Faculty members presented a letter to top administrators Tuesday condemning University President Lee Bollinger for creating a “crisis of confidence” and accusing the University’s administration of inadequately protecting academic freedom on campus.
The Columbia University Faculty Action Committee, a coalition formed earlier this semester, presented the letter to Bollinger, Provost Alan Brinkley, and Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nick Dirks yesterday at a meeting of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences. The statement, which an endorser said was signed by 109 professors, accuses Bollinger of failing to rebuke outsiders’ criticism and attempts to influence tenure decisions of Columbia scholars. The professors also condemn Bollinger for public comments which they say conflate his political views with the University’s, implicating Columbia in a partisan Middle Eastern agenda, and falling in line with the White House’s defense of the Iraq war.
“We speak for a growing number of faculty members at Columbia University who believe that President Bollinger has failed to make a vigorous defense of the core principles on which the University is founded, especially academic freedom,” the statement reads. “The events of the past few years have created a crisis of confidence in the central administration’s willingness to defend these principles.”
In a University statement, spokesman Robert Hornsby said, “Freedom of speech on campus means that faculty members have the right to express their views, including about the University itself. And it’s certainly part of Columbia’s tradition to have a thriving intellectual debate about higher education’s role as a forum for the challenging public issues of our time.”
The letter, which was first published by the New York Sun with 70 signatures on Monday, laments the lack of faculty governance or consultation on key issues, and condemns Bollinger’s critical introduction to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech on campus.
In an apparent reference to Bollinger’s public condemnation of a proposed boycott of Israeli universities, the letter denounces the president for taking “partisan political positions concerning the politics of the Middle East in particular, without apparent expertise in this area or consultation with faculty who teach and undertake research in this area.”
It closes by expressing hope that Bollinger will “make it clear that the administration will no longer compromise these principles or tolerate interference with them.”
A dissenting letter is also making the rounds, with 62 professors signing on as of Tuesday.
This is not the first time in Bollinger’s tenure that the University President has come under fire for failing to support academic freedom. In 2004 and 2005, he drew criticism from many faculty members for failing to publicly support the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures professors who were accused of intimidating Jewish students in the documentary film Columbia Unbecoming, produced by the pro-Israel David Project.
Many of the professors who signed the letter-including Hamid Dabashi, Rashid Khalidi, and George Saliba-have found themselves at the center of Columbia controversies before and have a history of harshly condemning Bollinger. Signatories include Mark Anderson, Elizabeth Blackmar, Eric Foner, Peter Marcuse, James Schamus, Mark Strand, and Nadia Abu El-Haj. Two of the endorsers-Jonathan Cole and Gayatri Spivak-have attained the rank of University Professor, the highest honor bestowed on Columbia faculty members. Cole, a former candidate for University presidency, resigned from his previous position as University Provost a month before Bollinger took the helm.
The signers of the dissenting statement argue that outside groups have an interest in the University and the right to speak out against what they deem “inappropriate forms of teaching.” The statement further contends that Bollinger barely spoke of Iraq in his introductory remarks to Ahmadinejad’s speech and that they thought his only outspoken stance in Middle East politics was his public denunciation this summer of the British University and College Union’s proposed boycott of Israeli academics.
“I just thought that the professors who had circulated the original letter were trying to foment another coup d’etat against a University president, as was successfully done at Harvard [with former President Lawrence Summer],” Neil S. Shachter, a professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at the Columbia University Medical Center who signed the dissenting letter, said.
The CU-FAC endorsers said the letter is not designed with that goal in sight, even if certain individuals do support deposing Bollinger.
Shachter raised another possible motive for the letter, suggesting that it aims to influence the ongoing tenure bid of history professor Joseph Massad. “They view the capitulation on [recently-tenured Barnard Anthropology professor] Nadia Abu El-Haj as a sign of weakness,” he said. “They figured, ‘Hey, let’s take a club to the guy and he’ll cave again.’”
There have been several reports that the ad-hoc tenure committee has already denied Massad’s bid, a claim Spectator has not been able to confirm.
“Theres no evidence that any outside people expressing their opinion… have had any influence on the [tenure] process at all,” Schachter said. “Bollinger’s supposed to disallow alumni and donors to voice their opinions? He’s clearly ignored their opinions. Why isn’t that enough?”
At a glance, supporters of the disparate statements appear to be divided into two very different camps, with many anthropologists and historians, including many who have been harshly critical of Israel, supporting the anti-Bollinger statement and many professors at the Medical Center signing the dissent.
At the same time, it is unclear which faculty members were contacted to endorse either statement. One professor said he learned of the CU-FAC statement when he received the dissenting one by e-mail. He said that, though he could not remember very well the specific details within each point, he signed the dissent because it “sounded reasonable” and was consistent with his beliefs on the issue.
Bollinger has previously said that he meant only to speak for himself at the Ahmadinejad speech, and not on behalf of Columbia. At a University Senate meeting last November, Bollinger said, “I think a president can be dismissed for taking positions in public, on public issues that the trustees find they do not think ought to represent the institution.”
Many said the administration’s defense-or lack thereof-of academic freedom has troubled them for some years and that the discontent came to a head this semester, with some pointing particularly to the reception of Ahmadinejad, in which Bollinger referred to the Iranian president as a “petty and cruel dictator.”
Qais Al-Awqati, a professor of medicine and physiology at the Medical Center who signed the anti-Bollinger letter, said he hoped the University President would resign, but said he doubted enough people would apply such pressure on him. Though Al-Awqati spoke at length of various aspects of the administration that bothered him, he spoke most forcefully of the September event.
Reacting to the criticism of that speech, Mitchell Benson, Chair of the CUMC Department of Urology and a pro-Bollinger signatory, countered that “President Bollinger did a great service to the American people and the people of the world who believe in freedom and the freedom to express themselves.”
But Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law who signed the anti-Bollinger petition, said academic freedom is the “life-blood” of all the University’s constituents, not just the faculty. He said that “the currency of discourse on academic freedom is the focus on ideas, not on individuals, on analysis and argument, not invectives… On the President’s remarks on the visit of President Ahmadinejad, President Bollinger lost sight of the distinction between civil discourse and uncivil discourse.”
Erin Durkin, Shane Ferro, Josh Hirschland, and Jacob Schneider contributed to this article.
Tom Faure can be reached at [email protected].