A bit of the controversy that has shaken Columbia for the past year reached Princeton this week with the confirmation of Rashid Khalidi's candidacy for a newly endowed faculty chair here at the University. Khalidi, the director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, has been the most recent focus of a campaign by a number of pro-Israel groups against Columbia professors who hold pro-Palestinian views.
Some students and alumni, according to a recent 'Prince' article, fear that if Khalidi is appointed, the University will appear to be anti-Semitic. Yet there seems to be no evidence that Khalidi is an anti-Semite, or that he has pushed anti-Semitic views in the classroom. Instead, this fear seems to be based wholly on the fact that Khalidi is a prominent Palestinian-American scholar who has been known to express criticism of Israeli politics.
National publications like The Nation have recently pointed out that while Khalidi has been critical of Israel's actions in the Middle East he has not spared many of the Arab regimes criticism either. These sorts of arguments are well-intentioned, but they are simply beside the point. It should not matter whether Khalidi is equally as critical of Arabs as he is of Israelis, or whether he supports a one-state or a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What should matter, instead, is his ability to craft a rigorous and original scholarly argument and to engage intellectually with his students — in short, the intellectual characteristics that should matter for any candidate.
We urge the University not to allow the controversy at Columbia or the unsubstantiated fears of a handful of alumni to sway its decision. Like any of the other candidates, Khalidi should be evaluated on the quality of his scholarship and of his teaching abilities, not on his politics.
It is true that politics do matter sometimes. When a professor preaches hate or advocates for genocide, a line of mutual respect and decency has clearly been crossed. Just because this line of argument has been abused by certain parties in the Columbia controversy does not make it a moot point.
Yet ultimately, the events at Columbia — and now to a smaller extent at Princeton — come down to issues of free speech. The University does not exist to reinforce any student's worldview or politics; instead, it exists to promote free scholarship and debate, two things essential to the functioning of both a great academy and a strong democracy. The academy must be a staunch protector and advocate of each person's right to express his or her own views and ideas in a respectful manner. If politics sway the decision-making process in this case, not only will Princeton will be a lesser university for it, but intellectual freedom will suffer a blow.
It is possible that Khalidi will not receive the chair simply because he is not the right fit for the position. He is undoubtedly only one of many excellent scholars under consideration. Yet the point remains: much more is at stake here than a chair. How the University responds to criticisms and pressures from both inside and outside the community will be a test of our commitment to free speech in the wake of the Columbia debacle. This is not a light responsibility; we sincerely hope the University will not treat it as such.