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Amid turmoil, Columbia’s Lee Bollinger ponders chance to remake department

New York, March 3 (JTA) — On Oct. 3, 2002, Lee Bollinger, Columbia University’s newly minted president, delivered his inaugural address, a mix of grave declarations and lighthearted asides, with a tasteful dose of pomp and circumstance thrown in for good measure. Toward the end of the speech, however, Bollinger hit his stride. “The principal task before us is simple to state and hard to do well,” he said. “We must continue, from the level of the individual to that of the university, to know what the important and interesting questions of our time are and how best to pursue them.” Last year, Bollinger’s statement took on an ironic twist. All of a sudden, “the important and interesting questions of our time” were being overshadowed by a small band of pro-Israel Jewish students who were leveling serious charges against the Middle East Studies Department at Columbia. The students, aided by a pro-Israel group called the David Project, produced a short documentary film titled “Columbia Unbecoming,” in which they accused several faculty members from the Middle East and Asian Language and Culture Department of harboring a malicious bias, sometimes translated into harassment and intimidation, against Jewish students who held pro-Israel views. The most powerful allegations included charges that one MEALAC professor, Joseph Massad, demanded of an Israeli student how many Palestinians he had killed in the army, and that a second, George Saliba, told a student that her green eyes prove she’s not a Semite and therefore has no claim to the land of Israel. The film, as is now well known, triggered a chain of events, from consternation in City Hall to screenings in Israel’s parliament to calls from a local congressman for one of the professors to be fired. The film received national, even international press, creating a perfect media storm. In the eye of the storm is Bollinger — stressed, yes, but seemingly calm. Since the existence of the film was leaked to the press in the fall, he has spent countless hours on the MEALAC maelstrom, meeting with everyone from representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish leaders to faculty members and alumni. Yet even in the middle of this public relations disaster, with pressure mounting on all sides as the committee established to investigate the students’ charges is due to make its recommendation later this month, Bollinger is not without a glimmer of satisfaction. In fact, the crisis may be just the hammer he needs to break down what he perceives to be narrow teaching within MEALAC and remake it into a less overtly political department, built around a more global view of the Middle East. The first strike may have been the recent creation of an advisory committee to help run the department, widely seen as a strong vote of no-confidence in MEALAC. In a wide-ranging recent interview with The Jewish Week, Bollinger acknowledged, albeit elliptically, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not being taught in a balanced way that reflects the complexity of the region. He believes that “the historic, horrific treatment of Jews, especially in the 20th century, is not something to be taken as a matter of the past, and while I may not share all the policy judgments of the Israeli government, I believe the conflict cannot in any way be fairly regarded as lying at the feet of choices that Israel has made.” Bollinger is careful not to name names, but he makes clear he is at odds with some professors in the department, whether or not they are guilty of the allegations against them. “Just as I can’t go in to my First Amendment class and say you know, I happen to think that censorship is a very good idea, and if you want to take a course on freedom of speech that emphasizes, you know, against censorship, God bless you, and go do that,” he said. “And this is really a critical point: What we teach is not just the understanding of the subjects we explore. What we teach is the mental ability to grasp multiple points of view about the subject, or about any subject, that takes practice, takes repetition. “It’s why universities will always be physical places and not Internet sites — because you need to live in a community in which everybody goes through the process of learning how to embrace complexities. … It enriches your life, it enriches the society in which you live, it enriches the public sphere.” To walk into Bollinger’s office is to embrace the complexities of Columbia’s 19th president. Located in the university’s magisterial Low Library — the location of such films as “Spiderman” and “Ghostbusters” — the office is a study in contrast. It has all the markings of an intellectual throne room, with wall-to-wall bookshelves holding volumes of imperial-looking, leather-bound books, heavy furniture dominated by mahogany and oak, and a handful of commemorative trinkets befitting a college president. Yet the traditional plush red velvet curtains have been replaced with bright pastel-colored linen ones. And instead of neo-classical art, replete with cherubic representations of Beauty and Virtue — the kind that adorns most other walls in the university — hang two paragons of modernity, Cubist and Constructivist paintings. Bollinger, 58, is much like his office. From a distance, he looks presidential. Take a step closer, however, and the clarity of that vision is blurred by contradictions. His patrician good looks, for example, are balanced by a Robert Redford-type ruggedness. His dress , too, gives mixed messages: a carefully tailored suit alongside an inexpensive zip-up sweater. And there is about Bollinger a Bill Clinton-esque quality that heat-seeks consensus without compromising positions, a knack, perhaps, for the cartography of common ground. “I never believed that having everybody unhappy with you is a good sign,” he said. “That’s never been my guide.” And many at Columbia are unhappy with the president. The university — faculty and students alike — appears largely unaffected by the MEALAC controversy. Yet for those who are invested in the results of the ad hoc committee, the administration has appointed to investigate the Jewish students’ charges, tension is high and criticism of Bollinger is sharp. “I don’t understand the principles behind the selection of the committee members,” said Professor Judith Jacobson of Columbia’s medical school, referring to a common claim among Israel supporters on campus that the committee members, two of whom had signed a petition calling on Columbia to divest from Israel, are biased. “If I were selecting members of a committee that was investing a particular academic department,” she said, “I would try to avoid selecting people who had obvious conflicts of interest regarding the people or the subject matter under investigation.” Bollinger rejects the notion that the committee, advised by First Amendment scholar Floyd Abrams, is biased. He stresses that the committee’s mandate is narrow, limited only to discovering whether or not the particular allegations are true. The final decision remains in the hands of the administration. He adds that peer review is a normal process in academia, and the committee is made up of an array of professors, guaranteeing fairness to the students. Professor Ari Goldman, dean