A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

Columbia University Faculty Action Committee Statement of Concern


Recently, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has come under fire by more than 70 of the faculty he represents who contend that in playing to Middle Eastern politics, he has significantly jeopardized the academic freedom and vitality of the institution.  They’ve written an open letter, published in the New York Sun, and can be viewed here; the signatories are at the bottom. 

I’ve dutifully avoided expressing my opinions on either the Nadia Abu El Haj tenure controversy (note she’s a signatory) and the Bollinger-Ahmedinejad exchange during the Iranian president’s visit.  But given that I’m here now, and given that I sat under the previous Bollinger administration (at Michigan), I’ll offer a few thoughts. 

(1)  I agree that academic independence and integrity means that a faculty member’s candidacy for tenure is not the decision of interest groups.  It’s the decision of the faculty.  It should be based on academic credentials and character, not politics.  To what extent the latter actually played in Abu El Haj’s decision, or what role Bollinger himself played, I really don’t know.  But her approval in spite of such virulent opposition probably says something and shouldn’t be overlooked.  That said, her book was indeed awfully bad and tendentious–bad enough, I think, that one can easily evaluate the academic quality independent the “academic freedom” question.  Were that her only serious work, she should’ve gotten the boot.  But it’s not–it needs to be weighted with her other work and character, which I frankly know nothing about.  Moreover, I think scholars should be allowed a mulligan (though it shouldn’t be encouraged).  Scholars occasionally screw up or write garbage, and many repent in sack-cloth and ashes after the fact, and go on to do marvelous work.  My hope is that Barnard made the right choice and Prof. Nadia learns from her mistakes and we all move on. 

(2)   I applauded Columbia’s tenacity in bringing Ahmedinejad to speak.  I thought it communicated something–something which Bollinger himself articulated well:  that we’re a community interested in dialoging with those whom we agree and disagree, and it’s only in an open, free, amicable forum where we can attempt to learn and persuade.  Columbia was attacked for this by many, including Mit Romney, but I thought (and still think) they’re all too near sighted. 

But Bollinger’s ensuing comments completely contradicted it, and were embarrassing to himself, students, the university, and most importantly the United States.  He proceeded not only to criticize, but repeatedly insult and castigate the Iranian president.  One line I’ll never forget:  in the middle of a litany of requests for Ahmedinejad to explain his administration’s behavior on a series of issues, Bollinger shot:  “I would like you to explain these things, but I think you lack both the courage and intellect to do so.”  Ouch.  But Ahmedinejad was smart.  He picked right up on Bollinger’s obvious self-contradiction.   And when his time came, he politely commented on how Bollinger’s vitriol entirely undercut his praise of free speech because not only did Bollinger inoculate the audience so that it would no longer hear Ahmedinejad, but Bollinger showed the he wasn’t interested in dialog, only vitriol.  Ahmedinejad was completely right.  That’s not to say Ahmedinejad would’ve suddenly been forthcoming or penitent, but it does mean Bollinger blew a major opportunity to represent the American university.  “Bollinger demonstrated why we shouldn’t have free speech,” is what I would’ve thought were I the Iranian president. 

Moreover, the impact of Bollinger’s imprudence should be seen in the context of what brought Ahmedinejad in the first place:  the World Leaders Forum.  Now any time Columbia might choose to invite a semi-unpopular individuals to this event or others like it, he or she will have to seriously consider whether he or she might be welcomed by the same venom.  Is it worth the risk?  Before this, Columbia might have had a chance in bringing a Chavez, Putin, or a Noriega–connections which would be very interesting to establish–but that hope is gone now. 

November 14, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. very good thoughts, thanks for sharing. i’ve been wondering what the university and local communities have been thinking about Ahmedinejad’s invitation and speech.

    Comment by brian prentiss | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  2. You’re welcome. To be sure, my opinion is shared by many, but not most. Most people felt that CU stooped by bringing Ahmedinejad to the university. We had tons of graffiti, protesters, and the like all over campus protesting A’s visit. Frankly, I couldn’t disagree more. The whole purpose of the Forum is not to bring people you like or agree with; the point is dialog, and that couldn’t be furthered more than by bringing someone like A here. The campus, the NYC public, and sadly the university president really didn’t get that.

    Serious diplomacy w/ Iran hasn’t gone on for 30 yrs, and our government doesn’t realize that public humiliation and demands don’t encourage an institution that would prefer you don’t exist anyway and would consider losing to you in war martyrdom. Ironically, Bollinger encouraged Ahmedinejad to invite Bollinger to lead a student embassy to discuss freedom of speech with Iranian students at one of their universities. Great idea I think. Unfortunately, almost any potential for good there was undermined by Bollinger’s own self-absorbed critique.

    Comment by JD | November 16, 2007 | Reply

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