Columbia's Latest Invitation

September 17, 2010

Columbia University likes to invite world leaders to campus when they are in New York City for United Nations meetings, and the university has defended invitations to some particularly controversial leaders -- such as Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who appeared there in 2007. Columbia officials say that the university benefits from exposing students to world leaders, however reprehensible their ideas may be, and that the visits are about learning, not endorsing a particular point of view.

Critics have said that the visits provide little in the way of education -- but plenty of great PR for dictators. And the university's latest invitation -- to Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia -- is providing new ammunition for those who question some of Columbia's choices.

In this case, not only is the university inviting someone widely accused of denying basic democratic rights, but it originally posted on its website material that came straight from Ethiopian officials praising their leader. The original web page -- since removed by the university but preserved on the website of The Columbia Daily Spectator -- says: "Under the seasoned governmental leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, now in his fourth term ... Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses [sic] in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy."

That Zenawi has a reputation as something other than a humanitarian is hardly a secret. He is No. 16 on Parade Magazine's "World's Worst Dictators" list, getting special credit for essentially banishing most nongovernmental organizations from the country by banning any that receive more than 10 percent of their annual budget from outside the country. Human Rights Watch has issued numerous critical reports, noting how repression has undercut free expression and elections in the country.

Indeed, while the Columbia website referenced Zenawi as being in his fourth term, Human Rights Watch found that his landslide victory in May was clearly influenced by threats to citizens that they could lose food, jobs and educational opportunities if they failed to back the government. The election tally gave Zenawi and his allies 99 percent of the vote, a margin of victory that is typically a red flag that might make one hesitant to talk about suggesting a political leader has been re-elected.

Given all of that, why did Columbia announce Zenawi's visit in a way that suggested approval for his conduct?

A statement from the university said: "The longstanding editorial policy of the World Leaders Forum website has been to provide only the basic factual information about the name of speakers, their bios, date of events and, if provided, the title of remarks. The background information that was posted by staff about the forum involving the Prime Minister of Ethiopia was obtained from the government's mission and was not properly cited as such. We regret that error." Further, the statement said that Columbia's policy is not to "take editorial positions of the type inadvertently suggested by this unattributed text."

The university's statement went on to note that the prime minister's appearance would be followed by a question-and-answer period. "[F]oreign leaders visiting the university often are confronted with probing questions that they may not face in their home countries. Providing such a forum for debate of controversial ideas and issues is central to the University's free speech values, its educational mission, and its role as a global center of learning," the statement said. (The Columbia web page on the visit is now just a listing of the event and the prime minister's photograph.)

When Iran's Ahmadinejad appeared in 2007, Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger appeared at the event to introduce him and to pose critical questions -- while also defending the importance of allowing him to speak. A Columbia spokesman declined to comment on whether Bollinger would play a similar role at the Ethiopian prime minister's appearance. The Ethiopian Embassy to the United States also did not respond to phone inquiries.

As with the Iranian speech, protests are being planned for Ethiopia's leader when he appears next week, and open letters are being issued to Columbia -- many of them calling for the university to rescind the invitation.

A blog post at Reason questioned whether "dictators on campus" are really a free speech issue.

The article noted that much of Columbia's defense of its invitations to the leaders of Iran and Ethiopia focuses on the right of the university's students and faculty to hear these speakers.

Writes Armin Rosen in the article, quoting from Bollinger's introduction of Ahmadinejad: "For Bollinger, 'free speech' has less to do with the right to speak freely than with the responsibility to tolerate other people’s speech. Free speech manifests itself in our paradoxical ability to tolerate the intolerable, and it is justified through our 'intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil' and, nevertheless, 'act with the right temperament.' When we tolerate the presence of murderous dictators on college campuses -- when we act with that 'right temperament' -- we prove that we’re up to the challenge of living in a free society whose limits of tolerance must be constantly tested."

To Rosen, this is the wrong way to consider free speech. "In the case of Ahmadinejad -- and especially in the case of Zenawi -- the whole 'we do this for ourselves' justification is deeply selfish. There was just an election in Ethiopia. Zenawi’s party won 99 percent of the vote amidst widespread allegations of fraud. In the case of Zenawi’s speaking invitation, any expansion of our own understanding of free speech (which is a dubiously self-reflexive justification for free-speech, if you haven’t noticed) will come at the expense of the actual free speech of Ethiopia's opposition, whose oppressor will soon be feted at one of the top universities on earth. The irony, of course, is that those whose free speech is curtailed on a daily basis likely understand that the concept is more than just an abstract exercise in achieving the 'right temperament' -- and that free speech is hardly protected by honoring those who have absolutely no respect for it."

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