Eric Foner: What the NYT Got Wrong About the Columbia University Dispute





The following letter appeared in the NYT 4-11-05:

To the Editor:

"Intimidation at Columbia" conflates two different issues under the rubric of intimidation: charges that certain faculty members have behaved in an unprofessional manner toward students, and the ideas of those teaching Middle Eastern studies at Columbia.

Professors who do not treat students properly should be reprimanded. But for a student to encounter unfamiliar or even unpleasant ideas does not constitute intimidation.

Exposure to new ideas is the essence of education. Your call for the university to investigate "the quality and fairness of teaching" and "complaints about politicized courses" because students do not like the professors' ideas opens a Pandora's box that can never be closed.

Would you favor an investigation of every class on campus that deals with a controversial issue - for instance, whether I give enough class time to the pro-slavery argument, or whether economists present globalization in too flattering a light?

The autonomy of professors in designing and teaching their classes is the foundation of academic freedom.

Eric Foner
New York, April 7, 2005
The writer is a professor of history at Columbia University.


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