Blogs > Cliopatria > Observations from the Spectator

Feb 28, 2005 10:03 pm

Observations from the Spectator

Columbia's student newspaper, the Spectator, this morning published an editorial chastising the New York Sun for"vitriol,""yellow journalism,""biased reporting," and having"taken the focus of the debate away from the University community" regarding the crisis in Columbia's MEALAC department.

Pretty serious charges, especially given that the Spectator cites not even one factual error from the Sun's voluminous coverage of the controversy. It seems as if the Spectator is suffering from journalistic envy, given that it has been scooped by the Sun from the start on this story. The Sun was first, for instance, to report the existence of the David Project film; to look into Hamid Dabashi's astonishing claim that university guidelines allowed last-minute cancellation of classes for political purposes; to bring us inside one of Prof. Joseph Massad's classes by obtaining notes from several students that revealed Massad's anti-Israel lecture rants; or, most recently, to discover that a member of the Law School's board of overseers had written President Bollinger to compare a Massad public address to a"neo-Nazi" rally.

The most ominous assertion from the Spectator, however, comes in its claim that on MEALAC, the opinions of the press or"even of the public at large should not play a role in what is fundamentally a University-based issue.”

Brooklyn College took exactly the same stance during my tenure controversy. The only hostile member of the department willing to speak on the record fumed that “it is outrageous that reputable scholars would go on at such length” about a case not from their campus. (After these words appeared in print, he ceased public comment.) This perspective is equally inappropriate to the MEALAC situation.

The Spectator’s assertion envisions a campus environment divorced from reality. It assumes, first of all, that a system of checks and balances exists within the university, making illegitimate the mere act of an outside appeal (to other scholars, to the media, to trustees, to interested parties). Yet on curricular and personnel issues featuring those willing to subvert established academic norms in pursuit of an ideological or personal agenda, too often no checks and balances are present—and not solely, or even primarily, for ideological reasons. Faculty from other departments don’t want to publicly criticize activities from outside their turf, lest this be used as a precedent against them at a later stage. Administrators, eager to avoid ruffling the feathers of the faculty, often perceive the path of least resistance as not challenging rogue departments like MEALAC. Students have little or no say in internal university mechanisms. Under such circumstances, the choice then becomes—as I discovered in my tenure case, as the Columbia students who have stood up to MEALAC intimidation have learned now—going beyond the campus walls or conceding an unfair defeat.

The Spectator also errs in claiming that as the MEALAC affair is “fundamentally a [Columbia] University-based issue,” it is inappropriate for others to comment on it. Public opinion provides a deterrent effect. Perhaps professors in other Middle Eastern Studies departments will now be less inclined to imitate the behavior of their MEALAC colleagues. And, more important, all of us now have a better sense of the distorted sense of “instruction” that occurs in classes taught by ideologues such as Joseph Massad.


If the Spectator doesn’t like the Sun’s response to the MEALAC crisis, exactly how does it think the story should be handled? A good clue comes from the newspaper’s fawning coverage of an event organized by the New York Civil Liberties Union claiming that the students’ protests about MEALAC foreshadow arrival of a"new McCarthyism" on campus.

As the NYCLU was last heard from when commenting that students can challenge professors' opinions only if the faculty member supplies written approval to do so, in advance, few would have predicted a diverse presentation. But I would have thought the NYCLU at least would have attempted to provide the veneer of balance. Instead, the speakers were Anthropology professor Mahmood Mamdani, signatory of what President Lee Bollinger termed the “grotesque and offensive” petition demanding that Columbia divest from firms doing business in Israel, and recent author of an article detailing what he termed the"key parallels between neoconservatives and jihadists"; Victor Navasky, editor and publisher of The Nation; and Yeshiva University professor Ellen Schrecker, whose rather intriguing view of the past I’ve previously analyzed. Having assembled such a panel, Kate Meng-Brassel, president of the Columbia ACLU, remarked,"I’m glad we had opposing viewpoints in the debate." I can only assume that her comment was made tongue-in-cheek.

