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Jan 4, 2005 9:05 pm

More from Columbia

Jacob Gershman, higher education reporter for the New York Sun, continues to be one step ahead of the rest of the New York media on the Columbia MEALAC Department’s continuing scandal. In this morning’s paper, Gershman reveals how former MEALAC chairman Hamid Dabashi responds to criticism, and also raises troubling questions about the degree of student intimidation that has been tolerated in MEALAC classrooms.

It turns out that three years ago, one of Dabashi’s classes coincided with a major anti-Israel protest at Columbia. As students filed into the classroom for Dabashi’s lecture, they were greeted by teaching assistants wearing black armbands who told them that Dabashi would be speaking at the protest, and therefore no class would occur. The implied message, of course: students should attend the protest to hear Dabashi speak. The next day, Dabashi e-mailed the students:"Let me assert categorically that if there is another occasion when performing my moral duty prevents me from being in my class I will repeat what I did yesterday.”

Another member of MEALAC, Professor George Saliba, did the same. Saliba noted that it was OK to cancel classes for “attendance at a political rally where both students and faculty could benefit from access to accurate information on the Middle East that is never reported by the newspapers 'of record' nor is it even allowed to be reported by any member of the press as Ariel Sharon's army prohibited access to the press when he was committing his massacres in Jenin and for days, now weeks, after that.” (As we now know, no “massacre” occurred at Jenin.) Under Saliba's theory, perhaps MEALAC classes should never meet, and students should simply attend anti-Israel protests twice a week.

In response, the longtime Jewish chaplain at Columbia, Rabbi Charles Sheer, wrote an op-ed criticizing the MEALAC professors’ decision. On this issue, I would say that Sheer was pretty clearly in the right: professors are paid to teach, not to engage in anti-Israel protests. And if Dabashi felt that performing his moral duty compelled him to cancel class, then at least he could have informed the students in advance, rather than doing so in a way that suggested that students would be well advised to attend the protest.

So how did Dabashi respond? In a letter to the Columbia newspaper, Dabashi accused Sheer of engaging in the “astonishingly degenerate development in the American academy” of interfering “with the cornerstone of academic freedom at a university.” Sheer, according to Dabashi, was “mobilizing and spearheading a crusade of fear and intimidation against members of the Columbia faculty and students who have dared to speak against the slaughter of innocent Palestinians,” a “campaign of terror and disinformation reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.” Dabashi promised to continue to oppose Sheer’s “crusade against those of us who believe Zionism is a ghastly racist ideology,” since “we have received repeated and unequivocal assurances from our recognized administrators that we have done absolutely nothing wrong in defending the rights of voiceless victims of the massacres in Palestine.”

This is a breathtaking statement. If Dabashi was willing to make such allegations in print, imagine what would happen if a pro-Israel student disagreed with him in class?

Perhaps even more problematic, today’s Gershman article revealed another troubling incident regarding the committee President Bollinger set up to inquire into the classroom conduct of figures like Dabashi. At the time, Sheer complained about the class cancellation to Dean Lisa Anderson, but Anderson told him that there was nothing wrong with Dabashi’s behavior, and that if students wanted to complain about it, they should talk with the dean of academic affairs.

Anderson’s presence on the committee already has been cause for comment, since she served as faculty advisor to perhaps the most extreme member of MEALAC, Joseph Massad.

At the time, Bollinger defended Anderson’s selection, noting, “Someone can take a position that I strongly disagree with and they can still be ... capable of looking into something like this objectively.” This remark, however, avoids the issue: is it reasonable to expect a dissertation advisor to be impartial when examining the conduct of one of her students? There at least is the appearance of bias, made far stronger by today’s article. If Anderson didn’t find anything troubling in Dabashi’s conduct, is she really the right person to be investigating the current matter? Perhaps if Columbia administrators had taken a stronger line in 2001, when the Dabashi class cancellation occurred, perhaps the current controversy could have been avoided.

