The Academy Fails Again

When professors hijack their students' efforts to suit their own political agendas, and the students' agenda is obliterated by a professor's implied directive, and a university blames the entire mess on the students, what do you have?  The University of Delaware.  A close examination of recent events there reveals the leadership's dismal failure to capitalize on positive, mature efforts by students, and to instead hoist them in front of the firing line.

In late September some University of Delaware students chose not to participate in the official country-wide Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.  Instead, they decided to create their own series, including the showing of two documentaries that exposed what they believed to be a very different narrative about terrorism than that which is typically presented on college campuses.  The first movie, sponsored solely by the College Republicans, was The Path to 9-11.  The second documentary, Obsession, was co-sponsored by the College Republicans and the College Democrats, and was attended by students with a broad range of political orientations. 

Students protesting before the Obsession screening were invited inside to see the film before denouncing it. Those accepting the invitation included members of the Muslim Students Association and the Students for a Democratic Society.  Following the movie there was a long discussion period during which many different viewpoints were presented.  The evening ended on a high note -- true collegiality had been attained. As one student put it, "we left what might have seemed an impossible discussion to have, with no one feeling hot under the collar."  Exhilaration was running high. This high, however, quickly evaporated as raw politics, mistrust, abuse of power and abdication of responsibility - all on the part of the "grown-ups" arrived.

An expert panel, also co-sponsored by College Republicans and College Democrats, was the next day's event in what the UD students had labeled "Terrorism Awareness Week."  Professor Stuart Kaufman of the Political Science and International Relations Department told the students when they were inviting him to participate that the title of the panel should not contain the word Islamo-Fascism because, he pronounced, "there is no similarity at all between what people usually call Muslim fundamentalism and fascism. They are just completely different phenomena."  The students acceded to the professor's suggestion. 

Kaufman offered instead the title, "Anti-Americanism in the Middle East."  The students again acceded.  With this change - one that fundamentally altered the essence of the series -- Kaufman agreed to serve on the panel.  Both Kaufman and another invited panelist, Associate Professor Muqtedar Khan, have written on this topic.  Both have cast the United States as responsible for this phenomenon.  Just one year earlier when speaking at a UD panel Kaufman announced to the student audience that the U.S. is in a "low-intensity war with the entire Muslim world."   He told the students that American's foreign policy in this area was "catastrophic," and "inept."

A Muslim of Indian origin, Khan teaches political science as well as Islamic Studies. He has described American foreign policy as "unwise and untrustworthy rhetoric," and criticized "its belligerent posture, [which] is alienating and angering people in the East and in the West." The third panelist from UD was a graduate student who works with both professors.

Members of the College Republicans, the group largely responsible for the Terrorism series, saw there was an imbalance in the panel.  The faculty speakers were both in the "blame the Americans" mold, and the graduate student was perceived as having similar politics.  After holding several discussions, the students concluded that there was no one on the entire UD faculty who could provide the necessary balance. 

So they decided they had to go outside the university.  One of the students turned to the Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based resource for conservative American college students, which agreed to fund a panelist that met the students' needs.  LI directed the students to Winfield Myers, the Director of Campus Watch, as a potential panelist.

Myers, whose bailiwick is professors with an anti-Israel and anti-American propensity, but not Middle East phenomena, in turn referred the students to an expert on the Middle East, Asaf Romirowsky.  The UD College Republicans invited Romirowsky on Monday, October 22nd  to join the panel slated for October 24th.  He accepted. 

Asaf Romirowsky, the one member of the invited panelists who is fluent in Arabic and whose sole academic and professional focus is the Middle East, has lectured all over the United States and in Israel.  He spent 19 years living in Israel.  When serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he was a Liaison Officer for International Organizations in the West Bank; Romirowsky's mandate was to assist humanitarian organizations working in that area.

On Tuesday, Lara Rausch, president of the College Republicans, contacted the other panelists including Prof. Khan to let them know that a fourth panelist was added.  She provided them with Romirowsky's biography. 

Khan was in Washington when he received Raush's message.  He shot an email to Rausch, saying:

I am also not sure how I feel about being on the same panel with an Israeli soldier
who was stationed in West Bank.  Some people see IDF as an occupying force in the West Bank. I am not sure that I will be comfortable occupying the same space with him.

