Speaker Discusses MEALAC And Academic Freedom

February 11, 2005

Open discourse on the controversy in Columbia’s Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures department regarding academic freedom continued Thursday night with the appearance of civil rights leader Michael Meyers on campus.


Meyers addressed a small group of Columbians on “Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Free Speech in the Academy” in Hamilton Hall. A native of Harlem, Meyers is currently a member of the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He is the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and assistant director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and is the founder and executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.


The event was sponsored by the Columbia American Civil Liberties Union, College Libertarians, and Columbians for Academic Freedom.


Meyers spoke both in broad terms on the importance of activism in defense of free speech in America and on the specific academic freedom debate raging at Columbia.


He criticized the composition of the ad hoc committee organized by University administration. “You can’t have people who are in the same profession investigate each other,” said Meyers, suggesting that the University compose a committee of non-Columbians. “And even if you could, why should you?”


Although he praised First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, legal adviser to the ad hoc committee, Meyers said, “Floyd Abrams on that commission is not enough.”


Meyers criticized the letter composed by the NYCLU to University President Lee Bollinger defending the rights of professors to present their views in the classroom, calling it “dishonest, disingenuous, and wrong.”


He also critiqued Bollinger’s unwillingness to support students’ rights before those of the professors, remarking, “I don’t think he understands academic freedom. I think he’s confused.”


He urged students not to allow themselves to be blamed as the victims of the alleged academic bias on campus.


“It’s very important to congratulate you students who are activists,” remarked Meyers to an audience that included many Columbia students involved in the MEALAC debate. Meyers also praised Columbia’s rich history of student activism.


Meyers emphasized the obligation of universities to maintain “climates of open inquiry” so that students and faculty are able to “speak their minds and confront ideas.”


“If you learn anything in a college environment, learn to interact with people who don’t always agree with you,” he said.

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