Anderson’s written record, moreover, suggests someone ill-disposed to approach this issue fairly. In her generally balanced 2003 address as MESA president, she lamented that because of “self-appointed guardians of the academy” organized by “websites like Campus Watch” meant that protecting academic freedom “is no longer beyond doubt.” These “policy advocates and polemicists,” she continued, “wish to dictate the range of respectable political conclusions,” and therefore “pose a serious threat to our scholarly integrity.” Anderson detected a “plan to monitor and evaluate the universities and their area studies programs [that] is not about diversity, or even about truth, but about the conviction of conservative political activists that the American university community is insufficiently patriotic, or perhaps simply insufficiently conservative.”

If we didn’t have professors behaving like Dabashi and Massad, I might sympathize more with Anderson’s evaluation of Campus Watch and proposals to establish a Title VI oversight board. That, however, is not the relevant issue to the Columbia inquiry. Does Anderson also consider the David Project a “self-appointed guardian of the academy,” filled with “policy advocates and polemicists,” and thereby a threat to academic freedom? If not, how does she distinguish between the David Project and Campus Watch? And if so, how can she possibly be objective in evaluating evidence that was presented to the Columbia administration by the type of group that she has branded a threat to academic freedom?

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Robert KC Johnson - 1/5/2005

To respond to a few of your points:

1.) You correctly point out that I would not be considered objective in investigating MEALAC, and I wholly agree. Were I a Columbia professor, it would not be appropriate that I be selected for the committee to investigate MEALAC, because of an appearance of partiality. With Anderson, we have a figure who was dissertation adviser to the professor against whom the most charges have been made, who dismissed similar complaints (before the matter went public) as acceptable behavior, and who described an organization similar to the one that gathered the evidence in this case as a threat to academic freedom. There would be, it seems to me, an appearance of partiality.

2.) With regard to the class cancellation, you're assuming facts not in evidence. Dabashi has admitted that he didn't tell the students in advance of the cancellation, and had the TA's do it. No one is claiming that he ordered the TA's to wear black armbands. I have no doubt that Dabashi only has TA's ideologically sympathetic to him. When I was a TA, the classes for which I TA'd tended to be more History than oriented around a particular ideological issue, and I'd say there was considerable ideological diversity among the TA's with whom I taught. I don't think it can be said that professors always hire TA's with whom they're in ideological agreement.

3.) Indeed, professors can and do cancel (or, more often, reschedule) classes to attend academic conferences, as they should. It is absurd, however, to compare a political protest to an academic conference.

4.) I would equally condemn a professor for cancelling a class--especially in the manner that Dabashi did, which implied an attempt to subtly pressure the students to go to the protest--"to attend pro-Israeli Zionist meetings." I'm unaware of any such instances, however: perhaps you could supply some examples?

5.) It might be that Dabashi responds to private criticism from pro-Israel students differently than he responded to the public pro-Israel criticism from Rabbi Sheer. There were no outside witnesses to his classroom behavior. The fact that he responded to Sheer in exactly the same way that students claim he responded to them when they challenged his anti-Israel views in the class gives added credibility to the students' allegations. It doesn't, of course, prove the allegations. But it is a relevant piece of information to consider.

chris l pettit - 1/5/2005

KC, it seems as though you might have lost track here.

First, regarding Campus can be definitively shown that the organisation is nothing more than an extremist ideological organisation whose primary objective is to supress academic freedoms and anything that does not agree with the ideologies of its members. The fact that Daniel pipes is remotely associated with the organisation should give you some clue. Campus Watch has nothing to do with academia, higher learning, equality in education, or anything else of that is a partisan ideological organisation. You can find similar organisations on both the "left" and "right." It is a pity that you seem to be unable to recognise that...or if you do, recognise that objection and vehement opposition to such organisations does not effect ones reference to your statement on Anderson. Your objections to Massad and Dabashi have been addressed...maybe refer back to Massad's article a couple of weeks back? That I consider a whole other discussion largely dependent on your own ideology that, in my opinion, should not be imposed on others due to what is often a lack of objectivity and lack of anything other than ideological backing not based in logic or rationality. Your questioning of Anderson's motives is fine...your assumption that she is automatically as partisan as you are on the issue is not.

