Whose Academic Freedom?


You can be as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist or anti-American [a professor] as you want, just as long as you engage in a discourse and you don’t make your classroom a political battleground. That’s not the reality on [the Columbia University] campus.A student in the David Project film Columbia Unbecoming, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals on grades and letters of recommendation

Academic freedom is at the center of university life. . . . A spirit of free and open inquiry, born of an impulse to know and understand and uninhibited by prejudice . . . is the hallmark of great universities.Columbia University president Lee Bollinger in a letter to the Columbia community, New York Sun, December 9

For months, there has been an intensifying controversy centering on Columbia’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. A number of current and former students charge that some professors in that department are so passionately convinced Israel is a ruthless oppressor of Palestinians that they acknowledge no other side to this conflict. In a film, Columbia Unbecoming, that has been shown to the press, Columbia trustees, and other interested parties, students appear with specific accounts of those professors.

The students say that if they dare to ask questions at variance with those professors’ views, their comments are summarily dismissed, sometimes humiliatingly, in front of the class.

Supporters of these accused professors, however, claim that their critics are not only bent on violating the professors’ academic freedom but are also engaged in a Zionist “witch-hunt.”

In May, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger reported that a faculty committee appointed by him to look into the charges “told me . . . they did not find any evidence of systematic bias in our classrooms.”

I thought that result peculiar because reports of bias and intimidation have been rife for some time and because the committee had two distinguished First Amendment experts on free speech, including academic freedom, professors Michael Dorf and Vincent Blasi. Clearly, the committee didn’t look hard enough. In any case, the controversy became inflamed—with national repercussions, because of rising volatile academic-freedom issues on other campuses.

By October, Bollinger, himself a First Amendment scholar, asked Columbia provost Alan Brinkley to evaluate the David Project film, Columbia Unbecoming, which is at the center of the firestorm, and formulate an official response.

Meanwhile, extensive reporting on the Columbia conflict by The New York Sun and the Daily News—with The New York Times oddly lagging behind—has resulted in Bollinger’s appointment of Floyd Abrams, the nation’s premier First Amendment litigator, to advise another special faculty committee to look into the accusations and counter-accusations.

Abrams, whom I’ve known, and learned from, for many years, told the December 9 Daily News: “Professors have broad rights about how they teach classes, while students have the right not to be harassed or intimidated and to express their views without being insulted.”

Next week’s column will include students’ charges of intimidation. There are already claims that some of the faculty members on the investigating committee are likely to be less than fair-minded. We’ll see. But if questions of bias and intimidation remain after the committee’s report early next year, I expect that Floyd Abrams will exercise his free-speech rights to release his own report.

While awaiting the investigation, I’ll tell you where I’m coming from as a writer on First Amendment issues, here and in books, and as a sometime college and university teacher (I am currently at liberty):

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.

When I teach, my main frustration is when a class is largely passive and few students challenge me. Then I don’t learn anything, and teaching’s no fun.

In the Middle East Studies department at Columbia, according to a report in the November 24 Daily News, one faculty member is highly critical of some of his colleagues. Dan Miron, a professor of Hebrew literature, told reporter Douglas Feiden that scores of students have come to his office to complain about bias in that department.

“Students tell me they’ve been browbeaten, humiliated, and treated disrespectfully for daring to challenge the idea that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish nation. [Those professors] say that Zionism is racism and the root of all evil.”

When such a professor then refuses to allow any rebuttal, or request for proof, from students, “academic freedom” has been transmogrified into naked authoritarianism.

In all the media focus on the furor about what’s happening at Columbia, hardly any attention has been paid to Charles Jacobs, the president of the David Project, whose 25-minute film, Columbia Unbecoming, broke all of this into the open. As professor Dan Rudin told me, “Those high in the administration have known about this for years.” Now many more know because of Columbia Unbecoming.

Next week: Meet Charles Jacobs.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 14, 2004

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