It is not fair to spring this surprise on me at the last moment.
Rausch saw the email on Tuesday night and panicked.  She feared that Professor Khan, annoyed with her for "spring[ing]" on him the surprise of appearing with an IDF veteran, would withdraw from the panel.  She also feared that given their similar politics, Prof. Kaufman would withdraw if Khan did.  Rausch is a Political Science student. The panel was the next day and it seemed likely that the event was about to collapse.  The good feeling engendered by the student dialogue following the showing of Obsession evaporated.

Rausch spoke with another officer in the College Republicans, Bill Rivers, about the dilemma.  She reluctantly concluded that rather than end up with no panel at all because Khan and Kaufman seemed likely to bolt, Romirowsky should be asked not to speak on the panel, but instead be invited to speak alone two weeks later.

Rivers disagreed with the decision, but it fell to him to inform Romirowsky. 

When called Wednesday at 10:00 am and told please not to come to the panel he was scheduled to appear on that evening, but instead to come back another time and speak alone, Romirowsky balked.  Upon learning the reason for this turn of events -- that one of the other panelists was uncomfortable appearing with an IDF veteran -- he was appalled.  

According to Romirowsky, Rivers was very apologetic and also upset because "their" voice, that is, a conservative one, was not going to be heard.  Romirowsky said "the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was unlikely to even come up," and was shocked that a professor would express this blatantly anti-IDF sentiment to a student.  He asked Rivers to forward to him the email.  Rivers did so, as Khan's email was what triggered the disinvitation. 

Romirowsky then contacted Myers at Campus Watch, Romirowsky's original contact to the panel, and told him what happened.  Myers, also incredulous, asked the email be forwarded to him.  Michael Rubin, a colleague of both Myers and of Romirowsky through their associations with the Middle East Forum, wrote a squib about the incident which appeared the next day in National Review Online.  Myers published an article about it through his Campus Watch website.   

Once the news of the anti-IDF disinvitation hit the Internet, UD was bombarded with emails, calls and faxes criticizing the University and demanding an explanation. 

The University hunkered down.  An official form email from the University President, Patrick Harker, was immediately crafted -- presumably by attorneys -- emphatically assuring all that neither the University nor Professor Khan had disinvited Romirowsky.  The University's email deflected any responsibility, pointing out that student organizations had sponsored and arranged the panel.  Further suggesting that the University played no role in the episode, the email concluded with a terse reminder that the University is "committed to academic freedom and an open exchange of ideas."  The school Provost, Dr. Daniel Rich, sang from the same hymnal in his response to queries.

A careful, lawyerly reading of the email from Prof. Khan to Lara Rausch reveals that he did not actually say either that Romirowsky had to be removed, or that he wanted  Romirowsky to be removed.  But should the email be read differently if there was a disparity in power, say if the author had some position of authority over the recipient?  Would that change whether or not the email was telling the student to remove the "tainted" newcomer?  Would it be reasonable for a student to read the email in that way? If such an impact was reasonable, was the absence of an explicit directive even relevant?  These are the kinds of questions that are asked in employment discriminatory harassment cases.  The same analysis seems to fit this situation.

Such an analysis, one that considered the power differential as a factor, apparently did not occur to anyone at UD.  Every official gratefully concluded that it was neither Professor Khan nor the University that had disinvited Romirowsky.  With great relief UD, the entity largely in control of the information flow, and therefore much of the larger interested audience, concluded that it had not played a role in dismissing Romirowsky. It seems clear that the University's goal was to avoid being pilloried or sued -- not to educate the students or the professors about what constitutes appropriate communications on sensitive subjects between faculty and students.  The target had been reset, and the charging hunters were diverted. 

Professor David Silver teaches in the UD Philosophy Department and is Chair of the Jewish Studies Program.  He was contacted to look into the incident not by anyone at UD, but by the Wilmington and Philadelphia Jewish Federations.  

After a brief communication with Romirowsky - the only one from anyone officially affiliated with the University, Silver spoke with Prof. Khan.  Silver's goal was to find out whether Khan had suggested the students should "get rid" of Romirowsky.  Khan denied having said any such thing.  Silver also asked the student leader, Rausch, whether she had felt "any pressure" by Khan.  Rausch replied that although she did not feel pressured, she was afraid the panel would "fall apart" because Khan was unhappy. 

That a student might feel compelled to comply with a veiled suggestion from a professor apparently never occurred to to anyone at the University.  "We" didn't do it, that is, neither UD nor any of its agents, gave Romirowsky the boot.  According to those with whom she spoke, Dr. Gretchen Bauer, the Chair of the Political Science and International Relations Department, was also solely focused on determining exactly who had done the disinviting.    

