At Columbia, Questions Over Canceled Panel

Panelists say Turkish government pressure is the likely explanation for why Columbia called off a forum at the last minute. Columbia says there were irregularities in the planning process and that several institutes had withdrawn their support.

April 4, 2019
 
Y. Alp Aslandogan

Columbia University abruptly called off a panel scheduled for this evening on the collapse of the rule in law in Turkey in what several panelists say was likely a result of pressure from the Turkish government.

Columbia -- which under the leadership of President Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, has fashioned itself as a bastion for free speech protections and famously defended a speaking invitation in 2007 to the then Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- denied the decision was a result of outside pressure. University officials did not answer questions posed about the panel but said there were "irregularities" in the planning process for the event and that several Columbia faculty and institutes had withdrawn their support. The event was originally going to be co-hosted by Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute and Columbia's Global Freedom of Expression project, an academic initiative founded by Bollinger.

Panelists said the seeming source of the controversy was the inclusion on the panel of Y. Alp Aslandogan, the president of the Alliance for Shared Values, a New York-based umbrella organization for the Hizmet movement, which is led by Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric whom Turkey’s government blames for a 2016 coup attempt (Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S., has denied involvement). The panel was organized with an outside institution, the Human Rights Foundation, and in addition to Aslandogan included speakers from Columbia and Georgetown Universities, PEN America, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Everything seemed fine, and they were going through the final preparations for everything,” said Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the would-be moderator of the panel. “Then Monday night the folks from Human Rights Foundation called me saying they had a letter from the provost saying they were postponing the event because there wasn’t adequate consultation on the composition of the panel and it doesn’t meet Columbia’s academic standards and they look forward to working with them for another panel at another time. For me and everyone else, this was just an artful way of canceling the event.”

“The only conclusion that anybody can really draw is that Columbia came under significant pressure from the Turkish government,” Cook said. “As someone who works on Turkey, I’m not surprised that the Turkish government tried to bring this pressure to bear. What I am surprised is that Columbia said, ‘OK.’”

Cook said the pressure likely stemmed from the participation of Aslandogan. Aslandogan said that when he speaks in public forums, Turkish officials regularly protest the granting of a platform to a representative of what they consider to be a criminal movement.

“In the past few years, I spoke at many venues, and in each venue I think without exception when the event was announced the organizers were pressured to cancel the event or prevent me from speaking,” Aslandogan said. “Basically any public venue where my speech is publicized, Turkish diplomats in that city contact organizers try to cancel the event. They will use a carrot and stick approach to either cancel the event or drop me as a speaker, so I’m not surprised that this happened here as well.”

“If the co-host had objected to the composition of the panel at the beginning, I would understand that,” Aslandogan said. “But after the event is actually publicized and promoted on social media, I think is very suspicious.”

“Up until the last 10 days, there was no problem with the panel -- it was announced and it was planned and everything was going fine, I was preparing my comments and then -- I don’t know exactly when it started -- but then an objection came to my being the only Turkish voice, and there was a need of more diversity, and then to satisfy that concern, Sinan Ciddi” -- the executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Turkish Studies -- “was invited to the panel and he agreed. But then that did not satisfy that concern and as the process continued, it became apparent that my presence was the problem, not the lack of diversity.”

In a statement a Columbia spokesman said there was a lack of transparency and insufficient consultation in the planning process for the event. The university said it would reschedule the event, but officials declined to answer a question about whether Aslandogan would be invited to participate.

"The decisions of several Columbia faculty and sponsoring institutions to withdraw from Thursday’s panel discussion were a direct consequence of irregularities in the planning that occurred, including a lack of transparency concerning panel participants and insufficient consultation in the steps taken to rectify imbalances in the makeup of the panel," Columbia said. "Other reasons that have been publicly suggested for the postponement are mistaken. We will soon announce a date later this month for a rescheduled event at Columbia addressing the important subject of Turkey and the rule of law."

Sarah H. Cleveland, the Louis H. Henkin Professor of Human and Constitutional Rights and faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, likewise said in a statement issued by Columbia’s media relations office that the institute withdrew from participating in the panel due to concerns about the planning.

“Objections by a government whose policies are being critically examined would never affect the Human Rights Institute's participation in any forum and played no role in our decision to withdraw from this particular conference,” said Cleveland, who on Wednesday published an op-ed in The Hill calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to address what she described as Turkey's descent into authoritarianism. “Rather, the planning of the conference lacked the consultation and transparency essential to the event’s academic integrity and produced a panel without the diverse perspectives required for our participation.”

“The speaker we identified to remedy this problem was unable to participate, while other panelists, who failed to address our concerns, were added unilaterally without consultation,” Cleveland said. “Under these circumstances, and despite our best efforts, the Human Rights Institute was obligated to withdraw.”

The outside organization that was involved in organizing the event, the Human Rights Foundation, did not comment on Monday beyond a tweet from its chairman, the chess star Garry Kasparov, criticizing Columbia's decision and calling for a full explanation.

PEN America issued a statement of concern in light of what the organization said was its understanding that Columbia was approached late last week by a representative of the Turkish government who objected to the event. The director of PEN America's Freedom of Expression At-Risk Programs was scheduled to speak at today's event.

“As an organization dedicated to the defense of freedom of expression and one that has been deeply involved in issues of free speech at university campuses, we are concerned that the outreach from the Turkish government may have played any role at all in Columbia’s decision to cancel the panel,” PEN America said. “While there may have been valid grounds to reconsider the makeup of the event and even to postpone it in order to ensure a more representative group of speakers, the direct intervention of the Turkish government in an effort to influence the event creates at the very least a perception that Columbia may have been influenced by Turkey in its decision to call off the event. The government of Turkey is notorious for its relentless crackdown on dissidents, writers, journalists and scholars, including many who are university-affiliated. Government intrusions in university decision making of this nature violate academic freedom and freedom of speech. Universities, scholars and free speech defenders must be vigilant in resisting such interference and avoiding even the perception that decisions may be shaped by government pressure.”

Inside Higher Ed has not independently confirmed whether Turkish officials exerted pressure on Columbia, and Columbia did not address a question from Inside Higher Ed about whether Turkish government officials had contacted the university in regards to the event. The Turkish Embassy in Washington did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s request for comment.

Panelists noted that Columbia has a center in Istanbul and also is home to a Turkish studies center founded several years ago with a $10 million gift from the family of a Turkish businessman.

“This event has been on the books as far as I understand for several weeks -- I think for months. Why are you canceling it at the 11th hour and secondly why is the provost stepping in?” asked Ciddi, the director of Georgetown's Institute for Turkish Studies and a panelist. “I’ve organized a whole bunch of events in my time at Georgetown. I’ve never seen a provost, a person of that high caliber, stepping in to not hold an event.”

“There isn’t a good explanation for this other than pressure,” Ciddi said. “It’s Occam’s razor.”

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