The Columbia Report: An Analysis

April 1, 2005

On March 30, 2005, Columbia’s Ad Hoc Grievance Committee issued a report detailing its findings regarding the ongoing academic freedom controversy in Columbia’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) Department. The Ad Hoc Committee was formed in response to allegations made in the film Columbia Unbecoming and elsewhere that MEALAC professors abused pro-Israel students and that the department exhibited an unacceptable level of anti-Israel bias. The report purports to present a comprehensive analysis of the relevant allegations combined with recommendations for reform. In reality, the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee’s report is largely a pedantic recitation of uncontroversial truisms that sheds very little light on the underlying facts and ends with a facile plea for greater civility. When the committee does make definitive declarations, those declarations tend to overstate the primacy of professors in the educational process and improperly denigrate the role of “outside” criticism in on-campus debates

The report’s most glaring flaw is its refusal to explore in depth any allegations other than those that were most prominently mentioned in the Columbia Unbecoming film. In other words, despite meeting with “62 individuals including students, alumni, faculty and administrators” and receiving “more than 60 written submissions,” the committee provides the public with virtually no facts beyond those publicly known and discussed at the outset of the controversy. The refusal to disclose the details of additional allegations is rendered even more puzzling by the fact that the existence of additional allegations is hardly secret. For example, a March 31, 2005, New York Sun article lays out several of these additional allegations, including claims that a teacher in the MEALAC department knowingly taught false information to his students.  Numerous other articles have decried the apparent lack of any significant pro-Israel voices in the faculty.

Because the committee’s proceedings were not recorded or transcribed, the public may never know many of the allegations made by both sides during committee sessions. There is, therefore, no independent basis for believing the committee’s assertion that "no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.” In fact, given credible conflict of interest charges leveled at the committee by its critics (including the allegation that at least one member of the committee signed a petition asking Columbia to divest from Israel), there is even less reason to trust this wholly unsupported assertion. It is important to note that this approach does no favors for the embattled professors or their faculty and student supporters. By refusing to engage in transparent proceedings or to write an informative report, the committee leaves a cloud of suspicion over the MEALAC department.

As Justice Louis Brandeis famously noted, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Columbia, unfortunately, chose to shun the light and retreat into the shadows of an opaque and uninformative report. The report suffers from a second, more subtle, deficiency: It inappropriately elevates the role of the faculty at the same time that it denigrates the vital importance of outside criticism. During its discussion of governing “norms and principles,” the committee makes the astonishing claim that “[t]he faculty’s right to decide what to teach, and in what manner, is the premise upon which the university is built.” At one stroke, this bold (and historically inaccurate) statement sweeps away any and all critiques of bias or viewpoint discrimination in the department’s composition or outlook. If the faculty has the absolute right to “decide what to teach, and in what manner,” then there is no place for an institutional choice to provide a broad spectrum of viewpoints. There is no place for effective student dissent, and there is no place for outside criticism. The committee’s suspicion for “outside” criticism is confirmed when it describes the following example of outside “intervention” in “matters of academic affairs:”

In an article in the Columbia Spectator in the spring of 2002, then Jewish Chaplain Charles Sheer expressed his dismay with reports by students that classes had been canceled to permit faculty to attend a rally in support of the Palestinians, describing the faculty behavior as "not kosher," and provoking an angry exchange in Spectator with MEALAC department chair Hamid Dabashi. It was not then, nor is it now, clear what responsibilities the members of the Chaplain’s Office, the Campus Ministries, or the Columbia/Barnard Hillel have in matters of academic affairs, nor how they should discharge them. That faculty construed Rabbi Sheer’s intervention as inappropriate is understandable; that Rabbi Sheer and the students whom he believed he was supporting were frustrated by that response is equally unsurprising.

In other words, a chaplain expresses alarm at a prominent school event (an act of expression protected by every known concept of academic freedom), and it is somehow “understandable” that the MEALAC department would view Mr. Sheer’s article as “inappropriate?”

The reverence for faculty that permeates the report reaches its height in the committee’s description of “intimidation.” While it is certainly true that “[i]n an academic environment, charges of ‘intimidation’ are particularly difficult to adjudicate because the term itself is very capacious,” the committee’s actual examples of perceived intimidation are nothing short of laughable:

Some students feel intimidated by a professor’s brilliance or rhetorical skill. Some choose not to speak in class for fear of being unable to match the instructor in the give and take of intellectual debate.

Is there any evidence at all that awe at professorial intellect was the true source of any intimidation claims in this case? The allegations in this case regard abuse, not awe. The committee’s report adds nothing of substance to the public debate and provides no definitive answers to questions or concerns of the millions of Americans who have been following this story in the media. The committee’s persistent unwillingness to make a substantive contribution is echoed in its stirring call for “good procedures,” “widespread knowledge” of those procedures, and a forum where students, faculty, and administrators can “express concerns.” The report concludes with an appeal to civility—a civility that may be elusive in the context of emotional issues, perceived bias, and opaque proceedings. The report ends with pure pabulum:

[M]ost needed at this point are not further formal rules or regulations to codify behavior or sanction specific categories of action so much as the reassertion of certain norms. We need to reaffirm that sense of collective responsibility which is vital for the well-being of every community of scholars, and to nurture the mutual respect required to sustain us in our common quest for the promotion of learning and the advancement of knowledge.

Or, in the words of a somewhat less scholarly public figure, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Schools:  Columbia University