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Jan 1, 2005 5:59 pm

Latest from Columbia

The continuing crisis regarding Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department recently reached a new level: in a two-part series, Nat Hentoff, the First Amendment specialist at the Village Voice and an occasional professor himself (at NYU), offers some of the most thoughtful commentary I have seen on the tensions between protecting professors’ academic freedom and the more limited academic freedom rights enjoyed by students.

Columbia University president Lee Bollinger recently appointed a five-person panel to look into allegations of intimidation of students in MEALAC classes. The New York Sun, which has done the best reporting on this story (as they generally do on New York City higher education matters), was sharply critical of Bollinger’s move, contending that the president seemed to have “truckled to his employees in the faculty, permitting them, in effect, to investigate themselves.” Since the committee seems transparently biased (one of its members was a dissertation advisor to Professor Joseph Massad, another signed the petition demanding that Columbia divest from Israel, and a third is in charge of “diversity initiatives” at Morningside Heights), my guess is that it will ratify decisions that Bollinger has already made. If he wanted to whitewash the matter, it’s hard to believe that he would have selected a committee whose objectivity could be so easily challenged.

The Sun also, correctly, chastises Bollinger for limiting the scope of the inquiry’s purview to" classroom experiences,” with a committee not to “review departments or curricula,” raising what Hentoff terms a basic “dilemma": as the department’s “curricula reflect the views and interpretations of the professors, and the evident biases of some of them," how can the basic problem be addressed without looking into the curricular structure of MEALAC?

The answer, according to Hentoff, is intellectual diversity. “It’s not,” he notes, “about bringing in pro-Israel professors, but scholars who teach—not inculcate.” In the academic setting, he reasons,

free speech, free inquiry, and academic freedom are linked together, and all of these First Amendment protections work in two ways. Professors are entitled to their interpretations, however dogmatic. And students have the right to question professors' evidence or proof of their doctrines—and the right to make counter- assertions without being bullied and treated as if their only function as students is to be dutifully indoctrinated. Academic freedom in, of all places, a university based on free inquiry belongs to both professors and students.

Too often, as Hentoff comments, in MEALAC classes, “’academic freedom’ has been transmogrified into naked authoritarianism.”

Bollinger, of course, is not responsible for this problem: MEALAC hiring strategy for years was devoted to bringing in professors ideologically compatible with Edward Said, and so the roots of this controversy were established before Bollinger’s arrival as president. And, obviously, he has limited ability to rein in tenured professors.

Beyond establishing an effective university policy against using the classroom for indoctrination, Bollinger can and should make two other moves. First, he should take steps to closely oversee the personnel process within MEALAC, to ensure that applicants reflecting all legitimate scholarly interpretations are considered for positions. Secondly, he should demand that Joseph Massad provide proof for his wild allegations responding to the inquiry; and, if Massad cannot do so, the president should take appropriate action.

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Konrad M Lawson - 1/3/2005

Thanks for your quick response!

1. Well, looks like my attempt to guess political leanings by newspaper readership alone failed miserably! Damn! Always seemed to work so well in apologies!

2. I'm not familiar with what kind of consequences there are for the kind of allegations such as have been leveled, so if my suggestion sounded weak, it isn't because I don't think it isn't to be taken seriously...

I'm afraid I still disagree on other points. I don't, in principle, see any thing questionable about professors making deeply condemnatory remarks (or assign readings justifying them) about US or Israel policy (or about fault on the Palestinian side) if someone is teaching about the Middle East, no more than I would have an objection to condemning atrocities and other injustices (or examine their origins, mechanics, etc.) committed in my own consideration of East Asian history. I think there does have to be a relevance issue taken into account. For example, it would be inappropriate for me to waste student's time talking about Israel in a class on Meiji Japan...

Robert KC Johnson - 1/3/2005

Interesting post.

First, I doubt that anyone could guess my political leanings from the fact that I read the Sun. While I am openly pro-Israel, I am also a Democrat who (as was publicly reported) was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2000.

