Report From the Upper West Bank

How Columbia University became the latest mideast battleground

When Kristin Hickman took Professor Joseph Massad's Middle East studies course last semester, she tried to visit him during office hours and remembers being discouraged by the line of students gathered. "It was too crowded," says the Barnard College sophomore. "He was available if you sat and had time to wait."

By most accounts, Massad is a popular professor on the Columbia University campus, a fact that complicates the descriptions of him in most recent news stories as a fiery, demagogic, anti-Semitic professor who browbeats students with his pro-Palestinian viewpoints and throws them out when they disagree with him. "That's part of the reason I did not understand why they could make these allegations against him and have them be credible," says Hickman, an anthro major who remembers Massad as being respectful of divergent viewpoints, even tolerant toward those students Hickman thought were a little too aggressive in their questioning, an impression shared by other students who spoke to the Voice.

Nevertheless, Massad's teaching style and classroom conduct are at the core of one of the most divisive battles in Columbia's long, controversial history. The release last Thursday of a faculty committee's report on its investigation into charges of classroom intimidation by Massad and other pro-Palestinian professors on campus has done little to quell tensions, as it discounts most students' charges of professorial misconduct.

Satisfying neither side: A campus rally on the day that Columbia released its report
photo: Cary Conover
Satisfying neither side: A campus rally on the day that Columbia released its report

It predictably satisfied neither side. Under the instructions of Columbia president Lee Bollinger, Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks appointed in December a five-member committee to investigate the charges, but it has since been attacked by some students and others who said that it included professors who were too critical of Israel and who had personal relationships with the professors under scrutiny. Others say it is a public relations ploy meant to appease outside agitators and squelch academic freedom. After hearing from over 120 students who had contact with the accused professors, the committee substantiated only one complaint, by a student who claimed that Massad, an up-for-tenure professor in the university's embattled Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department, told her to leave class when she asked him whether Palestinians received warnings from Israeli troops before attacks. Despite testimonials from other students about purported instances of intimidation or anti-Semitic commentary by the professors in question, the faculty members found no proof of other instances of intimidation, and no evidence of anti-Semitism.

They did, however, place much of the blame for the fracas at the feet of an inefficient grievance process, arguing that this led to students with complaints becoming frustrated. Most tellingly, the report attributes a fair share of the blame to "outside advocacy groups."

One of these groups named by the report is Campus Watch, a self-appointed classroom-content monitor that "seeks to have an influence over the future course of Middle East studies," according to its website. The committee writes that Campus Watch published a "watch-list" of professors and "invited students to send in reports on their instructors, [which] led to the named professors receiving hate mail. We heard credible evidence that in spring 2004 someone began filming in one of Professor Saliba's classes and left after being challenged. The inhibiting effect upon classroom debate was noted by a number of students." Another group responsible for helping air complaints of intimidation is the David Project, a Boston-based organization that boasts on its website, "We train people to be pro-active in their Israel advocacy." They financed and produced Columbia Unbecoming, the half-hour film at the center of the controversy that pulls together a dozen testimonials from Jewish students who say they have felt intimidated or discriminated against, and mixes their claims with a grab bag of excerpts from outside articles written by the professors, along with citations of an unrelated anti-Semitic graffiti incident on campus.

Of course, with Columbia's internal report substantiating only one charge and describing the incident not as intimidation, but as an instance of Massad having "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" in his response to student Deena Shanker, the pro-Israel students were infuriated. Upon the report's release, Columbians for Academic Freedom, the student group formed by some members who took part in Columbia Unbecoming, hastily called a press conference outside the campus's wrought-iron gates and denounced the committee's report, with one student saying, "It's a whitewash and it's offensive."

"I think that the report acknowledges what we've been saying publicly for six months . . . that the administration has completely failed in looking after the needs of students' academic freedoms," says Ariel Beery, student president of Columbia's General Studies program and the main voice of opposition to Massad and other professors such as Hamid Dabashi and Rashid Khalidi.

But in the complex tangle of race, religion, and propaganda that characterizes everything the Mideast conflict touches, it's difficult to sort out just who is the victim, exactly what happened, and who's to blame. Certainly, for every student who complained of harassment by a pro-Palestinian professor, there's at least another student (and probably more) who claims to have never witnessed the sorts of discriminatory activity the Columbians for Academic Freedom claim students suffer. The committee's report came to that conclusion as well. In referring to the most repeated charge, corroborated by two other students, that Professor Massad attempted to throw Shanker out of his class for disagreeing, the report states: "Three participants in the class who were interviewed by the committee . . . do not recall such an episode. Nor is it recorded in the teaching evaluations made available to us." In fact the report goes on to say that contrary to charges that Massad suppressed dissenting views in class, "there is ample evidence of his willingness—as part of a deliberate pedagogical strategy—to permit anyone who wished to do so to comment or raise a question during his lectures." Columbia officials say that at no point before appearing on film did the students file a complaint with the university about the alleged discrimination they were experiencing in class. Though the committee's report was clear on the inadequacy of the grievance procedures and highlighted the need for them to be more streamlined and transparent, the first most campus officials heard of these charges of conduct violations was when the David Project began screening its film to select audiences.

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