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Academic Freedom Group Enters Fray

January 11, 2005

The New York Civil Liberties Union came under sharp criticism yesterday from another civil-liberties group, which says it is sanctioning censorship in the classroom at Columbia University.


Last month, the NYCLU warned Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, that students and others who have accused faculty members of intimidating students were waging an “assault” on academic freedom. The NYCLU, the New York State affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, also questioned the right of students to challenge faculty members in the classroom.


The group’s dismissal of the student claims brought it a scolding from a prominent academic-freedom watchdog group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.


“The NYCLU’s summary of the academic freedom interests implicated in this controversy suffers from several shortcomings,” the president of the Philadelphia-based FIRE, David French, said in a letter to Mr. Bollinger. “The NYCLU’s letter understates the appropriate levels of academic freedom and overstates the primacy of professors in the academic process.”


In particular, Mr. French expressed criticism of the NYCLU’s position, in a letter to Mr. Bollinger, that students may advance criticism in the classroom only “if permitted by the professor to do so.”


“It would violate every reasonable notion of academic freedom to give professors the ability to open classroom discussion for all comments except for those critical of the professor’s point of view,” Mr. French wrote. “According to the NYCLU’s reasoning, if a professor had not given permission for in-class dissent, a student could be forced to sit through a professor’s defense of racial segregation – and even through a classroom discussion in support of segregation – without protest.”


Both groups oppose calls from outside the university for the firing of any professor because of his political views. Last fall, a New York City member of Congress and mayoral candidate, Anthony Weiner, urged Columbia to dismiss an assistant professor, Joseph Massad, whom he accused of anti-Semitism.


The disagreement between civil-liberties groups mirrors the thorny debate among Columbia administrators about how to handle the most serious crisis of Mr. Bollinger’s two-and-one-half-year tenure. Since news reports of the allegations against faculty members first appeared in October, Mr. Bollinger’s administration has made an effort to strike a balance between investigating the complaints and assuring faculty members that their academic freedom would be protected.


Columbia is facing increasingly heavy criticism from students, alumni, and donors who charge that the school has wrongly tolerated the mistreatment of students by faculty members in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures and that it has allowed the department to become a breeding ground for hatred against America and Israel.


The NYCLU letter to Mr. Bollinger largely dismissed those critics as tendentious intruders into Columbia’s academic affairs. Discussing the “assertion of student rights” and the allegations against some professors, the letter says: “the line between ideological content and conduct seems to blur significantly and one is left with the distinct impression that these accusations are really about the content of academic lectures and writings.”


The letter from Mr. French, of FIRE, responds, “It is impossible to reconcile the NYCLU’s general statements in support of academic freedom with its specific condemnation of the students’ actual critique.”

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Schools: Columbia University Cases: Columbia University: Faculty Academic Freedom Debate