Report Reignites Campus Controversy at Columbia

By Nathaniel Popper

Published April 08, 2005, issue of April 08, 2005.
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A report aimed at healing tensions over the Middle East has ended up fueling a new round of controversy at Columbia University, especially over the school’s early release of the document to The New York Times.

The report — released to The Times March 30 and to the public a day later — came in response to complaints from several Jewish students at Columbia who said that they had been intimidated by pro-Palestinian professors. During the past two months an ad hoc committee of five Columbia professors investigated the claims. The report addressed only three of the many incidents alleged by the Jewish students, but criticized the university’s grievance procedures and called for a re-evaluation of the way students’ complaints are handled.

The committee also amplified complaints from pro-Palestinian professors who said they had been subjected to harassment from students and outside organizations.

With its concrete recommendations for moving forward, the report has been praised by some, including the editorial board of Columbia’s student newspaper and the American Jewish Committee. But the main actors in controversy — on both sides — are expressing scorn for the committee’s work.

Some Jewish students who helped bring forward the complaints said the report was a “disgrace” in its failure to consider fully the students’ allegations and the larger question of whether Middle East studies classes at Columbia are biased against Israel. The anger emerged at an outdoor rally sponsored by the group Columbians for Academic Freedom on the day the report was released, although it appeared to be subsiding after the students had a private meeting with Columbia President Lee Bollinger.

On Monday, many professors who teach Middle East studies had a “teach-in” at the university’s Low Library, where they lined up to criticize Columbia for not defending the professors more vigorously. The professor who has been the target of the most accusations, Joseph Massad, said the ad hoc committee displayed a “clear bias in favor of the witch-hunt that has targeted me.”

Two of the three allegations of intimidation discussed in the report involve Massad. The committee decided that in one instance Massad had “exceeded commonly accepted bounds” when he allegedly told a student, “If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom.” Massad has denied the incident took place. In the other incidents discussed, the committee did not censure the professors.

The crisis at Columbia erupted this past October, with the first showing of “Columbia Unbecoming,” a film documenting the complaints that some pro-Israel Jewish students had about their experiences in classes on the Middle East at Columbia. Since the release of the film and the formation of the ad hoc committee this past December, the university has become the focus of relentless media attention, much of it negative. In attempting to manage how the current report was covered in the media, however, the university appears to have attracted yet more attention to itself.

The university decided to release the report only to The New York Times and the Columbia student newspaper, on March 30. Columbia spokesperson Susan Brown told the Forward she had requested that both publications not speak with anyone who had not yet read the report. In effect, this meant that the papers could not speak to the students but could speak with Massad, the accused professor, who, according to Brown, was given a copy in advance because of the accusations made against him in the report.

In the front-page story printed in The New York Times, reporter Karen Arenson abided by Columbia’s requests. The Columbia Spectator did not, and allowed the students to respond.

James Carey, a professor at Columbia’s journalism school, said the Times’s decision went against good journalistic practice: “It is clearly an ethical violation to allow the source to determine the nature of the story, by defining in advance who can and cannot be included.” The Times published an editor’s note April 6 acknowledging the problem.

“Under The Times’s policy on unidentified sources writers are not permitted to forgo follow-up reporting in exchange for information,” the five-paragraph note stated. “In this case, editors and the writer did not recall the policy and agreed to delay additional reporting until the document had become public.”

Students were less distressed with the newspaper than with the university, which let them read the report only on the night of March 30, after the students independently found out about the report’s release and stood outside a faculty event for hours.

“It showed complete disregard for the students,” said student Ariel Beery, co-founder of Columbians for Academic Freedom. “This whole issue was about the university not showing concern for the students. It was as if this entire thing hasn’t taught them anything.”

Beery said Columbia provost Alan Brinkley apologized to the students for how the report was released.

The ad hoc committee was formed in December, months after the students raised their concerns, and its composition has been questioned by Columbians for Academic Freedom and outside Jewish organizations. These groups have complained that two of the five committee members were signatories to a petition demanding that Columbia divest from Israel, while a third was Massad’s dissertation adviser. Massad, on the other hand, complained that the committee’s adviser, Floyd Abrahams, was a pro-Israel advocate, and friend of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has harshly criticized Massad.

Charles Jacob, the director of the David Project, which helped produce “Columbia Unbecoming,” said in a statement: “This is a biased report by a biased committee, which ignored the facts to protect its own.”

The report ignores the broader concern of many Jewish groups about alleged anti-Israel bias in Columbia’s Middle East department. The committee said its “mandate will not include investigating anyone’s political or scholarly beliefs or any departments or curricula.”

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