It's fair to say that Columbia University has heard more than an earful over its decision to offer a speaking platform this week to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Reaction ranged widely, with many condemning the university for inviting the controversial leader, others praising Columbia's president, Lee C. Bollinger, for sternly rebuking the Iranian president while he looked on, and some doing both. Opinions flowed freely.
On Wednesday, one vehement critic, with a prominent platform of his own, went a large step further. U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Californian who is also a longshot candidate  (to be generous) for the Republican nomination for president, introduced legislation  that would "prohibit federal grants to or contracts with Columbia University." The text of the legislation -- which college officials called "unprecedented" -- was not yet available on any government Web sites.
Hunter, who was en route to Baltimore for a Republican presidential debate that lacked the four leading candidates, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in a news release he issued Wednesday about the legislation, which he dubbed the "Restoring Patriotism to America's Campuses Act," the Congressman contrasted Columbia's willingness to play host to Ahmadinejad to its anti-military stance, as Hunter characterized it, regarding the Reserve Officer Training Corps and military recruiters.
"By hosting President Ahmadinejad, Columbia University openly insulted the thousands of servicemen and women serving in Iraq, many of whom are direct targets of the munitions that he is sending across the border," Hunter said. "This insult is compounded by the fact that Columbia University dissolved its Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and continues to openly protest the presence of military recruiters on campus. It is troubling to see that a university such as Columbia, with a reputation as one of America’s leading universities, is more receptive to America’s adversaries than it is to the military that protects its right to free speech and assembly."
Hunter, who described himself in the news release as a "strong proponent of free speech," characterized the legislation as an "appropriate and reasonable response to an institution that welcomes a sponsor of terrorism while saying no to our nation’s collegiate military training and recruitment program." He added: "If Columbia University wants to continue hosting our adversaries while turning its back on our military, then U.S. taxpayers should not be required to support the university’s programs.”
Last week, before Ahmadinejad's speech, Hunter had called Columbia's invitation to the Iranian leader a "slap in the face of the 165,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq," adding: "If the left-wingers of academia will not support our troops, they, in the very least, should not support our adversaries."
Columbia officials, not surprisingly, declined comment on the introduction of the legislation, since they had not seen the text. But a spokesman, Robert Hornsby, said university officials had received a "mixture" of responses to Monday's event "across the spectrum of opinions, some supportive and some not."
Hornsby said he could not say how much Columbia receives in federal aid. But information on Columbia's Web site  shows that the university had $458 million in federal research expenditures in 2005, the latest year for which data were available, including $319 million from the Department of Health and Human Services, most of which presumably came from the National Institutes of Health. Throw in federal financial aid (if that were included) and other support, and that's serious money.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said the legislation seemed "more about Republican presidential politics than a serious piece of legislation."
But Hartle said he was still deeply troubled by the legislation, which he described as unprecedented. "I am unaware of a similar proposal to deny any federal funds to an institution of higher education," even in eras, such as during the Vietnam, when some lawmakers were plenty unhappy with what was unfolding on campuses.
Hunter's proposal "reflects the increasing willingness of some in the federal government to involve it in the affairs of American campuses," Hartle said. Given that the State Department had granted Ahmadinejad a visa to enter the country and President Bush had "said he respected Columbia's right to issue the invitation," Hartle said, "it's hard to understand why this would be a matter for such a draconian Congressional proposal."