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Jan 18, 2005 6:29 pm

The Times Chimes In

Over the past two months, publications ranging from the left-of-center Village Voice and New York Daily News to the non-ideological New York to the right-of-center New York Sun and New York Post have explored events in Columbia’s MEALAC Department. While they have disagreed on some minor factual details about the case, and have differed on points of interpretation, they all have generally portrayed this case as one of a rogue department that has, for years, hired faculty on an ideological fringe of their field, some of whom have been accused of intimidating students—accusations bolstered by the previous public responses to criticism of the very professors now under scrutiny.

Alas, as we discover in this morning’s New York Times, all of these publications got the story wrong. The real story: the personal suffering of the MEALAC faculty (one received an abusive email from an assistant professor in the Med School, another developed shingles, and a third cancelled appearances at unrevealed public events) caused by complaints from a handful of students about “alleged” events, and the outpouring of disgust from faculty that Columbia president Lee Bollinger has failed to defend the academic freedom of the MEALAC professors.

Well, I’m glad that we can now move on to other matters. Before we do, however, a few little questions about the Times piece.

--1.) Reporter N.R. Kleinfield should be commended for placing the Columbia controversy in the context of broader debates within the academy. After all, over the past couple of years, we’ve had the chairman of Duke’s philosophy department speculate that the reason his school’s History Department had 32 registered Democrats and zero registered Republicans is because most conservatives are “stupid.” And we’ve seen the recent study showing 96.8% of new faculty hired by Cal and Stanford who have party registrations are registered Democrats. And we’ve witnessed the case of Cal-Berkeley re-writing its academic freedom policy to cover the behavior of an English instructor who, in a course on Palestinian literature, wrote in his syllabus that conservative students should take another section.

Kleinfield didn’t mention any of those cases, all of which seem to get at the questions of intellectual diversity and academic bias at the heart of the MEALAC controversy. Instead, the MEALAC debate is framed in terms of a University of Chicago case from 2002, in which a student filed a complaint against an (unnamed) professor over an (unnamed) issue that was proven to be fraudulent when it was discovered that the professor was in Mongolia at the time. Hmm.

--2.) Kleinfield notes that President Bollinger found (unnamed) viewpoints of Professor Dabashi"deeply personally offensive,” to which Dabashi responded:"I find him 10 times more outrageous. What sort of president is he?"

It’s peculiar that, in an article of nearly 2500 words, Kleinfield couldn’t find the space to mention that Bollinger was asked about one, specific, comment of Dabashi’s, about Israeli Jews, to wit, “Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people. The way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.”

Just a guess: while most people probably would say that a college president shouldn’t publicly condemn a professor’s “viewpoints,” most also would consider Dabashi’s comments worthy of condemnation by any administrator with common sense and courage. I wonder if that’s why Kleinfeld couldn’t spare the 72 words to include Dabashi’s specific quote? By not including it, the story left, at best, a deeply misleading impression.

--3.) In a piece structured in an apparent attempt at balance, with quotes from both sides, there is one glaring absence of balance: all remarks from non-MEALAC Columbia faculty are critical of Bollinger and dismissive of the students’ allegations.

It appears as if that Kleinfield didn’t look very hard to get quotes from the other side, especially since the New York piece had no trouble getting comments from historian Richard Bulliet critical of MEALAC’s handling of the case. But perhaps Bulliet is a minority of one, and every other Columbia faculty member willing to speak publicly agrees with the professors quoted in the Times story that, in the words of Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences,"There has been an administrative silence, when there should be a ringing endorsement of academic freedom."

If, in fact, Pollack represents the overwhelming majority of Columbia professors, then the Times has buried its lede. It is conceded by all sides that Dabashi, in violation of college policy, cancelled a class at the last minute and subtly pressured students to attend an anti-Israel rally; and that Joseph Massad states on his syllabus that he will offer a “biased” course and that students who disagree with his opinions shouldn’t enroll. Is Kleinfield really saying that the overwhelming majority of Columbia faculty considers this type of teaching representative of their institution?

In the end, though, I guess that the Times considers its story appropriately balanced simply because it published anything at all. After all, Rashid Khalidi, fresh from informing New York readers that Arab-American and only Arab-American students know the truth about the Middle East, noted, “It's particularly piquant to me to hear people who have never taken a Mealac course talking about this. It's like me talking about the astrophysics department.”

So, a department can make a string of hires from the ideological fringe of its field. It can then structure a curriculum to exclude any pretense of balance in the courses that these professors offer. It can, finally, develop a grievance procedure where students concerned about indoctrination can appeal to the department chair—until this past September, none other than Hamid Dabashi. And, according to Khalidi, the only people appropriate for “talking about this” are the very same professors whose conduct created the controversy in the first place. How convenient.

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Peter Handler - 1/24/2005

The balance of teaching on the Middle East at Columbia is not nearly as biased as Mr. Johnson makes it out to be. Mr. Johnson has not mentioned that, in addition to MEALAC, there is a Center for Israel & Jewish Studies. There are six endowed chairs in Jewish studies, and a seventh chair in Israeli Studies is now being established in response to the Rashid Khalidi controversy.