And certainly no one could accuse Nat Hentoff, perhaps the most vociferous and certainly the most incisive critic of John Ashcroft, of being a conservative. The issue here, as Hentoff's story points out, is not that this story has received extensive coverage in the Sun, Daily News, and the Post, but that the NY Times has, for reasons known only to its editors, largely ignored it.

On the Columbia matter, I definitely don't believe that if we just rein in tenured professors and ensure that applicants reflecting all legitimate scholarly interpretations are considered for positions "then all will be well." Based on the allegations, the situation has moved well beyond that point. But if MEALAC is ever going to rebuild into something approximating an academic department rather than as a body known for intimidating students who disagree with their professors on highly charged political issues, the two suggestions that I made seem to me places to start.

A case certainly could be made that as Edward Said has revealed the "truth," departments shouldn't be required to hire anyone who disagrees with him. I'm not sure that even most of MEALAC's defenders, however, have made that claim. I don't think it's unreasonable, moreover, to expect departments to hire professors whose primary task will be to engage in scholarship and teaching, rather than to blend their academic responsibilities with political activism. MEALAC's general approach has tended to the latter. The department's professors (with Massad the most extreme example, but Dabashi and Khalidi close behind) have made multiple statements on the subject of their specialization that seem, at best, highly biased, with rather thin evidence. When coupled with credible allegations that they've browbeaten students who challenged them in class, the Columbia administration has to do something.

I do agree that it's impossible to separate out the ideological from the personnel process. I know this, first-hand, only too well. That doesn't mean, as seems to have been the case in MEALAC recent hires, that a candidate's position on Israel should be a key factor in their hire. It's Columbia's job to ensure that the school hires the best possible scholars and teachers.

Here is where, it seems, they failed, with both Dabashi, who is now beyond their control because he is tenured, and Massad.

Konrad notes in his post that he's heard "that Massad is unfortunately probably guilty of serious excesses which include intimidating behavior etc. Depending on the extent of his guilt, he does need a good talking to, or reprimand, etc. and he should serve as a warning to others if the allegations are true."

Professors are paid to teach!! Universities are not giving us money for our health, or to make inflammatory public statements either for or against US and Israeli policy in the Middle East. If the allegations are true (and Massad's public denial, as I note in my post, raises more questions about his intellectual approach rather than quashing concerns), then Massad has grossly failed at the basic task for which he is paid. A "good talking to" strikes me as a rather weak response.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/3/2005

There's so much here....

Anyone who said that Chinese philosophy wasn't real philosophy hasn't read Korean neo-Confucianism.

Konrad M Lawson - 1/3/2005

Sorry about some of the odd spelling mistakes..commenting on the run here...

Konrad M Lawson - 1/3/2005

I was very disappointed in this posting. Like so many other postings I have seen on related issues of politics and departments, this posting is marred by the rather naive idea that Columbia's MEALAC is a poster boy for theory/politics run wild and that if we just "rein in tenured professors" and that if departments just show a kind of detached objective ability to "ensure that applicants reflecting all legitimate scholarly interpretations are considered for positions" then all will be well. I had so hoped we had moved beyond the laughable idea that we do history in a political vacuum. When Johnson says MEALAC was "devoted to bringing in professors ideologically compatible with Edward Said" let us pretend for a moment this is true. If it is, then it might mean, for example, that scholars responsible for hiring don't want to hire scholars who reject some of Said's basic claims regarding the marriage of scholarship and empire among the Orientalists he describes (it certainly isn't that they don't want to hire scholars who reject his humanistic/multicultural conclusions, which I know that many MEALAC profs do).