Prof. Silver did look for a silver lining, however.  He said it was his judgment that "this was not a case of anti-Israel bias that crossed the line, but," suggesting some problem did exist, "it shows that the University of Delaware needs to have an academic with an Israel focus on campus."  Silver noted that one of the courses Khan teaches is the "Arab-Israel Conflict."  

The official to whom the University directed telephone inquiries was Dr. Michael Gilbert, Vice President for Student Life.  Gilbert said that the addition of Romirowsky was a last minute change, suggesting Khan's displeasure was not unreasonable.  His conclusion was that the students were the ones who had made a mistake and that "they should have contacted his office before making any decisions."  Here again was the party line: University and Professor Khan not at fault, students at fault.  Nothing further to be done here, next case.

Gilbert was asked whether, because Khan is a professor and there is an imbalance in power between him and the student, that such an imbalance might tip Khan's suggestion into having the weight of a directive.  Gilbert's response was that he "was not going to psychoanalyze those involved." 

Gilbert's subordinate, Scott Mason, is the UD Director of the Office of Activities and Programs.  Mason was the only UD administration official who spoke with the students involved.  Taking his cue from his boss, Mason instructed the students to contact Student Programming when confronted with a similar dilemma in the future.  The fact that Rausch only saw Khan's email after hours and on the night before the panel was, Mason acknowledged, a complication. 

So, why did Professor Khan write that infamous email? 

In an interview, Khan said his "real concern" was not what he had claimed in the email, that Romirowsky's IDF service was in the West Bank, but that he was connected to Campus Watch.  Khan believes Campus Watch is "dedicated to defaming" Muslim and pro-Muslim academics.

And why the antipathy towards Campus Watch? A close friend of Khan's, Tariq Ramadan, is a Swiss Muslim academic whose visa was revoked, and thereafter repeatedly denied, according to the State Department, for "providing material support to a terrorist organization."  Among those whom Ramadan blames for this situation is Dr. Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, and the academic watchdog group connected with the forum, Campus Watch.  In an interview Khan said he "considers Ramadan a good friend," as well as "an excellent example of a moderate Muslim." 

When pressed as to why Romirowsky's IDF veteran status was mentioned in his email to Rausch, Khan then admitted that he would be uncomfortable appearing with an IDF veteran who had served in the "West Bank."  However, he pointed out, he still showed up at the panel, so that proved he would not refuse to do so.  Rausch, however, had not been provided with this distinction.

Khan then offered a third explanation for sending the email.  Khan said that he and the other panelists had already discussed what they were going to present and it was all arranged.  Having what Khan saw as an eleventh hour addition of someone whom the other panelists did not know was, he felt, "unfair" because it had been "sprung on [him] at the last minute."  

It is unclear why a university professor would find it uncomfortable and unfair to share a podium with anyone on a topic about which he presented himself as an expert. As Winfield Myers practically exploded, "People are asked to step into gaps on panels all the time."  Myers pointed out that the informal panel was put together shortly before the actual event, and was "not like a formal panel at an academic convention where someone is assigned the task of responding to someone else's paper."  

So what actually happened at the panel on "Anti-Americanism in the Middle East," a part of a series created in response to the perceived anti-conservative, anti-American, anti-Israel atmosphere pervasive on most American campuses?  According to those present, the faculty members of the panel largely blamed the United States for Middle East anti-American sentiment, and both pointed to the U.S.'s imbalanced support of Israel as one of those factors. 

Professor Khan began his panel remarks by insulting the students who put together the panel.  He stated that "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week foments racism," ignoring the UD students' decision to avoid that title and to develop their own roster of events which they co-sponsored with groups of differing political views.  Khan later described the Week as "an effort to generate intolerance." 

Even leaders of the College Democrats left the panel remarking that the panel was, as the students who originally invited Romirowsky feared, too leftist and unbalanced.

A moment of student collegiality and true efforts to educate themselves beyond their narrow understandings was dashed; a university shielded itself by offering up its students as responsible for a distasteful -- but nothing more -- episode; an opportunity for learning from a concrete example of the results of disproportionate power held by faculty members over students was not just ignored but rejected. 

In erecting a bulwark against any legal liability, the University ran roughshod over its true duty: teaching. 
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