of students at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, agrees. “I have confidence in the process that the university has undertaken with this committee set up to hear grievances,” he said. “Any group that you impanel is going to bring their own perspectives and come with some baggage. They’ve got a job to do, and I think they’ll put their connections and allegiances aside to arrive at the right decision. “If I had been on the committee, would I be disqualified because I signed the anti-divestment petition? I would hope not,” Goldman said. “I would hope that I, too, would be able to judge it fairly.” The criticism, however, is just as strong from the other end of the political spectrum. “If you collect all the statements that Bollinger had made on behalf of pro-Israel and pro-Jewish studies in the past, then he has consistently undermined any possibility for a different opinion,” said Professor Gil Anidjar of the Middle East studies department. “He has fostered division within the department itself, and within the campus, because he has consistently favored one side. All the negative statements he has made publicly were against people who happened to have pro-Palestinian opinions.” Anidjar’s criticism is rendered more potent by the fact that several weeks ago Columbia’s administration placed MEALAC under the direction of an independent advisory committee. While the committee will not run the day-to-day affairs of the department, Columbia officials say it will play a major role in advising both the department’s chair and the university’s vice president of Arts and Sciences about the department’s future. “Columbia University has a longstanding policy of creating independent administrative committees for specific departments,” Professor Nicholas Dirks, the vice president for Arts and Sciences, said in a recent statement. “The formation of such a committee for MEALAC is a routine and appropriate procedure that has proven very useful in helping departments overcome specific challenges and meeting the highest standards of academic excellence.” The advisory committee, said Professor Dan Miron of MEALAC, is “uncalled for.” The department “can run itself, and there was no reason to deprive it of self governance. It’s a reaction of the university that I don’t understand. Bollinger refutes this criticism, as well. For him, the advisory committee is a vehicle for change within MEALAC, a bulwark of intellectual complexity, one that could help him realize his vision for the department. That vision would change MEALAC from its focus on the region’s politics and have it take a wider view. “This is only one aspect of a much larger set of questions,” he said of the recent controversy. “I come from the law school side, as you know, and law schools have far too few people thinking about the development of legal institutions in Middle Eastern societies, Islamic societies.” And, Bollinger said, he would like to see the Middle East department, and other Columbia departments, broaden their mandates to include such issues as global health, environmental concerns and energy preservation. The recent conflict, he said, is an excellent opportunity to consider these issues. “That’s why it’s not a diversionary moment for me,” Bollinger said. “That’s why I’m not upset that I’m spending time on this — and I’m spending a lot of time, no doubt about that. But I don’t rue the time I spend on it because actually it furthers the broader goals I think the institution is and should be committed to.” Which is why Bollinger has his eye trained on the future, well beyond the recommendations of the committee probing the students’ charges. “We could have a department that is double in size and still … not be doing service or justice to the importance of those questions to the modern world,” he said. “So that’s the first thing: We have to expand the size of programs like MEALAC. “The second thing is that we need to integrate better than we have other fields that have knowledge relevant to the work being done in MEALAC. What is the relationship, for example, between the environmental facts of life in the Middle East and Asia, or its diseases, and the culture there? We need to better bring together what we have. We need to add more people to do that, people in law, in journalism, and elsewhere.” All that, Bollinger said, is not meant to play down the importance of the thorny Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I happen to think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of central importance in the modern world,” he said, “and we want to be able to think about that in its full complexities. That’s going to mean that there will be thoughts some people will find difficult, or even offensive, and yet we must be able to explore given our belief in academic freedom. However, it is our obligation to do that with full respect to the complexity, and if we don’t do that, we have failed ourselves, we have failed our own principles.” The pursuit of principle, it seems, is not something from which Bollinger shies away. In an age of university president as CEO — and there is plenty of that in his tenure, as well — he seems to revel in weighing in on big, culture-defining moments. In his previous job, as the president of the University of Michigan, he was a fierce defender of that institution’s affirmative action policy. “What a great education is, among other things,” he said in a statement that could apply to his views of the situation at Columbia, “is the ability to go outside of your own mind, your own ways of seeing the world, and to see the word through other people’s experiences and eyes.” His position drew sharp criticism, however, most notably from President Bush, who said then that “at their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race.” Bollinger didn’t flinch. The same thing is happening now: Globalization has long been his platform, and he has discussed it, in speeches and in writing, since he took over at Columbia. In a 2003 op-ed he wrote in the Financial Times, which can be seen as a possible blueprint for the Middle East studies department, Bollinger wrote, “Not enough of the extraordinary resources of our great universities are directed towards understanding these global phenomena. There are several reasons. First, so much of what one pays attention to depends on whose interests are regarded as being at stake. And we still define ourselves largely by the nation of which we are part. Universities should take a more encompassing perspective on humanity’s interests. Second, many fields (economics and political science come to mind) devote too many intellectual resources to creating abstract models that are far removed from the pressing questions of the time or relevant only to particular (usually developed) societies.” And then, almost as if he were speaking directly to the MEALAC professors whose narrow view of the Middle East he so abhors, Bollinger made a third point. “The method of studying international issues that was developed after the Second World War, largely through so-called area studies programs, needs to be revised,” he wrote. “The study of regions must be linked to the broader study of globalization.” When it comes to the Middle East mess on his doorstep, Lee Bollinger, the lion in winter, is acting locally while thinking globally.

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