In regards to Dabashi...your complaints about his canceling class to speak at a rally are scary and rather laughable at the same time. maybe professors should never be able to leave to go to conferences because they always have ideological bases? Your assumption that the professor was implying that the students should attend the rally instead of if it was an implication of pressure instead of a voluntary exercise is a paranoid jump in logic...even for you on this specific topic where the gaps in logic have reached Grand Canyon status at times. Maybe he wanted to give students the oopportunity to attend? If you had any proof (which you don;t) that he was pressuring the students by threatening their marks or otherwise, maybe you would make a case...but you are simply engaging in fearmongering. Another case of fearmongering is your silly statement about his reaction to the criticism and then somehow making the quantum leap to the classroom...are you kidding me? While I think the reaction to the criticism is a bit paranoid and extreme, you simply go way too far with it. If you want to criticise the reaction, fine...but don't state that the prof automatically talks that way to students because he reacted in such a way to criticism outside the classroom. That is a bizarre stretch. We can all cite plenty of profs who might be very firey outside the classroom but who are competent profs who are objective inside the classroom. Francis Boyle at Illinois is an interesting example in the law academy. he is very inflammatory and excitable, yet rather balanced in most of his classes...from all that I have seen. i had to put up with a pathetic excuse for a law professor who did engage in precisely what you speak of when i was at the University of Florida doing my law degree...and that was from the right. She would support your thesis fully.

I can complain that a prof then takes off to go to what is a blatant exercise in ideological bigotry in attending a Campus Watch meeting...and you better support it...or can complain that a colleague cancels class to attend pro-Israeli Zionist meetings...and you better support it. If are simply a hypocrite arguing your own personal ideological position. I find your position on this matter highly illogical and untenable. I agree with you on Dabashi's was over the top...but the assumptions you draw from it are unbelievable.

Oh...the TA's...your proof that the prof forced them to wear them? how many profs use TA's to let students know classes are canceled? I can only remember a couple of classes in law school, grad school...heck even when I was getting my bachelors degrees, that wrote on the board or left a note canceling class because the notes got erased or torn down and it was just easier to utilize an RA or TA for the task. maybe you work differently...but don;t impose your perceptions on anyone else and then offer it as evidence. you know any prof that has TAs or RAs that are not at least in tune with his/her ideological stance? This seems easy to me...of course his assistants would be supporting the march...they know his views and probably help with his they probably agree with him. Why is this significant in the least? how does this prove coercion at all? What your response demonstrates to me is the usual Zionist, pro-Israel paranoia that results when anyone criticises (rightly) bigoted and illegal Israeli policies (both allegations can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt). How silly! Your response is curtailing academic freedom...not defending it. Prove that he forced them to wear the armbands or state anything about the march that was not their own individual opinions and maybe you can be listened to again on that part of the discussion...if not...get off the topic.

Did any students complain? i suppose if the answer is no you will blame it on intimidation. last thing...the email sent out to the students...we can probably debate whether that is a bit over the line. He did use what is decidedly an educational forum to make a statement about his ideological views...and did not defend or explain them in a rational or logical manner. This is problematic and will bring us into the discussion about using listserves and other mediums for political or ideological causes or explanations. If the emails were only to be used for educational purposes...the complaint can be lodged that the prof overstepped his bounds and that the email was not needed nor advisable. in my experience, unless I have a personal educational relationship with a student beyond the classroom, the assumption is that the students gave the email addresses in order to be kept up to date with classroom which case the prof was out of order. he could have explained why he canceled the class, but would have to a) keep it objective and away from "moral" statements, or b) explain himself in a logical and rational manner and explain why it was necessary for the class to have such an explanation.

By the professors are paid to teach and are not paid to go to conferences...and are not paid to write books...and are not paid to write articles...and are not paid to do lots of things...this is another bizarre statement. Of course professors can go to protests or meetings if they are relevant to what the professor is teaching or taking part in. now if the meetings consisted of "hate speech" that would be something else entirely because they would be illegal...but that is not the case in this instance.

unless you want to somehow morph into a balanced figure in this debate, may I kindly ask you to PLEASE drop the issue? Your ideological ramblings are doing nothing more than throwing flame on the fire. As a scholar I respect, your credibility is starting to wane rapidly.


