has been associated with the professors who were being investigated, and he has been a centerpiece of the politicized battle over Middle Eastern studies at Columbia.
Khalidi's critics portray him as a staunch pro-Palestinian advocate, and they fear that he would push his purported views in the classroom. He delivered a well-attended lecture on campus on April 1, where he argued that the Middle East is hospitable to democracy and has a liberal philosophical tradition.
"Some Princeton alumni are very concerned about the possibility of Princeton University hiring an individual who has a political agenda rather than a scholarly approach to history," said Arlene Pedovitch '80, interim director of the Center for Jewish Life (CJL).
"I've told Nassau Hall, the administration, that I'm getting a lot of phone calls and emails from alumni," Pedovitch added, though she couldn't specify the quantity. "I know that the University as well as the development office likes to be made aware of such contact."
Alumni have also been contacting administration officials directly, Pedovitch said. "Princeton alumni are not shy about sharing their views."
Nassau Hall officials declined to discuss the nature of the search, but said the administration would be open to concerns.
"I can't go into a discussion about the search," Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee '69 said Thursday, "but I can tell you if Arlene or others are expressing their concerns those concerns will be heard."
Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin did not return calls, and Khalidi declined to comment.
Pedovitch also fears that the appointment of Khalidi would renew the image of Princeton as a school hostile to Jews. In the 1950s, Jewish students faced discrimination on parts of campus, and even during the 1990s some expressed concern about the numeric decline of Jewish students admitted.
"Many alumni and students are concerned that a potential appointment of Professor Khalidi will be used as an excuse to describe Princeton as anti-Semitic again," Pedovitch said. "But this University is a wonderful place for Jewish students."
Jonathan Elist '07 considered organizing a petition against Khalidi's possible appointment but concluded that would not be the best strategy. He also said, though, that "it's going to be a problem come admissions" if Khalidi is chosen.
The controversy at Columbia and the concerns about Khalidi have reignited the debate about the role of academics' political views in shaping scholarship.
"We make all of our appointments on the basis of academic merit and scholarship," history chair Adelman said. "And what people's political persuasions might be are immaterial."
Currently, the Niehaus search committee, led by Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies director Miguel Centeno, is evaluating several candidates for the post. If Khalidi is nominated, then the history department will also have to vote to admit him into the department.
"My colleagues would meet together and we would have a vote, but we would do so after reading all his work, looking at letters of evaluation, and looking at the merits of the case," Adelman said. "This would be no exception — up or down on the scholarship. We have conservatives, radicals, all kinds. It's a big place. And, if we started to be close-minded, we could watch our rankings slide pretty systemically."
Elist, however, thinks the University should consider more than just scholarship in this case. While he acknowledges that Khalidi is a "very appealing" scholar, he worries that "on a perception level, it's not good for Princeton to have someone like that on their faculty."
In light of the Columbia controversy, some of Khalidi's students have come out to defend him.
"As a Jew, I can attest to the fact that Khalidi is hardly the anti-Semite that [New York City Department of Education] Chancellor Joel Klein was led to believe he is," Halley Bondy, a Columbia anthropology student, wrote in a column in the New York Daily News on Monday. "The lecture hall [of Khalidi's class] is filled to capacity with well over 100 students who fought tooth and nail to enroll."
In February, the New York City Department of Education excluded Khalidi from a teacher-training program he had been participating in. The program, titled "The Middle East: An Overview, History and Culture," was intended as a professional development course for K-12 educators.
At the time, Columbia officials strongly criticized the City's decision and came out in support of Khalidi. "The fact that a respected professor and scholar would be summarily judged and dismissed without consultation or discussion with him or with us is an issue of great concern," Columbia spokeswoman Susan Brown was quoted as saying in The Columbia Spectator.
Khalidi, an Oxford PhD, was a high-profile recruit for Columbia when he left the University of Chicago for New York in 2002.