Jewish students gearing up for the academic year at Columbia University next week are likely to find a climate much calmer than last year's, when a documentary accusing several professors in Middle Eastern studies department of harboring a bias against pro-Israel students plunged the campus into controversy.
For starters, most of the key players at the heart of the controversy will be absent this academic year. George Saliba, Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, the three professors named in the film, are all on yearlong leaves. The sabbaticals were planned long in advance, according to university sources. While Dabashi and Massad are on hiatus for personal reasons, Saliba will spend the year as a Senior Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress' prestigious Kluge Center.
Further, the focus of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultured department (MEALAC) is likely to shift from the Middle East to South Asia with the hiring of Sheldon Pollock, a leading Indian studies authority. According to department sources, the shift had been planned long before the recent controversy.
In addition, several of the leading students behind the production of the film, "Columbia Unbecoming," have graduated, and those who have not said they expect this year to be different.
"I'm expecting it to be a lot more calm than it was last semester," said Bari Weiss, the leading force behind Columbians for Academic Freedom and a key activist in last year's conflict.
"Columbians for Academic Freedom is still around," Weiss continued. "We have people, and we're still really committed to the cause of students' rights and intellectual diversity on campus, but we're coming in expecting a calmer semester."
Weiss also mentioned that the semester is likely to be colored by two major addresses scheduled to be delivered by two leading Israeli scholars, Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovich and noted author Michael Oren, both slated for the fall semester.
Daniella Kahane, another leading student activist who graduated in May, expressed a similar wait-and-see sentiment. Now a filmmaker, Kahane announced her intentions last year to produce another film focusing on the Columbia controversy and student activism. Currently, however, she is waiting to see how next year unfolds.
"I put things on hold because my friends, who were very involved in the past year's efforts, were out of the country for the summer," she said. "I wanted to wait. I don't think this story has ended, and this year will be very telling as to how things play out in Columbia."
The summer, she added, posed an "abrupt interruption" to last year's processes. This year, she said, she expected to see the "fruits of our labor as the situation begins to turn." In particular, Kahane said, she was interested in observing the changes to Columbia grievance procedure.
Last year, an ad hoc committee charged with looking into the students' complaints recommended that the individual colleges that make up the university look into their complaint system, making sure it was accessible and effective. A brief check with several colleges showed that all had begun a process of examination last year, although none had any concrete conclusions.
"Without polling all the individual schools, it is my understanding that many schools across the campus are now actively considering their grievance procedures," said Susan Brown, a university spokeswoman. "They are working to make them, whatever their particular structure, as accessible, transparent, geared toward speedy resolution of complaints and the appropriate protection of privacy as they can be. And they're taking steps to make sure there is widespread knowledge about these procedures."
The echoes of last year's woes, however, don't have resonance with all incoming students.
"I don't care at all," said Gadi Mazor, 26, an incoming freshman to Columbia school of general studies. "I heard a lot about everything that has been going on in Columbia last year, and, if anything, it just made me more curious and more excited to go here. I want to take classes, and see for myself if this kind of bias they were talking about is true."
For Sharon Baum, 19, the political imbroglio of yesteryear paled in comparison with more earthly needs.
"I'm moving away from home. I'm moving to the other end of the country. I care more about having decent roommates, great friends and interesting classes. The political stuff just isn't relevant for me now. Maybe in a year or two, once I've settled in, I will be more interested in it. But not now."