Despite serious concerns raised by students regarding the ad hoc committee created to investigate allegations of anti-Israel intimidation and harassment, the University administration is continuing to voice its confidence in the committee.
A number of students are refusing to appear in person, citing committee members' inappropriate connections to MEALAC faculty and political biases against Israel. Columbians for Academic Freedom is a new student group which is helping organize the criticism.
"All we need is five people," said Ariel Beery, GS '05 and one of the leaders of the group. "That's less than 140th of the faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences, and you pick the wrong five."
Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, who was responsible for the selection of the committee's members, defended their commitment to students and to academic freedom. "I understand that concerns have been raised about the political statements and profiles of certain members of the committee," he said, "but this is not a committee looking into questions of politics. This is a committee looking into the character of teaching at Columbia."
The committee is comprised of Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; history professor Mark Mazower; Farah Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies; Jean Howard, professor of English and vice provost for Diversity Initiatives; and professor of political science and history Ira Katznelson.
Following the e-mail sent to the Columbia community on Dec. 8 in which University President Lee Bollinger announced the members of committee, members of Columbians for Academic Freedom met with Provost Alan Brinkley and sent a letter to President Bollinger on Dec. 13.
On Dec. 17, Beery announced the students' rejection of the committee at a University Senate meeting. At that meeting, Bollinger assured Beery that peer review in the form of an ad hoc committee was the proper course of action to be taken under the circumstances.
The same group of 10 students who composed the letter to Bollinger sent a similar letter to Floyd Abrams, the advisor to the ad hoc committee, on Jan. 17, in which they agreed to compromise by submitting in writing the testimonies of students who do not feel comfortable appearing in front of the committee.
The students' primary concerns about the constitution of the committee stem from the alleged personal and professional connections between its members and some of the professors being called into question for their behavior in the classroom, as well as connections between members of the committee and anti-Israel statements and causes.
Anderson advised MEALAC professor Joseph Massad on his Ph.D. thesis. Massad was accused of practicing academic discrimination in the classroom in the film Columbia Unbecoming.
Massad also acknowledged Anderson in his book about the formation of the Jordanian national identity, Colonial Effects, published in 2001, writing: "I would like to begin by thanking Lisa Anderson, my professor and advisor, for believing in this project and for supporting it despite her initial misgivings about its unorthodox methodology. Her trust in me strengthened my resolve to proceed and finally to complete this project."
Mazower wrote publicly in The Financial Times that the United States is waging the recent war in Iraq for the sake of Israel, and that Israel is also to blame for global anti-Semitism. Griffin and Howard signed a 2002 divestment petition demanding that Columbia withdraw economic support from Israel.
Floyd Abrams, a well-known First Amendment lawyer, is serving as an advisor to the committee, but will not be present when testimony is taken from students.
The committee's members, not including Abrams, are refusing to speak to the press regarding the committee so as to not "compromise the inquiry," according to Katznelson.
Bollinger defended the committee members' integrity and ability to set personal politics aside. "They understand the principles that are involved," he said. "They have been part of academic life for many years. They are sensitive to the kind of concerns that are being expressed by some students and also by faculty. This requires a matter of objectivity, understanding of principle, ability to have a judgment in a complex situation—these are the faculty that we impose our trust in."
Dirks agreed. "When we set up faculty committees, whether to review tenure or to review departments, we don't think about politics," he said. Members for such committees are chosen because they are "good, smart, responsible members of the University community, and we trust them to do a good job."
He praised them as "superb teachers" who have shown their dedication to students. "In addition to sitting in their studies and writing their books, [they] exemplify the kinds of values that we think are most relevant to students and the institution and the environment of education."
The students' letter also stated that "a number of students we represent are too afraid to come before these specific professors because they either teach in, or are the dean of, faculties that they are wholly at the mercy of in their academic careers."
The letter to Bollinger describes one student who is currently applying to the School of International and Public Affairs and feels uncomfortable testifying, and another who is a double major in MEALAC and history.
Beery complained that all five members of the committee are members of humanities and social science departments, especially when all the professors mentioned in Columbia Unbecoming are from the same set of departments.
Dirks said that the selection was a result of the types of issues that are under discussion.
"It was not a conscious decision to exclude the sciences," he said. "The kind of teaching that is involved in the courses at issue is more characteristic of questions arising in pedagogy in the humanities and social sciences."
"We decided that in this particular case, teaching experience in areas where there are contentious kinds of questions would be the most relevant," he added. "The principle concern we have is to address complaints on the part of students that inappropriate things have taken place in classrooms."
Bollinger emphasized his belief that the committee members were the best choices possible, and that they would handle the students' testimonies appropriately.
"All I can say is that I really do have trust in these people," he said. "I want to express that trust and that's all I can do. I want people to feel, and I'm sure the committee does as well, from all perspectives, that this is a group that will try to reach judgment on the merits."