War and Peace at Columbia

The report on controversial Middle Eastern studies professors got some predictable, loud reactions and some less predictable, quiet reactions.
April 1, 2005

After months of debate, closed-door hearings, and intense lobbying, a faculty committee at Columbia University on Thursday released a report that largely cleared professors of Middle Eastern studies of charges that they were intimidating students -- and explicitly stated that there was no evidence of anti-Semitism at Columbia.

Reaction to the report was in many ways predictable. Professors of Middle Eastern studies said that they had been exonerated (and the professor who was not cleared attacked the committee). Meanwhile, the harshest criticis of the professors said that the university had engaged in a whitewash.

Behind the scenes, however, there are signs that some players on both sides of academe's Middle East wars may be ready for, if not peace, at least a cease fire. At Columbia, a new grievance procedure will be created so that students who feel intimidated in the future know where to go with their complaints. And the university is moving quickly on an endowed chair in Israel studies. And at least some within Middle Eastern studies nationally say that there may be truth to the idea that too many programs are dominated by pro-Palestinian scholars.

To be sure, there is still plenty of fighting to be done about the report, and that started Thursday with the release of the report. The faculty panel that issued it was created in December with Columbia facing increasing questions about allegations that pro-Israel students were being mocked and harassed in some courses on the Middle East.As the allegations picked up steam, a group called the David Project released a film called Columbia Unbecoming, in which students discussed incidents with these professors.

The report focused on three incidents, all in the 2001-2 academic year, and made a finding of unprofessional behavior in only one of them. That incident involved Joseph Massad, a professor whom a student said had shouted at him and urged him to leave the classroom after she asked whether Israel sometimes gave warnings before it bombed various sites.

Massad denied responding as the student remembers, and some who were in the class back his version. But others support the student, and the committee found it "credible" that the events transpired as she reported them.

Massad's response to her criticism, the panel said, "exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism."

In an e-mail interview Thursday, Massad called the report's conclusions "inaccurate and unfair." He also released his statement to the committee that studied the allegations. In that statement, he said that he had been the victim of a "campaign of intimidation" by supporters of Israel who were offended by his criticisms of the country.

The committee also reviewed the evidence in two other charges made by students about professorial intimidation, but said that these cases were less clear cut. The committee also said that it found no evidence of anti-Semitism or that students were punished with lower grades for disagreeing with their professors. The committee explicitly said that it did not try to evaluate the research or teaching approaches of various professors.

Where the committee criticized Columbia was in failing to have good grievance procedures that students who were upset might have used.

"The establishment of this committee was a response to the failure to address such concerns clearly, promptly, and consistently," the report said. "These failures reflected both the negligent or misguided behavior of individuals and widespread systemic confusion about responsibility and authority. As a result of these failures, outside advocacy groups devoted to purposes tangential to those of the university were able to intervene to take up complaints expressed by some students, further confusing the location of responsibility and authority for addressing student concerns about instruction at Columbia."

And in turn, the committee blamed the lack of a grievance procedure for much of the anger and distrust between professors and students in the debates over the allegations.

So, in the end, the conclusion was that there was one unprofessional incident and lots of frustration all around -- from professors who felt the committee was undermining academic freedom and students who worried that their views weren't taken seriously.

With the release of the report, leaders of Middle Eastern studies and faculty groups generally declared victory. Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan who is president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association, said "the faculty have been held harmless. We've seen these campaigns before and this is par for the course."

Cole said that the outside groups -- especially the David Project -- "really are making a plea that Israel be held harmless from any criticism, and that's not a demand that any university can agree to."

Likewise, Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that what was important was that a faculty committee reviewed the charges and made findings. "The Middle East is a volatile region and a volatile subject, but when charges are made, universities need to deal with them, not outside politicians or groups," he said.

Not surprising, Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, had a very different view of Thursday's report. "This is a biased report from a biased panel. It's disgraceful," he said.

Jacobs said that the faculty members on the committee had close professional ties to the professors being investigated, and sympathy with their politics. "Where else in American society do people charged with wrongdoing get to be investigated by their friends?" he said.

Specifically, he said that the committee ignored numerous incidents that were reported, and instead dwelled on the pressure felt by professors who were under investigation. "They turned things around on the students. This is vicious," he said.

A Columbia spokeswoman said that no one ever claimed that the faculty members on the review panel didn't know or work with the professors against whom allegations were made. She noted that that is the way faculty governance works -- on tenure review panels, promotion panels, search committees, etc.

Other professors had another interpretation of the panel's composition: that it was a brilliant move by Columbia's president, Lee C. Bollinger, to appoint a panel of people seen as sympathetic to the Middle Eastern studies professors and the Palestinian cause. The professors who hold this point of view -- no fans of the Middle Eastern studies faculty -- say that only the kind of panel Bollinger appointed would have credibility with the faculty as a whole. Indeed, many on Columbia's faculty have been so angered by the David Project and other outside groups that there have been expressions of support for professors who might otherwise not have had wide backing.

The theory of this group is that even if the faculty committee didn't come down hard on anyone, it said that students have a right to be treated with respect, and it called for the creation of grievance procedures that would give students more clout when they face difficulties.

That clout may be stronger because Bollinger himself recently spoke out on the need for professors to recognize the responsibilities that come with having a student audience. In a speech strongly defending academic freedom, Bollinger said: "In the classroom, especially, where we perhaps meet our highest calling, the professor knows the need 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. To act otherwise is to be intellectually self-indulgent."

Other recent Columbia moves also suggest that the complaints about the Middle Eastern studies department being monolithic in views (at least on matters related to Israel) may have captured high-level attention. The university recently announced a $5 million program to establish a chair in Israel studies and to bring visiting faculty members from Israel to Columbia.

Several universities have recently created Israel studies chairs or programs, and some academics have suggested that such programs create the kind of intellectual balance that may lessen the chances of tensions getting out of control, as they have at Columbia. (Ironically, many Israel studies scholars in the United States and Israel are themselves quite critical of Israel's government, but the criticism tends to come in a different tone than that for which some Columbia professors have been criticized.)

Jewish student groups at Columbia are also trying a new approach. Simon Klarfeld, executive director of Columbia's Hillel, noted that the last few months have seen "an increase in divisiveness" for students on the campus. But he said that several Jewish groups have recently started having meetings with Arab student organizations.

"We're looking more at alliances, at starting to talk with different groups," Klarfeld said.

He is also speaking out against the suggestion made by some of Columbia's critics that the university is anti-Semitic. "Jewish life thrives here on so many different levels," he said.

Ali Banuazizi, co-director of the Middle Eastern and Islamic studies program at Boston College, is also worried about false perceptions. Banuazizi, president of the Middle East Studies Association, said that the debate at Columbia has led people to think of his field as being entirely about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"We do art history. We do economics, anthropology, religious studies," he said. And much of the work on those subjects is not contentious in the way that scholarship on the Israelis and Palestinians may inevitably be from time to time.

Banuazizi is generally sympathetic to his colleagues at Columbia. But he also said that there "may be truth" to the criticism that many Middle Eastern studies departments lack scholars who are sympathetic to Israel.

"There is generally speaking in the American community of Middle Eastern scholars a pro-Palestinian sentiment," he said. "Whether universities have to assure that there is also a pro-Israeli sentiment in each of these communities, that's difficult to achieve, and we don't do that in every field, but certainly we should be very careful that no one is denied a position or hearing on the basis of his or her views."


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