Conflicts of Interest at Columbia?

By on February 11, 2005

Ryan Sager of the New York Post has a story up about a report being released today that criticizes the ad hoc committee formed by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to look into allegations of anti-Semitism in the university’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department.

Among other issues, Sager discusses the composition of the ad hoc committee:

As the group’s report details, out of five members on Bollinger’s committee: two signed an anti-Israel divestment petition, one was the thesis adviser for Joseph Massad (a professor prominently accused of wrongdoing), one has written that Israel is responsible for global anti-Semitism and one is a university administrator who ignored student complaints for months. The man who handpicked the committee, Nick Dirks, is married to a professor who co-teaches a class with Massad.

The Columbia chapter of a faculty group called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) is responsible for the upcoming report. The concerns about committee members’ backgrounds that Sager says the group is expressing are not new; a report in the Columbia Spectator from December 10, 2004, talks about some of them, and FIRE independently confirmed much of the information on the committee members’ backgrounds in its own brief investigation. Sager’s article says that SPME’s report also raises “troubling questions about the direction the inquiry has taken,” so we’ll certainly be interested in seeing what this group has dug up and what evidence they have for their conclusions. (FIRE has covered the situation and written a letter to President Bollinger.)

It is a mystery to us why Bollinger chose to appoint so many people to the committee who have an appearance of bias or of a conflict of interest in this investigation. Columbia surely has hundreds of professors who could capably serve on the committee and who would not have even the appearance of a conflict of interest in this investigation into institutional anti-Semitism. As Bollinger himself said in a December 8, 2004, statement, “The committee will not investigate anyone’s political or scholarly beliefs and will not review departments or curricula.” Since the committee’s primary purpose is to determine whether there is merit to the complaints leveled by the students in Columbia Unbecoming, there is no requirement that committee members have knowledge of or an opinion on Middle East issues. Yet the ad hoc committee seems to be stacked with those who have a stake in supporting those on one side of the debate.

While the composition of the committee does raise questions, we are not entitled to assume that the committee will investigate in bad faith. After all, we do not know the motivations of President Bollinger or Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nick Dirks. But in a situation as explosive as this one has proven to be, the smart course of action would have been to pick five people with no perceptible axe to grind. Choosing committee members of unimpeachable neutrality and integrity would have gone a long way toward guaranteeing a resolution to this dispute that would have been seen as fair by both sides. It’s hard to believe that President Bollinger didn’t realize this, and leaves one wondering what’s really going on at Columbia.

Schools: Columbia University