The Speech That Wasn't

For an event that won't take place, the planned appearance by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, resulted in plenty of announcements from Columbia University on Wednesday and Thursday.

September 22, 2006

For an event that won't take place, the planned appearance by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, resulted in plenty of announcements from Columbia University on Wednesday and Thursday.

After university officials dismissed reports that he had been invited to talk on the Manhattan campus as "rumors," they then confirmed that he had been invited -- first in a short statement from Lee C. Bollinger, the president, and then in a longer version. Then the university sent word that Ahmadinejad wouldn't be appearing because of "logistical" problems and then another statement from Bollinger, saying that the university had been unable to arrange the visit in a way that would "reflect the academic values that are the hallmark" of a Columbia event.

As rumors about the speech swirled around Columbia's campus, students who are members of a pro-Israel group distributed leaflets criticizing the invitation by their university, which has been trying to overcome accusations -- considered unfair by many on the campus -- that the institution has been insensitive to Jewish and pro-Israel students.

The furor at Columbia follows both criticism and strong defenses of the decision by Harvard University to invite Mohammed Khatami, a former president of Iran, to speak on its campus earlier this month. Some objected to giving Khatami a platform, given Iran's record of human rights abuses. But many others at Harvard and elsewhere defended the invitation, citing the university's commitment to being a place of open debate and Khatami's reputation as a reformer (at least within the context of Iranian politics).

Ahmadinejad enjoys no such reputation. He was recently in the news, for example, for calling for a purge of secular academics from Iran's universities. And he has repeatedly made statements denying that the Holocaust took place. While Bollinger and others at Columbia defended the invitation by saying that students would be able to challenge the Iranian leader (had a speech taken place), critics noted that the speech was scheduled for today, when Jewish students who might want to protest or challenge him were preparing for or traveling for observance of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which starts tonight.

Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia's World Leaders Forum, which is organized by the university's School of International and Public Affairs. The idea is to have world leaders speak on the campus, and the opening of a session of the United Nations provides a great opportunity for Columbia to invite some of those who are in New York City.

Bollinger's first statement was brief: "Early Wednesday, September 20th, I learned that the president of Iran was invited to speak at the university this Friday. I happen to find many of President Ahmadinejad's stated beliefs to be repugnant, a view that I'm sure is widely shared within our university community. So whether or not all of the special arrangements needed for such a visit can be made in this unusually short period of time, I have no doubt that Columbia students and faculty would use an open exchange to challenge him sharply and are fully capable of reaching their own conclusions."

A few hours later, Bollinger issued a longer statement in which he identified Lisa Anderson, dean of the international affairs school, as the person who had extended the invitation. He said that Anderson has "the right and responsibility to invite speakers whom she believes will add to the academic experience of our students."

Bollinger went on to defend the value of universities inviting all types of speakers to their campuses. "I would also state my core belief that the example of freedom we set here in the United States, and especially at American universities, is the greatest long-term threat to the current Iranian leadership and most powerful weapon against such fundamentalist regimes," adding that "I do not believe President Ahmadinejad's patently false claims about history, about the undeniable fact and horror of the Holocaust in the murder of innocent millions, and his own government's policies in the world, will be seen as anything but absurd."

As to the scheduling of the speech at a time when many Jewish students would be unable to respond, Bollinger said, "If President Ahmadinejad does indeed come to SIPA on Erev Rosh Hashana, he will achieve no propaganda victory for hard-line Iranian policies on nuclear programs, or Israel's fundamental right to exist, or his own historically preposterous views. Instead, his appearance will expose his testimony to the kind of cross examination that we in our country and in our universities know is the surest path to truth and the surest safeguard of freedom."

Asked why an invitation from the university to someone with views that were "patently false" and whose ideas would be seen as "absurd" would "add to the academic experience," a Columbia spokesman said he could not answer questions about why the invitation was deemed to be a positive thing to do, and that he would refer to the question to others who could answer. Columbia never responded to the question.

A short while later, Columbia announced that Ahmadinejad would not be speaking after all, because of "logistical" issues.

Then a third version of Bollinger's statement was released. "As of this morning, we were not able to ever establish a conversation with the Iranian Embassy that would ensure to my satisfaction that the specific arrangements of any such program would reflect the academic values that are the hallmark of a university event such as our World Leaders Forum," he said. "But as the dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, Dean Anderson has the right and responsibility to invite speakers whom she believes will add to the academic experience of our students. My office conveyed to Dean Anderson's that the university would support SIPA if the school wanted to finalize and host such an event tomorrow. She announced earlier today that the event will not take place."

In that statement, Bollinger repeated earlier comments about the value of having a campus open to all ideas. He said: "Freedom to speak, pursue ideas, and even to hear and evaluate viewpoints totally objectionable to our own is central to America's greatness. It is also an essential value of our universities and, indeed, of our civil society."


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