When Lee Bollinger accepted an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary at the school’s May 18 commencement ceremony, the Columbia University president heard something that Jewish audiences have mostly withheld from him this year: applause.
Since last fall, Bollinger has come under fire several times from critics who are upset with the university’s investigation into claims by Jewish students that they were subject to intimidation by pro-Palestinian professors in Columbia’s Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department.
Columbia was accused of having inadequate grievance procedures. Some Jewish groups criticized Bollinger for appointing what they described as a biased investigative committee that eventually ignored virtually all the student complaints and raised the issue of professors being harassed by pro-Israel forces. As the controversy unfolded, several New York newspapers published articles suggesting that the campus had become a hotbed of anti-Israel activism.
After months of Jewish criticism and negative publicity, however, the warm reception and ostensible seal of approval from JTS appear to cap a turning point for Bollinger and Columbia.
In addition to the JTS honor, Bollinger has received praise from several Jewish organizations in recent months and appears to have maintained the support of many key Jewish donors.
“He has had to find the right way to weather the storm, and he may be emerging from that storm now, and his sail is still very high and he’s moving forward,” said Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s associate vice president for communications.
Even some of Columbia’s harshest critics are praising Bollinger.
“I think he’s trying to do the right thing, and he has tremendous constraints,” said Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, the off-campus pro-Israel group that helped publicize the student complaints. Ariel Beery, who graduated from Columbia this spring after playing a lead role in publicizing the complaints, expressed restrained praise for Bollinger: “I am pleased with his remarks in the past month. The administration is taking very good steps in the right direction. I just hope they take them with more confidence and more leadership.”
Hillel also honored Bollinger. In March he was invited to serve on the Honorary Committee at a dinner honoring Edgar Bronfman. In April, he was praised by the Anti-Defamation League for overhauling Columbia’s student grievance procedure; then in May the American Jewish Committee hailed him for opposing a boycott of two Israeli universities by a British academic group.
Key Jewish donors to the university have also signaled their support. David Stern, National Basketball Association commissioner and the head of Columbia’s board, was quoted last week in The New York Times in defense of Bollinger’s overall performance. Last month, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, the main benefactor of the university’s six-story Jewish student center, delivered the commencement address at graduation. Kraft also recently pledged another $500,000 toward a university fund promoting interfaith and cultural awareness. In March, four trustees agreed to endow the school’s first chair in Israel and Judaic studies.
However, it is unclear whether Bollinger’s efforts have helped his relationship with Columbia’s general population. The same New York Times article in which Stern praised Bollinger focused mostly on the president’s unpopularity in many university circles.
Walter M. Frisch, chairman of the executive committee of the faculty of arts and sciences, told the Forward that the controversy over the claims of the pro-Israel students “did take away time from other issues.” As for the end results, Frisch said, “I, as a faculty member, wish he had a stronger defense of the faculty.”
At the same time, some Columbia students and professors were quietly critical of the JTS’s decision to honor Bollinger, which came during the 50th anniversary year of the seminary and Columbia’s dual degree program.
But no such criticism seemed to emerge from JTS circles.
Recent JTS graduate Doron Kenter, the elected student speaker at graduation, said he didn’t know anyone who opposed Bollinger’s award. “His role as university president doesn’t only entail that which was involved in the [Middle East studies department] issue,” Kenter said.