Report From the Upper West Bank

How Columbia University became the latest mideast battleground

And it seems the David Project has some inside help. As the committee wrote, "Testimony that we received indicated that in February 2002 Professor Massad had good reason to believe that a member of the Columbia faculty was monitoring his teaching and approaching his students, requesting them to provide information on his statements in class as part of a campaign against him." The report doesn't name this academic Inspector Javert, but it would seem that if charges of professorial intimidation were being fully investigated on campus, administrators would want to look into whether there are any professors recruiting students to act as spies against their teachers.

This is also a story of how some reporters and news organizations are suckers for a good controversy, and a case study of how advocacy journalism can drive and shape events. No news organization has been more of an advocate than The New York Sun, which first wrote on October 20 about Columbia Unbecoming and has played a major role in framing the debate, covering the story aggressively and sympathizing with the pro-Israeli students, and making itself part of the narrative in the process, with students repeatedly singling it out to the Voice as a primary player in the dustup. The Sun has pursued its crusade against Columbia's supposed brownshirts with a steady stream of more than 30 news and opinion pieces with headlines like "Farrakhan for Columbia?," "Dershowitz Says Faculty Members Work to Encourage Islamic Terrorism," and "Ex-Prosecutor Likens Massad Speech to a 'Neo-Nazi Rally.' " Together these pieces have drawn a picture of a campus awash in anti-Semitism, and of an administration that has been hell-bent trying to deny and manipulate events. They are all marked by hyperbole, and they all consistently eschew contradictory statements and testimonies from other students. Editors followed up by publishing on Friday an outraged editorial reaction to the report, goading Columbia's trustees and naming some of those with connections to the Jewish community: "We invite our readers to study the list above. Has the cat got all their tongues? Do these individuals know where—at a time when their country is at war—the funding is coming from for Columbia's Middle East studies programs?"

Jacob Gershman, the Sun reporter most often dispatched to Columbia's trenches, defends his paper's flame-fanning. In an e-mail to the Voice, he writes, "The editor of the Sun tells us that a reporter never has to apologize for covering the hotel that's on fire instead of the ones that are not."

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

While the Sun has been rabbit-punching the story, the New York Post has been busy throwing around sensational headlines like steamy blocks of leaden hackshit, such as "Soft on Anti-Semitism" and "Columbia's Anti-Semites." The Daily News has shown characteristic restraint with scareheads like "HATE 101" and "This Nut Teaches at Columbia?" Even the Voice's Nat Hentoff, while more balanced, has backed the Columbia Unbecoming students, advocating for their academic freedoms, at one point offering his services to moderate a panel discussion of the events at Columbia.

All of this is a career-defining challenge for Columbia president Lee Bollinger, who has been criticized from both sides by students who feel, alternately, that he hasn't responded to charges of anti-Semitism quickly enough, or that he hasn't defended the academic freedoms of the accused professors forcefully enough. If the campaign of scrutiny of these professors has stacked the fuel for this controversy, and the local tabloid media has stirred the anger, Bollinger's clumsy response has played its role as well. "In the system of peer review that we have in the universities, we expect ourselves to put aside our personal relationships, our political views, our collegial relationships with others and to fairly and objectively evaluate whether our academic norms and aspirations have been met," says Bollinger, responding to claims by critics who point out that committee member Lisa Anderson was Massad's Ph.D. dissertation adviser. It's clear he values the traditions of academic self-governance more than he fears the appearance of conflicting interests.

But no matter what the composition of the committee was, it's hard to imagine a solution that would have pleased everyone. Bollinger agrees. "Realistically, the passions and the different perspectives on this have been part of the problem from the beginning," he says.

Ariel Beery, General Studies student president and a critic of Professor Massad, addresses the crowd, March 31.
photo: Cary Conover

Bollinger promises changes in university policy based on the committee's findings in the next few weeks, and he says he will be scrutinizing Columbia's grievance procedures as well as the rules governing who can audit a class. In the hot seat is Professor Massad, who by dint of being the only person the report says violated university policy bears the brunt of the residual anger. It remains unclear what impact the committee's report will have on Massad.

One thing is certain: Whatever Bollinger decides, it won't do much to end the controversy.

"This is just the beginning," says student and former Israeli Defense Forces soldier Eric Posner, who collected 26 testimonies from students in support of the accused professors and submitted them to the ad hoc committee. "This is the spearhead of a whole informant movement that is wading into American academia."

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