Columbia: The Awakening


We just want honesty. We want to feel comfortable expressing views in the classroom that might not be the views that professors themselves hold. We just want to make a safe and good educational environment. A Columbia student in the David Project film Columbia Unbecoming, which months ago ignited the international conflict about the university’s Middle East studies department. Her face was not shown because she feared retaliation.

I believe change comes not from larger organizations, but from people who believe passionately in something and are willing to put themselves on the line for an ideal. And judging by the announcement of [Columbia’s new] grievance procedure I think we’ve achieved many things in a remarkably short period of time without institutional support. Ariel Beery, a leader of the student group Columbians for Academic Freedom, The Jewish Week, April 15

Louis Brandeis was the wisest justice to have sat on the Supreme Court. He used to say, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” A courageous small number of students at Columbia are responsible for bringing sunlight to a long festering controversy concerning the university’s Department of Middle East and Asian Language and Cultures (MEALAC).

On April 11, Columbia released a new set of students’ grievance procedures, which, though flawed, did have this section:

Complaints Involving a Faculty Member [include] (1) Failure to show appropriate respect in an instructional setting for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own; (2) Misuse of faculty authority to promote a political or social cause within an instructional setting; and (3) Conduct in the classroom or another instructional setting that adversely affects the learning environment.”

Bari Weiss, 21, of Columbians for Academic Freedom, explained to The New York Sun‘s Jacob Gershman the significance of that last cause for student complaint: “[An] atmosphere of intellectual orthodoxy creates an environment where dissenters are turned into pariahs.”

It’s worth repeating something else Bari Weiss said [in my April 13-19 column, “Columbia Whitewashes“]: “We are doing this because we believe in the rights of all Columbia students to dissent without fear of abuse. Yes, this means for conservative students as well as left-wingers, for Zionists as well as anti-Zionists. . . . Criticizing professors does not violate their academic freedom or stifle debate. It only adds to it.”

On Columbia’s campus, these students were reviled by other students, and by some professors, for engaging in a “right-wing onslaught,” for being “witch-hunters,” and for engaging in “McCarthyism.”

I am of an age to have experienced McCarthyism directly from the source and his followers, as was revealed years later in my FBI files (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act). It was there I learned the names of the towns in Russia from which my late parents came, and in which I was accused of being at “radical” meetings in other countries where I’ve never been and of mocking FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The ravening senator from Wisconsin and his acolytes—including many in the press (anyone remember George Sokolsky?)—were dedicated to suppressing speech by “subversives,” “fellow travelers,” and other unpatriotic dissenters.

To call what the students in Columbians for Academic Freedom have been doing “McCarthyism” shows the need for much more teaching in schools, including universities, about that fear-ridden period of actual McCarthyism in American history—and what could happen again if there is another 9-11 or its equivalent.

Bari Weiss and her colleagues at Columbia have been expanding and deepening free speech, not suppressing it. As Ariel Beery notes:

“There are those people who just pass, and those who are willing to stake their claim in stepping outside of the normal discourse to spur the rest of society to action. Sometimes, it upsets people that [these] others seem to claim a right to be heard, and they feel like we’re ruining it for everyone. But you have to stand up for what you believe sometimes.”

I asked Ariel Beery for his reaction to Columbia’s new grievance procedure, with its tiers of faculty committees, deans, vice presidents, the ombudsman office, and other officials before students can get fully heard. The most glaring of his objections is “the fact that students will not sit on any adjudicating committee.”

It is a measure of how far Columbia has yet to go to secure free inquiry for everyone in its community that students are omitted from this mechanism that is designed to encourage them to report their grievances without fear of retaliation from, among others, faculty members.

In a later column, I will explore the persistent hostility of the New York Civil Liberties Union to these students who have “stepped outside the normal discourse” to awaken not only Columbia but also, I expect, other universities to recognize that academic freedom is also the essential right of students.

For this awakening at Columbia, much credit also goes to its student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator (Megan Greenwell, editor in chief). From the beginning of this furor, the Spectator has accurately and comprehensively carried the story forward and has kept its pages open to the conflicting views—including bylined commentaries—across the spectrum of this resounding clash that is far from ended. And the Spectator showed up The New York Times by rejecting the administration’s offer to give it an exclusive, along with the Times, on the release of the faculty investigative report if it promised not to include comments on that report from the students who made that report necessary.

The Times accepted the bottom-of-the-deck deal; the Spectator scorned it. Said the Columbia Journalism Review Daily: “Given that in this case, student journalists on a campus newspaper upheld a higher standard of journalistic integrity than the ‘paper of record,’ the Times is right to be embarrassed.”

The Spectator also beat the Times in covering the whole story.