Columbia Chief Tackles Dispute Over Professors

From the archive (legacy material)

KAREN W. ARENSON | New York Times | 24 March 2005

Faced with complaints that Columbia University has tolerated anti-Semitism and intimidation in its Middle East studies classes, Columbia’s president said last night that academic freedom has some limits when it comes to the classroom and the broader educational experience.
“We should not elevate our autonomy as individual faculty members above every other value,” the president, Lee C. Bollinger, said in a speech to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
Professors, he said, have a responsibility “to resist the allure of certitude, the temptation to use the podium as an ideological platform, to indoctrinate a captive audience, to play favorites with the like-minded and silence the others.”
His remarks came as Columbia awaits the report of an internal committee set up to investigate charges by some pro-Israeli students that they had been intimidated in classes by pro-Palestinian professors in the department of Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures and outside the classroom as well. They also said that this occurred for several years and that Columbia had not taken their charges seriously.
Their complaints were made public in October in a videotape produced by a pro-Israeli group based in Boston. The video prompted criticism outside the university and within, as well as countercharges from other students and professors who said that such intimidation had not taken place. Some of the professors accused of anti-Semitism say they have been swamped with hate mail.
Although Mr. Bollinger did not comment last night on what the report is likely to say, he said it was “simply preposterous to characterize Columbia as anti-Semitic or as having a hostile climate for Jewish students and faculty.”
“The question is not whether a professor advocates a view,” he said, “but whether the overall design of the class, and course, is to explore the full range of the complexity of the subject.”
But he also called on vocal critics outside the university to back off from telling Columbia, or other universities, what to do. “When there are lines to be drawn,” he said, “we must and will be the ones to do it. Not outside actors. Not politicians, not pressure groups, not the media. Ours is and must remain a system of self-government.”
A First Amendment lawyer, Mr. Bollinger is no stranger to controversy. He was law school dean and then president at the University of Michigan when it was attacked for using race in its admissions. Two years ago, an assistant professor at Columbia said in a forum that there should be “a million Mogadishus” to teach America a lesson about imperialism, prompting angry calls from the politicians, commentators and the public for Mr. Bollinger to fire him.
While stressing that the university would not tolerate intimidation of students in the classroom, Mr. Bollinger stressed that “we will not punish professors – or students – for the speech or ideas they express as part of public debate and public issues.”
He also said that the university’s officials, and not students, must take the lead in ensuring that teachers in the classroom do not stray outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. “We should not accept the argument that we as teachers can do what we want because students are of sufficient good sense to know bias and indoctrination when they see it,” he said. “This ignores the enormous differential in power between the professor and the student in a classroom setting.
He also rejected the “academic bill of rights” proposed by David Horowitz, a conservative activist, that, he said, calls for a plurality of methodologies and perspectives in both hiring and curricula – a proposal some state legislators are considering.
“We should not accept the idea that the remedy for lapses is to add more professors with different political points of view, as some would have us do,” Mr. Bollinger said. “The notion of a balanced curriculum, in which students can, in effect, select and compensate for bias, sacrifices the essential norm of what we are supposed to be about in a university. It’s like saying of doctors in a hospital that there should be more Republicans, or more Democrats. It also risks polarization of the university, where liberals take courses from liberal professionals and conservatives take conservatives classes.”