Columbia whitewash

Predictably, as night follows day, the ad hoc faculty committee appointed by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to examine the behavior of several Columbia faculty towards Israeli or pro—Israel students has concluded that little or nothing of concern occurred.  Rather, given the opportunity to produce a report that is sure to receive widespread publicity, the faculty committee concluded that the more disturbing problem is found elsewhere — with pro—Israel students disrupting lectures on Middle Eastern studies, and some faculty members feeling that they were spied on. 

So the real problem at Columbia is not anti—Semitism, biased and untruthful teaching, or harassment of pro—Israel students, but pro—Israel troublemakers. Wouldn't you know.

College politics is big news these days, from the University of Colorado's consideration of Ward Churchill's public statements and 'original scholarship,' to the Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty's vote of no confidence in President Larry Summers, to the Columbia contretemps over the behavior of several Middle Eastern Studies faculty members. 

So far, two very clear patterns have been established. When criticized by outsiders (anyone who is not faculty) the university faculty circles the wagons to protect their own. It matters not whether the criticism comes from others within the university community — a college President like Summers or current or past students, or from true outsiders.  The second pattern is that free speech and academic freedom protect faculty members, whatever they might say (true or untrue), but no others.

Ward Churchill can accuse the janitors and restaurant workers in the World Trade Center of being little Eichmanns. He can apparently invent nonexistent Indian massacres in his 'scholarship,' and even nonexistent Indians (like Ward Churchill himself) to secure his teaching position.  His speech is protected by academic freedom, regardless of its truthfulness, and however much others may disagree with it. The dirty secret of academia which is coming out from all this, of course, is that many humanities faculty members do not disagree with Churchill's messages, but consider them pretty mainstream.

But if Larry Summers criticizes some faculty for supporting divestment of university monies from companies doing business in Israel, or offers a controversial (to some) explanation of why more males than females are found in university teaching positions in engineering and the hard sciences, that speech is not protected. Such speech, rather, engenders a call for repeated public apologies, because it 'insults and threatens' faculty members, and 'dangerously' raises alternative arguments that are outside of the accepted wisdom of the university community on the subject.

So, too, in the Columbia situation. The charges by current and former students are deemed false, or unworthy of concern, and instead the student accusers are themselves accused of helping create a witch—hunt, a chilling new McCarthyism designed to silence faculty who are critical of Israel.

The Columbia panel that was appointed to consider the charges could not have come to a different conclusion than they did without a series of lobotomies. The make—up the committee insured the outcome of its deliberations. Two members had participated in the hiring, thesis advising, and faculty reviews of Joseph Massad, one of the professors whose conduct was examined.  Has anyone at Columbia ever heard of the concept of conflict of interest?  Two committee members had signed Columbia's divestment from Israel letter when it circulated. In other words, they liked what they heard from Rashid Khalidi, Massad, George Saliba, Hamid Dabashi, and the late Edward Said. What kind of consideration can you show for students who challenge these icons of the underdog Palestinians?

Of course the committee included Jewish members. That insulated Columbia from appearing to be anti—Semitic on its face.  But Bollinger was undoubtedly well aware that when push comes to shove, many lefty Jewish academics would reliably support Israel—bashing faculty members over Jewish students who complain about them.

Only three specific charges merited some mention from the Columbia committee. In one case, the committee concluded that Professor Massad had overstepped.

According to a New York Times report

'The most credible, the committee found, was an incident involving Professor Joseph Massad, who was teaching a class on Palestinian and Israeli politics. According to the report, a student, Deena Shanker, recalled asking if it was true that Israel sometimes gave a warning before a bombing so that people would not be hurt. She said the professor blew up, telling her, "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!"

The report said that the professor had "denied emphatically that this incident took place" and had told the committee that he would never ask a student to leave his class. And it said that others in the "particularly tense" class differed about whether the incident, which was never formally reported, had taken place.

