Bollinger Unlikely To Put Restrictions on Political Bias in Classroom

April 11, 2005

Columbia University’s president, Lee Bollinger, is unlikely to impose restrictions on political bias in the classroom, according to a professor familiar with the situation.

Instead, Mr. Bollinger’s strategy in dealing with complaints about politicized teaching appears to rely on revamped procedures for handling student grievances and the hiring of additional faculty members with different viewpoints.

“The administration will probably refrain from any steps that would be seen as trying to dictate what any professor says in the classroom,” a professor of Middle Eastern history and a former director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, Richard Bulliet, said last week.

Mr. Bollinger’s administration is expected to roll out a revised set of university-wide grievance procedures today and is expected to announce new initiatives – possibly including the intention to hire new faculty members – in coming weeks. As a member of the executive committee of Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, Mr. Bulliet said he has seen a draft of the document outlining the new procedures.

New grievance procedures and other changes were promised in connection with concerns that have been raised about the anti-Israel stance of the university’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. Mr. Bulliet said, however, that the new procedures are unlikely to deal specifically with the issue of political bias, the most frequent complaint of students to the committee that Mr. Bollinger appointed to investigate allegations of misconduct among some anti-Israel faculty members.

While Mr. Bollinger has had to contend with an onslaught of complaints from students and alumni about the perceived anti-Israel bias of professors, the Columbia president has also had to weigh the sentiments of a faculty protective of its authority in the classroom and suspicious of complaints about professors’ political slant.

“I believe that the problem of bias in classrooms is grossly exaggerated,” a prominent historian at Columbia, Eric Foner, told The New York Sun by e-mail last week.

For much of his tenure as president, however, Mr. Bollinger has been confronted with issues of academic bias. After an assistant professor of anthropology, Nicholas De Genova, said at a faculty teach-in that he wished for America to suffer a “million Mogadishus” in Iraq, Mr. Bollinger appointed a committee to examine the limits of political expression on campus. The committee, which was led by a law professor, Vincent Blasi, did not find claims of bias, Mr. Bollinger said in an interview last May. That committee did not issue a written report.

The latest committee had as chairman a political scientist and historian, Ira Katznelson, and its five members included two proponents of divestment by Columbia of its holdings in companies that sell military hardware to Israel. The panel stated in its final report, made public late last month, that its mandate did not include charges of ideological bias. It instead focused on allegations involving “pedagogical intimidation or the failure to create a civil learning environment.”

“There were lots of serious charges related to bias and alleged factual errors,” the veteran First Amendment lawyer who advised the committee investigating faculty conduct, Floyd Abrams, said.

In one example of alleged bias heard by the committee, former student Yael Bitton stated in written testimony that an assistant professor, Joseph Massad, told students that it was Israelis who killed the Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Historians said the athletes were killed by Palestinian gunfire during a botched rescue attempt by West German authorities.

“I don’t deny the Professor his opinions,” Ms. Bitton wrote in her statement. “But the very least Professor Massad could have done was qualify such a marginal and stigmatizing opinion, instead of merely telling some 100 students that the Israelis were responsible for their own athlete’s deaths.” Ms. Bitton, who was a student four years ago in a class taught by Mr. Massad, Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies, is a law student at Hebrew University.

The revised grievance policies, Mr. Bulliet said, will provide students with a “ladder of complaint.”

The older procedures were vague on what recourse students had once they had registered complaints with a departmental chairman, he said, and did not receive a satisfactory response.

The new guidelines also would “create a situation where there could be more effective feedback from chairs and deans to apprise faculty of the way in which their teaching is causing a critical reaction,” Mr. Bulliet said.

The president of the Philadelphia based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, David French, said a university shouldn’t “punish” a professor for being biased.

“An institution can exhort its teachers to behave in a more evenhanded fashion in class,” he said. “An institution can hire people with different viewpoints. A university can decide that it wants to introduce different perspectives.”

At the same time, Mr. French said some faculty members are defining academic freedom too broadly.

“It bothers me that they try to argue for a near-total autonomy for a professor in the university environment,” he said, “when in fact professors are one part of the equation.”

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