Remember Joseph Massad?


Columbia University apparently hopes you don’t. The university has granted the professor tenure, but the news flew so far under the radar that a Google news search under Massad’s name came up with only one hit: a Village Voice item on another topic altogether, with a half-sentence reference to the decision.

Massad was one of the Columbia profs at the center of the Middle East studies controversy of 2004, accused of intimidating pro-Israel students who disagreed with his harsh take on the Jewish state. On one occasion, Massad reportedly asked an Israeli student who questioned him how many Palestinians he had killed.

The news did catch the attention of Jacob Gershman though, a former writer for the now-defunct New York Sun. Gershman slammed the university administration in a New York Post Op-Ed, both for promoting a third-rate academic with loony ideas and for keeping the whole thing hush-hush — including, Gershman claims, denying crucial information to the university’s own board.

Four years ago, it seemed as if Massad would be on his way out of the Broadway gates. A university probe backed up students’ complaints that he disparaged Jewish students who disagreed with him. In one instance, while lecturing near campus, he responded to an Israeli student who asked a question by demanding to know how many Palestinians he had killed.

But faculty members opted instead to lionize Massad as a supposed martyr of academic freedom. A crucial ally for him was Dean of Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, whose wife taught a class with Massad.

In 2007, months after Massad completed his latest book, a committee rejected his tenure application. Tenure candidates rarely get a second shot at Columbia, but Dirks intervened and pushed for a second committee, sources say.

Oddly, the professor who led the first review of Massad refused to serve again. Even odder, the administration justified the do-over by claiming that Massad had switched his field of specialty from political science to cultural studies.

After the second committee approved Massad, President Lee Bollinger and Provost Alan Brinkley took extraordinary measures to protect the secrecy of Massad’s tenure case and guard against an outcry from Jewish alumni and donors.

The last step in the process was the trustees. The administration refused to share with the trustees any list of who was on the two tenure committees. The board was also kept in the dark as to why Massad failed the first review. Bollinger and Brinkley also refused to discuss in detail why Massad was permitted another shot.

Instead, the administration — apparently more interested in managing public relations than dealing with the substance of the underlying problem — simply provided the trustees with a set of talking points with "helpful facts" about the university’s Jewish student center.

When I tried contacting trustee Esta Stecher, a senior administration official alerted the board about my inquiries and reminded the trustees that the university doesn’t comment on tenure cases.

In the end, Columbia’s board of trustees approved Massad’s tenure appointment before ever getting answers.

Which raises the question: Just what does a trustee do? Are they merely fund-raisers? Do they view the title as a ceremonial honor? What’s the point?

As for Bollinger, one wonders how he allowed his faculty to undermine his authority and the university’s reputation.

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