Speaking in positivist/analytic terms so that the more traditional types can understand me: they could be said to believe that Said has made a truth claim, backed it up with justification, and that he is correct. To hire scholars who deny that "truth" can then be said not to be denying "ideological diversity" but to deny a truth about the past, akin, say to denying that there was ever a British Empire. Sure we might consider hiring someone who differs on various aspects of the British Empire but surely we would not deny scholars the right to not hire a quack who thinks the empire never existed. It simply depends on what list of basic propositions a propositions a department believes to be "common sense" or "obvious" or "ridiculous to challenge"

Now, I'm not going to claim Said is "irrefutable" I'm simply taking my point to its extreme. The basic idea is this: it is ridiculous to suggest that you can separate out the "ideological" from the hiring process. I don't think it is a coincidence that some schools have more "realists" in IR theory (Columbia) while others have more "liberals" in IR theory (Harvard?) and some gather "constructivists" etc. These are theories which have real political consequences. Also, I have seen my own undergraduate philosophy department practically kick out (retire) an aging philosophy of religion professor for what I strongly suspect are reasons motivated by his ideas, not some vaguely understood concept of "intellectual integrity" or quality as a teacher.

Also, I don't see anyone up in arms about the fact that "continental" philosophers are being "unfairly denied" a place in philosophy departments, or that analytic philosophers of language are being denied places in departments of rhetoric. I managed to go through an entire major in philosopher without being told in the classroom that there was this thing called "continental philosophy" and, as one professor in an office hour discussion put it bluntly, "it isn't philosophy, it is more like literature" Another professor bluntly told me after a philosophy conference in Seattle, "Chinese philosophy is not philosophy" I don't think it is surprising that there were no classes on non-Western philosophy (or non-analytic) in my department. To accuse my philosophy department of a deep pro-analytic, deep pro-Western bias is a deeply "ideologically" motivated attack, but its composition has deep ideological/political consequences as it limits the range of positions held to be "legitimate" by its profs/students and turns out students who share its claims. It is natural, if not obvious, that those who try to counter this, will, once they have established power, try to resist a perceived bias in society/"the academy" by beefing up their ranks in what for them (and me!) is nothing short of a political war. This is not a war divorced from facts and empirical study, but many of its participants know that facts and empirical research are merely the weapons and ammunition. The questions we ask as scholars, the protagonists we choose, the categories we recognize and reject, and the details we add or omit are all heavily influenced by our inevitable biases; one of these biases which Said confesses to openly in his opening chapter (where he quotes Gramsci on the issue)...

I can't wait until the dying breed of an old guard will come to see this...

Now, I am not condoning intimidation, insults, etc. I have been told my a friend studying in that department that Massad is unfortunately probably guilty of serious excesses which include intimidating behavior etc. Depending on the extent of his guilt, he does need a good talking to, or reprimand, etc. and he should serve as a warning to others if the allegations are true.

However, as Massad himself and others in his department have pointed out, this is not a case of "injured harmless ignorant students who just want to learn good old fashioned academic material bombarded by hate speech, insults, and politics" The MEALAC department, and the English department which include(d) many controversial but fantastic scholars, such as Said, have a wide range of positions, some pro-Subaltern (Marxist and non), some radically po-mo, some hard core empiricist (Marxist and non), but while we may disagree with many of their positions, I think that many of them have realized that academia is not a politically sterile environment, where we can identify "legitimate" arguments by completely apolitical means. Nor is it a matter of accepting a few "germs" in the process or else be condemned "to perform surgery in a sewer"

I got my masters back and Columbia and spent many hours in MEALAC doing tech support for some of the profs there. I myself have had to help a prof there when his machine attacked and his email totally bombarded with hate emails from those who responded to his name being put on a "watch" list of "anti-Israel" ME scholars. There is a political game being blamed here and the stakes are high.

The students involved in these allegations also have their political motivations. I think I can make a guess at Mr. Johnson's own political leanings just from the fact he reads the "New York Sun." Maybe the did, in fact do the best reporting on this issue, but that is partly, I would wager, because the newspaper is politically motivated to make this an issue for its readers! Remember, the issues you choose to report and the extent to which you pursue them is a deeply political one (something not lost to conservative bloggers like This doesn't mean that we should ignore the allegations entirely, but I think we need to grow up and realize that scholarship cannot be divorced from ideology and politics, nor should it be...

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