There is a one-sided discourse on campus [on Middle East studies]. . . . Why isn’t the university interested in open debate? I don’t understand why the central administration doesn’t see this as a central problem. George Fletcher, a notable independent Columbia Law School professor, The New York Sun, February 16
I don’t want pro-Israel zealots in that department any more than zealots on the other side. What has to be added are scholars with real credibility who have respect for students’ academic freedom to question their professors. Alan Dershowitz, a paladin of free speech and a Harvard Law School professor, in a conversation with this reporter.
Jimmy Breslin wrote a novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, that came to my mind while covering what is now an international story about charges that some professors in Columbia’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) bully and intimidate students who don’t agree with them. Since one of my beats is education—from pre-kindergarten on—I have covered a number of dysfunctional college and university administrations around the country. But the handling of this controversy by Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, and provost Alan Brinkley is a model of how to confuse and worsen a situation while trying to resolve its core problems.
In December, Brinkley and Bollinger appointed a special committee to investigate the charges by students in the film Columbia Unbecoming, which brought to widespread light the bullying bias of certain MEALAC professors that has been known on campus for a long time.
Susan Brown, a spokeswoman for Columbia University, told the online edition of The Jerusalem Post: “We take student concerns of this nature very seriously and believe the ad hoc committee will evaluate these charges in a rigorous and utterly objective manner.”
As I will show next week, this is largely a rigged rather than an objective committee, and if I were to appear before such a committee, I would demand that I be able to bring my own tape recorder.
But first, let’s look at a session of this “rigorous” committee as provided to me by students belonging to Columbians for Academic Freedom, some of whom appear in the film Columbia Unbecoming.
As the members of Columbia’s investigating committee were seated at a roundtable, before a student witness, Professor Ira Katznelson, presiding, said, “There will be two reports [by the committee]: an internal report by the committee, which will be full and frank and detailed, and a public summary.”
I left a message for Columbia spokeswoman Susan Brown, asking why the Columbia community and the general public would not also be getting a full and frank report. My call to her was not returned.
Professor Katznelson was asked by one of the students in Columbians for Academic Freedom whether there’d be a tape recording of the committee’s sessions.
The answer: “Notes will be taken by a professional note-taker but a tape recording will not be made.”
The student asked: “Will they be kept internal or will they be transparent to the public?”
The answer: “The notes are for the use of the committee.”
Floyd Abrams, the nation’s premier litigator on First Amendment issues that come before the Supreme Court, has been appointed an adviser to this special administration committee. So a student asked Katznelson: “Will Floyd Abrams be present in all meetings of the committee?”
The answer: “Mr. Abrams will not be present when the testimony is taken. He has been advising the committee on procedures, and will be meeting with the group regularly as he continues in an active advisory role.”
I know Floyd Abrams, and I am confident that if this committee’s report is seriously suspect as to its objectivity, Floyd will issue his own independent report. But since he will not be at the sessions, why is he denied an official tape recording of the testimonies so that he can be objectively informed of the proceedings?
Initially, I asked the students whether they would bring their own tape recorders to the committee sessions. But I was told that tape recorders are not allowed by this committee. Professor Katznelson told a student that the committee will “make a full and frank confidential report to the vice president for Arts and Sciences that will be shared with the provost [Alan Brinkley] and president [Lee Bollinger].”
But the report will not be shared with the public. Is this low-level imitation of the Star Chamber—the secret British court centuries ago where due process was dismissed—taking place to protect the privacy of the student witnesses, who have expressed concern that harm may come to their academic careers if they testify?
However, it is in their interest that a “full and frank” report be openly and widely available, lest there be any recriminations for what they said before the committee.
How did I get the exchanges from the committee sessions? When a student testifies, he or she is accompanied by a witness from Columbians for Academic Freedom. The witness can’t speak, but can take notes. The students, more than Columbia’s administration, believe in transparency.
This rigmarole by this Columbia administration that can’t shoot straight is somewhat less opaque than what happened to Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s prophetic The Trial. But this committee’s final report is going to raise questions in view of the conflicts of interests of some of its members—to be detailed here next week.
Alan Dershowitz, who has spoken at Columbia on this, as I am scheduled to do, says that if the committee produces “a biased result,” and if he sees “a corruption of procedure occurs,” there will be need for “another committee appointed by distinguished outsiders who have no position and no stake in the matter.”
It would also help clear the increasingly murky air at Columbia if eventually there were a new president and a new provost who know how to shoot straight to assure academic freedom for everyone on campus.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 22, 2005