Moreover, some of the professors who have recieved the most critical attention -- like Hamid Dabashi -- do not teach any classes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for intimidiation, there is not

Peter Handler - 1/24/2005

First of all, it is ridiculous for anybody to cite the New York media as an honest voice of journalism when it comes to the Middle East. The New York Post and New York Sun are both right-wing papes with positions on Israel to the right of Ariel Sharon; the New York Daily News, while it has some left-of-center views on some issues, is resolutely pro-Israel in both its news coverage and editorial coverage (and its publisher, Mort Zuckerman, is a staunch pro-Israel activist). These papers do not provide ideological diversity when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/19/2005

It seems to me that part of the problem from this controversy is that the MEALAC professors have an unusual view of the goal of a professor. If you believe--as Rashid Khalidi has stated--that Arab-American students and only Arab-American students know the truth about the Middle East; or--as Joseph Massad has stated in his syllabus--that he will offer a "biased" course and those who disagree with his opinions should not enroll in his class, then perhaps the conduct of the MEALAC professors can be justified. Personally, I don't share the viewpoints of either Massad or Khalidi, and don't think that the approach that they bring to the classroom is an appropriate one. My sense is that we're in the classroom to teach and to provide coverage of our subjects, not to program or de-program our students.

I was unaware of Pollack's ethnicity and don't consider it relevant to this issue.

I'm flattered that Konrad thinks that the Times article was necessary to provide balance to my postings, but somehow I doubt that I carry that degree of influence on 43rd Street. As Konrad's post didn't challenge any of the three specific criticisms I made of the lack of balance in the Times piece, I think I'll let the criticisms stand.

Jim Williams - 1/19/2005

Konrad, I think KC has nothing to retract in his postings. Academic inquiry should involve balance, a recognition that there are two sides to nearly every question, as well as the encouragement of an atmosphere of free inquiry, including the encouraging of students to participate in open discussion without intimidation and retribution for "heretical ideas".

Allegations assert several MEALAC faculty suppressed free speech, intimidated and even insulted dissenting students, and saw teaching as indoctrination. Allegations include humilitation of dissenters and intolerance towards differing viewpoints. These allegations need investigation.

Faculty have academic freedom, but faculty should also tolerate classroom dissent and seek to prove the correctness of their beliefs in "the marketplace of ideas".

Konrad M Lawson - 1/19/2005

I knew we would get a fiery response from Robert, who is on the ideological fringe of the response to this issue, about the new NYT article. I was happy to find so many appearances by professors I deeply respect and have enjoyed many a good conversation with, mostly during restarts doing tech support, including Andrew Nathan and Robert Pollack.

I think it was especially heartening to see Pollack make the statements he did, given that he ( is Jewish, a former and current leader or member of many Jewish organizations on and off campus (see his CV on his website) and the director of Columbia's Center for the Study of Science and Religion (now based out of Union Theological Seminary up the street) and he used to be dead of the college.

Also, when Nathan mentioned how he was concerned about how students react in his own class, I remember his Chinese foreign policy class, with many of its Chinese students seriously hostile to, and probably deeply offended at Nathan's deeply critical stance on Chinese human rights (He is on the Asia advisory committee for Human Rights Watch) but I guess we can just dismiss him to as being on the ideological fringe of Political Science professors of China who still think human rights is worth tripping over.

As for balance, I certainly agree that the NYT article spent less time on the actual accusations of the students, which in an earlier comment I have already admitted need to be looked into. However, it helps counter the many other articles which resemble this posting by Robert - completely without "balance" or perspective and blind to the fact that these accusations are blown way out of proportion by a deeply politically motivated attempt to launch a department-level ad hominem attack on a department which, in many of its courses, justly highlights the crimes of the state of Israel, the deeply racist elements and checkered history of the Zionist movement, etc.

Robert, unless your own future postings on this topic can cool down, become a little more "balanced" and stop treating (albeit in hints and indirect phrasings) anti-Israel professors and departments as if they are a bunch of lunatics and anti-Semitics,

MEALAC is a great department, full of passionately political but knowledgeable and deeply compassionate professors. I have never taken their classes so I cannot speak of their classroom behavior and thus cannot say anything one way or the other about the accusations. However, I have seen them argue and debate students in office hours on many occasions and love to see the kind of interaction I saw there. If some of them stepped over the line, they should be criticized, but I'm proud of the fact that MEALAC and the many pro-Israeli organizations at Columbia have long coexisted and engaged in heated debates throughout campus.

And one more thing, please don't ever use the word "ideological fringe" again in a posting. It is just another way of saying, "not a view I find palatable, and probably not worth engaging with"

Sherman Jay Dorn - 1/18/2005

And we’ve seen the recent study showing 96.8% of new faculty hired by Cal and Stanford who have party registrations are registered Democrats.

I haven't, to be honest, though maybe that was because of the hellish fall I had (thanks to hurricanes and an overload). And I'm quite interested in good studies of this sort, not the dreck like the Karl Zinzmeister "study." References, please!

Ralph E. Luker - 1/18/2005

Anthony, Behave yourself! Ralph

Anthony Paul Smith - 1/18/2005

Oh, sorry, I mean, those poor conservatives. It truly is sad they don't control all aspects of society.

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