About 50 faculty members shuffled into 428 Pupin Thursday for a meeting open exclusively to faculty in the Arts and Sciences to probe Columbia’s role in the debate on academic freedom in Palestine, and to do what academics do best: talk about talking.
The latest episode in a back-and-forth between student and professor groups publicizing distinct stances on the Palestinian cause, the meeting represents another attempt by faculty to push University President Lee Bollinger to make a public statement on the issue. Their efforts crystallized in February, when 123 faculty members within the Arts and Sciences signed a letter to Bollinger asking the free-speech scholar to voice his “support for the academic freedom of Palestinians.” This meeting also symbolized deep concern among faculty, since it lies outside of the regular faculty-wide meeting schedule and was made possible only by a special petition as outlined in University bylaws.
While neither press nor faculty outside the Arts and Sciences—which contains 29 academic departments—were permitted entry, organizers said the meeting featured presentations and dialogue on what they view as the dire circumstances currently confronting Palestinian academics and students.
Bollinger and Provost Alan Brinkley did not attend. Vice President of the Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, Chair of the Executive Committee Katharina Volk, Dean of the Graduate School Henry Pinkham, and outgoing Dean of Columbia College Austin Quigley were present. By press time, Dirks and Volk had not responded to requests for comment.
Anthropology professor Brinkley Messick, who contacted Spectator about the meeting on Wednesday, emphasized that the event intended to solicit “advice from the faculty” and to strike up conversation on the challenges experienced by Palestinians studying in the Middle East and abroad. In his presentation, Messick cited Bollinger’s speeches that endorse Israeli academics, as well as a June 2007 entry posted on the president’s Web site that denounces Britain’s University and College Union boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Bollinger’s “early statements were political acts, in that they were selective in their attention to academic freedom. They have a blind spot concerning the occupied territories,” Messick wrote in an e-mail after the event. “Israel is directly responsible for the state of academic freedom in the West Bank and Gaza, and that state is deplorable.”
In addition, anthropology and women’s and gender studies professor Lila Abu-Lughod spoke on a proposed advisory committee that would use Columbia resources to tackle problems of travel facing Palestinians who wish to come to American colleges.
Gil Anidjar, a professor of Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures and religion, applauded the faculty’s ability to conduct itself “civilly” on such delicate topics. Even so, the meeting was not without disagreement, as faculty questioned the narrow scope of calling for academic freedom solely in Palestine, and suggested that professors could pursue these causes as individuals rather than as a collective unit. “These are crucial and difficult issues, and they were addressed in a serious, thoughtful, and engaged manner,” Anidjar said.
As demonstrated by the atmosphere outside 428 Pupin, a number of professors left early, although it is not clear why. The meeting also attracted faculty involved in the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, and some who have publicly pressed against Columbia’s divestment from Israel.
Although this meeting lacks connection to recent campaigns launched by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel student groups, it has already unmasked divisions among the faculty. According to Messick, another letter surfaced on Wednesday evening, this time from professors requesting that Bollinger acknowledge matters of academic freedom in both Palestine and Israel.