But the committee said that in the end, it found the account "credible" and concluded that the professor's

"rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism."

In another incident involving Massad, an Israeli student, and former soldier, questioned Massad at an off campus lecture. Massad, according to the student, asked him twice how many Palestinians he had killed. The committee concluded that this 'fell into a gray zone, neither in the classroom, where the reported behavior would not be acceptable, nor in an off—campus political event, where it might fit within a not unfamiliar range of give and take regarding charged issues.'  This treatment of the professor's behavior was in keeping with Columbia's response to the late Professor Said's well photographed rock—throwing at Israeli soldiers across the international border between Lebanon and Israel. The great man of letters may have merely been perfecting both his body and mind with the rock assault, but in any case he did not do it between 110th and 125 streets on the west side of Manhattan, so why should Columbia have cared?

Compare the Columbia conclusion on this matter with what recently happened to a longtime De Paul University professor who chose to argue with some Muslim students who had set up an anti—Israel display in a hallway at that college. For his 'intimidating behavior', the professor was suspended without pay.  It seems likely that if the table had been manned by a pro—Israel group, and the professor had argued the pro—Palestinian side, that his behavior would have been excused. Almost certainly, if he had taught at Columbia.

The most fascinating conclusion of the Columbia committee concerned a third charge they deemed serious enough to consider, this time against Professor George Saliba. A student claimed that Saliba told her after class that

'...she was not a Semite because she had green eyes, and therefore had no claim to the land of Israel.'

Here is how the professor responded to the charge, and how the committee reacted, according to the New York Times article:

'The professor told the committee that the student might have misunderstood an argument he often made about the absurdity of making historical claims for land based on religious premises. The committee concluded that "however regrettable a personal reference might have been, it is a good deal more likely to have been a statement that was integral to an argument about the uses of history and lineage than an act approaching intimidation."

After reading this, I thought of a few other bigoted ethnic or racial slurs or stereotypes that the committee might evaluate to provide guidance for possible future cases. Perhaps they would consider all of them as 'integral to an argument about the use of history and lineage'.  But I tend to doubt it.

1.     To an African—American student: 'You can't be African American. You are almost as white as I am.'
2.     To an American Indian student: 'You can't be an American Indian. You are almost as white as I am'
3.     To an Hispanic student: 'You can't be Mexican. Your English is too good, and you are almost as white as I am
4.     To an Asian student:  You can't be Asian.  You are not that good in math.'
5.     To a Palestinian student: 'You can't be a Palestinian.  You only have books and your lunch in that backpack.'

The fascinating aspect of the Columbia deliberations relates to the power relationship between faculty and students. This case involved what the students believed was intimidation by faculty, designed to shut them up and end challenges to the accepted anti—Israel party line the faculty were handing down.  President Bollinger did not see it that way.

'A second lesson...was that the conflict was not only about the claims of intimidation, but also about the actual debate over the Middle East.'

Since Bollinger accepts the report's conclusion that the intimidation did not occur, the real problem  he seems to argue is that the pro—Israel students did not like what they heard in class, not that the professors acted inappropriately.

In the warped worldview of victim studies, a theme that seeps into most courses in most humanities departments at the moment, everything can be seen as a power struggle.  The victims in this power struggle are women, racial minorities, Muslims, gays, atheists, non—Americans, who all have to contend with the hegemonic, misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, racist, theocratic white males who run the evil empires with power: the United States, and the Israeli Likud Party, their allies.  But some how, power struggles do not enter into faculty student relationships, whether in the classroom or outside. Then it is only a clash of ideas, according to Bollinger.

The good new is that a bright light is being shined on this very diseased segment of our society.  For this we can thank the David Project, and Campus Watch, and the website, and Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, and David Horowitz, among others.  They continue to expose just how virulently anti—American, and anti—Israel much of academia has become, and how weak and feckless most college presidents are in responding, as they pay lip service to academic freedom and promote diversity in all areas except that of ideas.