TCS Daily

Columbia's Whitewash

By Ryan H. Sager - April 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Inopportune comments by Harvard President Lawrence Summers back in January about possible innate differences between men and women were enough to set off a national firestorm that raged for weeks and is still smoldering today. So why is the bullying and carpet-sweeping being perpetrated by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger with regard to student complaints of intimidation in the classroom by anti-Israel professors being ignored?

If Summers' remarks were unfortunate, Bollinger's conduct has been downright unethical -- and it has done far more lasting damage to the reputation of the institution he serves.

Last week, Columbia finally released the highly anticipated report of an "ad hoc" faculty committee set up in December of 2004 to look into complaints from students -- mostly Jewish and largely pro-Israel -- who have reported incidents of verbal abuse from professors in the university's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department.

And, surprise: It's the whitest of whitewashes.

Of course, no one watching the process closely ever expected anything different. Bollinger and the rest of the Columbia administration had to be shamed into setting up the committee in the first place. Their hand was only forced when a student video with testimonials about the abuses, called "Columbia Unbecoming," got picked up by The New York Sun and then the wider press.

But even when pressed into dealing with the accusations, Bollinger's administration decided to rig the process as much as possible. Out of five members on the committee, two signed an anti-Israel divestment petition, one was the thesis adviser for Joseph Massad (a professor prominently accused of wrongdoing), one has written that Israel is responsible for global anti-Semitism and one is a university administrator who ignored student complaints for months. The man who handpicked the committee for Bollinger, Nick Dirks, is married to a professor who co-teaches a class with Massad.

And so what did this fiercely independent and conflict-free committee conclude?

It concluded that when Professor Massad demanded at an off-campus talk that an Israeli army veteran disclose how many Palestinians he had killed, Massad may not have known the young man was a student.

It concluded that a Jewish student may have misunderstood when Professor George Saliba told her that "You have green eyes; you are not a Semite...You have no claim on the land of Israel."

And it out and out ignored another 50-plus complaints about rampant bias in the teaching of Mideast studies at Columbia, with charges ranging from professors canceling classes to protest against Israeli military action (and pressuring students to join such protests) and professors having a woefully inadequate knowledge of their subject areas.

The only systematic problems the committee chose to complain about: "outside organizations" reporting on comments made by professors at Columbia and pro-Israel students "disrupting" classes by asking too many questions.

The only concession -- if it can be called that -- in the report is that it calls "credible" a report that Massad told one female, Jewish student: "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!"

This is very convenient for Columbia. If the press and the public are fooled by the ad hoc committee's report into forgetting about the poisonous atmosphere at Columbia, the university can continue on its merry way. If the pressure stays on, down the road it can throw Massad to the wolves and declare its Mideast studies program reformed.

Massad's departure may be necessary for Columbia to begin a recovery. But it is by no means sufficient. Sufficient would be hiring more than a handful of professors who believe Israel has a right to exist. Sufficient would be giving back the money from the government of the United Arab Emirate -- where the Holocaust is denied on state TV -- that funds Columbia's Edward Said Chair in Middle East Studies. Sufficient would be making clear to professors that comparing Israel to Nazi Germany isn't scholarship, it's anti-Semitism.

But whereas Summers apologized quickly for his remarks (and has repeated that apology all-too-frequently ever since), Bollinger has been locked in spin mode. When Columbia released its report last week, it even went so far as to leak an early copy to The New York Times on the condition that the paper not let the students who had originally brought the complaints comment.

The Times was forced to publish a lengthy editor's note Wednesday (after the deal was exposed by the Sun) almost-sort-of-kind-of apologizing for this egregious lapse in journalistic ethics. But that the Times accepted such a deal in the first place speaks volumes about its so-called objectivity.

And so, in the end, maybe it's not such a mystery how Lawrence Summers ends up tarred and feathered and Lee Bollinger gets off scot free.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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