An Open Letter on the Controversy at Columbia

Roundup: Talking About History

The following statement is circulating at Columbia University. It was forwarded to HNN on 3-9-05.

During the past several months, Columbia University has been subjected to an extraordinary series of attacks impugning its reputation as a center of learning that welcomes students and scholars with a diverse range of points of view and similarly diverse backgrounds, loyalties, and commitments. Many of the allegations that have been made during this campaign--allegations that have attempted to create the impression that an atmosphere of intolerance exists at Columbia--are blatantly false. In many ways, they betray a failure to understand the mission and character of research universities and their contributions to modern life.

Columbia, like a number of its peer institutions, is a great center of teaching, inquiry, and research. Its primary missions are to transmit knowledge and to generate new knowledge. Thriving research universities in the United States have contributed immensely to the national welfare in areas that range from scientific advances to improvements in our historical understanding to discoveries that have led to numerous inventions of importance to people in all walks of life.

Universities will continue to make important contributions only insofar as they allow faculty and students to explore and develop their ideas freely and to expose those ideas to robust and uninhibited debate in an atmosphere of civility both inside and outside the classroom. Some of these ideas-including some of the best among them--will be unwelcome, unsettling, or offensive to many people when they are first articulated. That is as it should be. Universities contribute to American life primarily because they foster innovative ideas, and innovation is by nature unsettling. No one associated with the Columbia community-including students, faculty, and others-should have reason to fear reprisals or sanctions of any kind for expressing unorthodox or unpopular views of any political stripe.

Universities have a responsibility for ensuring that teaching and inquiry under their auspices are conducted in an atmosphere that is characterized by civility and freedom from intimidation, physical assault, or violations of rights. Within the context of a university, however, neither faculty nor students have a right to be shielded from disagreeable or unfamiliar ideas, the production of which is integral to the mission of the university. We urge all those who take note of or have taken part in the current outside campaign, which aims to pressure Columbia into censorship of its own faculty, to remember that a commitment to freedom of thought and speech is fundamental to the modern university.


Lila Abu-Lughod, Anthropology

Charles Armstrong, History

Helen Benedict, Journalism

Elizabeth Blackmar, History

Douglas Chalmers, Political Science

Partha Chatterjee, Anthropology

Lewis Cole, Film

John Collins, Philosophy

Victoria de Grazia, History

Jon Elster, Political Science

Joan Ferrante, English

Barbara Fields, History

Eric Foner, History

Eugene Galanter, Psychology

Herbert J. Gans, Sociology

Lynn Garafola, Dance

Todd Gitlin, Journalism

Robert Hanning, English

William V. Harris, History

Andreas Huyssen, German

Robert Jervis, Political Science

David C. Johnston, Political Science

Mark Kesselman, Political Science

Alice Kessler-Harris, History

Philip Kitcher, Philosophy

David H. Krantz, Psychology

Edward Mendelson, English

Christia Mercer, Philosophy

Brinkley Messick, Anthropology

Rosalind Morris, Anthropology

Keith Moxey, Art History

Andrew J. Nathan, Political Science

Fred Neuhouser, Philosophy

Gary Y. Okihiro, Ethnic Studies

Thomas Pogge, Philosophy

Wayne Proudfoot, Religion

David Rosner, History

James Schamus, Film

Eliott Sclar, Architecture

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, English

Anders Stephanson, History

Michael Thaddeus, Mathematics

Charles Tilly, Sociology

Gwendolyn Wright, Architecture


comments powered by Disqus