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Columbia’s Own Middle East War

Determining academic intimidation is a lot like determining sexual harassment. It all boils down to two competing narratives, a hologram whose very image all depends on where you stand. The problem in this instance, unfortunately, is that people like Khalidi, who are passionately invested in the future of Mideast studies, are forced to defend their colleagues before knowing whether the allegations against them are true. Columbia Unbecoming has stained his discipline, sent his colleagues into despair.

“What are we supposed to do?” he asks, choking back obvious frustration, his vocal cords so taut they sound as if they’re being strangled by snakes. “Wait until this idiot wind has blown through? There are people who are trying to shut down Middle East studies. This field has been under attack for years, and this is a huge club in that attack. I’m supposed to fold my hands and let people batter us about the head because of what may or may not have happened in the spring of 2002?”

“These are allegations between faculty members and specific students that were not handled, in my view, properly at the time by the university,” continues Khalidi. “Or since.”

He leans into his desk. “You know,” he concludes, “it could be the case that there are students who have serious grievances and it’s the case that threats to our academic freedom have developed over the last two years. This is a situation where you have to assume it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

On a grim, wintry day, I sit with Lee Bollinger in his office in Low Memorial Library. He’s handsome and peacockish in a sportscaster sort of way—longish gray hair, semi-iridescent blue stripes on his suit—but clearly exhausted from this contretemps. “In my view, we have failed in making ourselves as available to talk about these issues as we could have,” he concedes. “I’m not satisfied with the processes we have for students to be able to say what they were saying in the film.”

Bollinger is a First Amendment scholar, a useful credential for a man who’s been forced to fathom the limits of academic freedom. Yet over the course of his presidency, he has also doubtless discovered that academic freedom, or the privilege of teaching and pursuing the ideas of one’s choosing, is often a very hard notion to defend to the public. Not everyone agrees it should go unchecked—just ask anyone involved in stem-cell research—and complicating matters even further is how dependent universities have become on outsiders for money: parents who pay tens of thousands annually, alums, corporations, the government. Many of these contributors believe they have the same kinds of rights as shareholders in a company, which, theoretically at least, they do not. (At this moment, in fact, Columbia is planning a huge capital drive, and some of its donors are active in national and international Jewish causes—a fact that can’t be entirely lost on Bollinger.)

In response to Columbia Unbecoming, Bollinger asked Columbia’s provost to convene a panel to investigate the incidents in the film and the more general issue of academic freedom. Sadly, the move only managed to infuriate everyone: Faculty saw it as a creepy, McCarthy-like incursion into their territory, and the students couldn’t help but notice that the five-person committee included two professors who’d signed the campus divestment petition, and a third who’d advised Massad on his thesis.

But intimidation, as Miron points out, may be the easiest of the administration’s problems to unknot. Questions of intellectual bias are much harder to sort through. While president of the University of Michigan, Bollinger committed himself to racial diversity, spending years defending its policy of affirmative action; today, he says he’s equally committed to intellectual diversity. Which may not augur well for professor Massad’s longevity at Columbia, no matter how favorably disposed the provost’s committee may be to him. “I believe a disclaimer before starting your course is insufficient,” says Bollinger. “It doesn’t inoculate you from criticism for being one-sided or intolerant in the classroom.” He hastens to add, “That’s not to prejudge any claims here. But if you’re asking, in the abstract, ‘Can a faculty member satisfy the ideal of good teaching by simply saying at the beginning, I’m going to teach one side of a controversy and I don’t want to hear any other side and if you don’t like this, please don’t take my course,’ my view is, that’s irresponsible teaching.”

But teaching, at least, happens within the academy’s walls. What happens beyond, what his scholars do and say—over this Bollinger has little control, even if lobbying groups and members of Congress and the media are baying for retribution. These are polarized times, times of orange alerts and preemptive war. He looks over the offending paragraph in Dabashi’s essay in Al-Ahram. “I want to completely disassociate myself from those ideas,” he says. “They’re outrageous things to say, in my view.” He leans back in his chair and pushes the essay away. “But what a faculty member says in the course of public debate, we will not take into account within the university. That’s a dangerous slope. All I can do is express my views.

“I have to be careful, as president, because my disagreeing can be taken as a form of chilling speech,” he admits. “But I have free speech, too.”