The positions of the NYCLU or the Spectator, lamentably, are not surprising; but their misuse of an enormously serious allegation (McCarthyism) raises more concerns. As the president of Columbians for Academic Freedom, Ariel Beery, observed the day before the NYCLU event,"the perversion of a term like McCarthyism by some residents of the Ivory Tower to make it mean any criticism of any idea whatsoever threatens the right to dissent." In a compelling essay, Beery urged the Columbia “administration to recall lessons from McCarthyism—the real period, and not the imagined purge supposedly carried out by students at Columbia. It was during that time that intellectuals learned the real value of unfettered discourse and the importance of academic freedom.”

Indeed, the only instances of suppression of opinions thus far in this controversy have come from MEALAC professors such as Joseph Massad, who ordered a student who refused to acknowledge Israeli atrocities to leave his class. The NYCLU’s conception of free speech, like Schrecker’s interpretation of “McCarthyism,” seems to turn logic on its head. As Beery concludes, “The whole point of free speech is to disagree with the orthodoxy of the time—to ensure that those with dissenting voices are able to make their claims without fear of reprisal. At Columbia, however, it seems that free speech is only for those people with whom one agrees.”

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Robert KC Johnson - 3/1/2005

Thanks for the kind words!

Louis N Proyect - 3/1/2005

Unfortunately, the NY Sun cannot be read on the Internet, so I can't comment on whether the Columbia Spectator is completely accurate by referring to it as "yellow journalism". I do have to say, however, that my next door neighbor does subscribe to it and I occasionally take a peek at it on her doormat. It does not exactly read like the NY Times, but I guess that's a feather in its cap for people like Luker and Johnson who enjoy reading the NY Post--famed for its headline "Headless Body Found in Topless Bar".

My next door neighbor might enjoy the company of Luker and Johnson, I imagine. She is something of a political activist. A couple of months ago she was circulating a petition to keep the apartment down the hall from being used as a group home for retarded adults. She said that they were dangerous.

I have also heard her yelling out loud late at night to herself about conspiracies involving the Unitarian Church and North Korea. Takes all types, I guess.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/1/2005

Thanks, Sherman. I really thought I had it right! But I need all the help I can get.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/1/2005

Correct URL for Hollinger's article.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/28/2005

I agree with much of what Hollinger had to say, a least in the first 2/3 of his essay. I also agree wholly with Jon Lederer's comment: "'To be balanced is simply to do an academic project professionally. To be imbalanced is to leave out of account something that the academic norms of evidence and reasoning in the interest of truth require you to take into account.' Seems to me that one must also consider balance in the academic projects undertaken. A plethora of historical studies, professionally done, on discrimination against women will not tell us much about the War of 1812. My sense, unsupported, of how the absurd ratios of Democrats to Republicans are created by hiring committees is that this choice of what should be taught, what areas covered, is a key one."

And this is the first area where Hollinger goes astray. Take the Duke Universit History Department as an example. 32-0 ratio of Dems/Republicans isn't evidence of ideological bias. But it does suggest that there might be a problem regarding how lines have been constructed, and that someone objective--preferably an administrator--needs to look into the matter.

Second, I'd be far more reassured by Hollinger's argument about the ability of concentric circles to guard against bias if he--or anyone else from what might be termed the mainstream academy--had actually stood up and done something about this issue, or even acknowledged that a problem existed. To be frank, in the last several years, the only ideological bias case I can recall where the academic community in a discipline acted before any sort of public pressure of the type Hollinger decries came in my tenure case, with the letter from 24 top historians. If Hollinger's position, then, is that any ideological bias short of that demonstrated in my tenure case is acceptable, we have some problems.

The Hollinger position amounts to: (1) there is no problem of ideological bias in the academy; and (2) even if there is, trust us, since the academy's time-tested process can resolve it. I'm not persuaded.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/28/2005

KC, I'd be very interested in seeing your response to the article by David Hollinger on the HNN mainpage: "What Does It Mean To Be "Balanced" In Academia?"

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