The issue: a film put together by a pro-Israel group, The David Project, featuring former Columbia students recounting their experiences in Middle Eastern Studies classes. Middle East Studies Professor Joseph Massad demanded to know how many Palestinians one student, a former soldier in the IDF, had killed; another student quoted Massad as saying,"I will not have someone in this class who denies Israeli atrocities.” In another case, a student asked his language professor about using the verb “prevent” in Arabic, and received the following response:"Israelis prevent ambulances from entering refugee camps.” Massad did not deny making the comments, but instead charged “This is a propaganda film funded by a pro-Israel group as part of a racist witchhunt of Arab and Muslim professors,” and he noted that “neither Columbia University nor I have ever received a complaint from any student.” Columbia’s existing system required students concerned about bias to contact either Massad himself or the chair of the department, Hamid Dabashi, a figure who hailed the Columbia “teach-in” at which one professor hoped that US soldiers in Iraq would experience"a million Mogadishus” as the “revenge of the nerdy ‘A’ students against the stupid ‘C’ students with their stupid fingers on the trigger” and has described Israel as “nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States.” No wonder no complaints were filed.
To his credit, Columbia president Lee Bollinger is now investigating the matter.
Based on their public reactions to date, neither Massad nor any of his colleagues see anything inappropriate in their behavior, they see it as part of their job to orient their classes around their views of what the appropriate policy of the US and Israel in the Middle East should be. When departments are allowed to employ ideological litmus tests in the personnel process, as seems to have been the case in Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies department, it should hardly be surprising that professors approach their job as Massad has done. Under no definition of “academic freedom” can a professor refuse to provide instruction to a student until that student answers a question such as “how many Palestinians did you kill”?
If possible, an even more bizarre conception of academic freedom has come from Cal.St.-Long Beach, where an English professor named Clifton Snider has claimed, “The special nature of universities protects professors from being question[ed] about their lectures.”
This assertion forms part of Snider’s defense after he came under attack by Town Hall columnist Mike Adams for ideologically biased assignments in his Introductory English class. Snider, in a remarkably similar situation to the Vinay Lal “Democracy in America” course UCLA about which I’ve previously written, listed a variety of suggested topics for a required opinion essay.
Some of Snider’s suggested topics are ideologically neutral; others are blatantly one-sided, all in one direction: i.e., “Energy (nuclear, solar, fossil, synthetic fuels, etc.). A related topic is Dick Cheney's secret conference on energy policy. Why hasn't the administration revealed who participated and should it reveal this information? Also important is the fact that, as Kevin Phillips writes,"four generations of the [Bush] dynasty have chased [oil] profits through cozy ties with Mideast leaders, spinning webs of conflicts of interest”; “The Economy (tax cuts, the military budget, education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, etc.). Under President Clinton, the Federal Government had a handle on the national debt. Now the Bush administration is passing that debt on to the post-baby-boom generation”; “Should Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have been impeached for her partisan, political actions in the Bush v. Gore case of December 2000?”; “George W. Bush's time in the National Guard presents important questions about the character of a man who has sent hundreds of Americans to their deaths in war and killed and maimed untold thousands of others”; “Is it right for the Bush Administration to use the War on Terrorism for political or commercial purposes?”; “What evidence do we have that Mr. Bush and his cronies lied to the American people and the world in promoting the war with Iraq?”; “Discuss how the war has effected [sic] our relationship with other countries in the Middle East.”
More alarming—this is, remember, in an opinion essay requirement—Snider excludes students from writing about a host of positions that would be considered “conservative,” such as support for prayer in public schools, opposition to same-sex marriage, support for “the so-called faith-based initiative,” opposition to abortion, and opposition to hate crime laws. These are topics, the professor informs his students, “on which there is, in my opinion, no other side apart from chauvinistic, religious, or bigoted opinions and pseudo-science.” In an even more chilling statement, he adds, “Neither homophobia nor racism can be tolerated in civilized, rational debate; therefore, I will not accept either as arguments, however disguised, in your papers.” Except for hate-crime laws, I personally agree with Snider’s position on all of these issues. But to inform students that in an opinion paper, taking positions that disagree with those of the professor can constitute “homophobia” or “racism,” “however disguised,” is astonishing. To date, the administration at Long Beach has done nothing about the issue, but obviously no student who disagreed with Snider on political issues could run the risk of expressing their viewpoints in the class assignments.
The Massad and Snider cases are reminders that academic freedom is not an absolute right. First, as Snider seems not to have realized, it carries with it a presupposition that professors specialized training gives them a right to teach their subjects free from outside interference. When, as Snider seems to be doing, professors simply attempt to force students to agree with their political opinions, politicians can legitimately ask why they don't have a right to ensure balance--at least at public universities. Meanwhile, academic freedom is not a right solely possessed by professors--students also have the right to a college education free from ideological intimidation by professors, something that Massad and his cohort seems to have forgotten. My sense, unfortunately, is that problems like these two cases will become increasingly common, as departments that employ ideological litmus tests in the hiring process grow increasingly isolated from any dissenting viewpoints, and so they come to believe that behavior such as Massad's or Snider's represents an appropriate approach to the job of a college professor.