Robert KC Johnson - 1/5/2005

On question #2, I have seen no evidence that the MEALAC professors have not received an opportunity to present their side of events to Columbia administrators, and I would be stunned if that were the case. Also, every story that I have seen published on this controversy has asked the MEALAC professors for comment; to my knowledge, on every occasion, Dabashi, Khalidi, Massad, and Saliba have declined to comment. (Massad posted a statement on his website that accuses the Columbia president of bowing to a pro-Israel plot.)

On issue #3, I agree that faculty's teaching can't be judged by statements they make outside of the classroom. But those statements surely can be used to test the reliability of the teaching-related allegations made against them by the students. As the Sun (which, for the record, isn't a tabloid) piece makes clear today, when Dabashi was subjected to a quite reasonable criticism from a pro-Israel member of the Columbia community, he responded with wild, unsubstantiated allegations. Pro-Israel students have made the same claim against him regarding the classroom behavior. That he engaged in this kind of public response makes the students' charges far more credible.

As to point #1, most of the classic "teach-ins" of the Vietnam period occurred from 1964-1966, and, to my knowledge, did not involve professors cancelling classes, but rather occurred outside the classroom, frequently at night. Obviously, at many universities from 1968-1970, classes were frequently cancelled. I doubt, however, that many would be eager to see a return to the higher education environment that existed in this country during that brief period.

Classes at Columbia are 75 minutes long. I find it hard to believe that Dabashi couldn't have scheduled his speech at the anti-Israel protest around his classtime. But if Columbia really wants to adopt his approach that it's OK to dismiss classes and subtly pressure students to attend protests, why would they need professors at all? And who is to judge which protests would be "educationally" acceptable?

Sherman Jay Dorn - 1/5/2005

I'm not sure we have a well-reasoned, bright-line standard that we can really be positive has been crossed from the NY Sun articles and discussion. Consider the following --

1. If it's wrong to cancel classes for political protests, what about Vietnam War teach-ins? (I'm sure plenty of politicians would have loved to see faculty fired just for that in the late 60s-early 70s.)

2. If it violates a standard of competence to bombard students in a classroom with blatantly biased teaching and fail to expose students to diverse, competent professional views, it is another violation of fundamental academic principles to screen a private documentary for administrators, without giving a parallel opportunity by faculty to respond, in an effort to shape personnel and academic policies at a university.

To be honest, from a distance this smells like a messy affair that I'm very skeptical to judge based on a tabloid's writings--and I'm surprised an HNN blogger would rely on it for factual claims. Faculty have an obligation to welcome a diverse set of competent student perspectives when they allow discussion at all, without retaliation for the political or intellectual position of students. But they do not have the obligation to be inoffensive, nor is their teaching to be judged by statements they make as people outside their jobs. The more I read, the more I get the strong sense that we have a poisoned-well problem in the MEALAC critics.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/4/2005

I think the answer to the first question is definitely yes, and I agree with Oscar that if the answer to the second is yes, Dabashi might be worth it.

It's certainly possible to imagine someone who's increbily extreme in public statements and yet a brilliant scholar and teacher (Noam Chomsky, for instance--although it's pertinent that Chomsky's extreme statements don't come on topics that he actually taught).

Among the questions I have, though: many of Dabashi's public statements seem--to put it mildly--blatantly partisan and backed up by little or no evidence. Maybe he teaches in an entirely different fashion, although his sending the TF's with black armbands to round up students for the protest leads me to doubt this.

Apart from my position on the issue of Israel, the reason that the MEALAC issue has bothered me so much is that, in going through grad school, I never dreamed that it would be appropriate for professors to approach their jobs in the manner that Dabashi, Khalidi, Massad, and Salida have done in MEALAC. There's nothing wrong with professors having passionate opinions--it comes with the territory. But the record of this quartet seems to me so over the line that it shouldn't be tolerated.

I'm disappointed that more Columbia faculty haven't spoken out to say that they don't want the kind of university that the MEALAC people seem to want.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/4/2005

I don't want to go off into devil's advocacy mode, but I pose two questions.

In studying contentious current issues in academia, is there a place for contentious scholars?

Put differently, I might not be thrilled to be a student in Dabashi's class, but would I know more about the Middle East today because I was in it? If the answer is yes to both questions, then he may, I repeat, may, be worth it.

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