Friday, April 01, 2005

Faculty [Ir]regulation: The Ad-Hoc Committee Report is Dropped Upon Us

How should a classroom be regulated?

Lee Bollinger, like most college presidents, does not want the government involved in the regulation of universities. Bollinger spoke of the University as a "fifth estate" (the press being the "fourth estate"), implying that universities and colleges ought to be free of government regulation if academic freedom is to have any meaning.

So how should higher education be regulated, if at all?

Bollinger supports self-regulation by faculty members. Faculty should set its own standards of scholarship, much like lawyers set their own standards of ethics.

But this approach is fraught with problems, illustrated best by the atrocious and self-serving report released today by the ad-hoc committee supposedly created to investigate the controversy, but in reality created to provide a cover for the faculty. In the process, the report managed to give a misleading picture of the actual controversy, show Columbia University to be a weak, thin-skinned institution, and worst of all, blame the victims.

The report is available here.

Two of the five committee members signed anti-Israel divestment petitions. Another was a thesis advisor to Joseph Massad, a radical pro-Palestinian professor at the center of the controversy. These are all textbook examples of conflicts of interest, and Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment advocate who advised the committee, should disown this report if he has any integrity.

Their bias comes through most jarringly when they discuss events in the Middle East leading to unrest on campus, and mention Israel's incursion into Jenin (which caused some professors to cancel their classes to attend pro-Palestinian rallies), but not, as it turns out, the suicide bombings which gave rise to that invasion.

Much of the report is comprised on childish whining about the role of outside groups in fueling the controversy, an attempt to drive home the point that the stereotype of the university as an ivory tower is not just a stereotype, but apparently a goal of the academic institution. Yes, the professors of Columbia University, with its billions of dollars, should be immune from the likes of little critics on shoestring budgets like Daniel Pipes' Campus-Watch. Boo, Martin Kramer and the David Project, outside bogeymen who disturbed the orthodoxy of the campus.

Lee Bollinger echoed similar themes in his address to the City Bar, decrying "outside forces" whose motives were not pure enough for his taste (as if people like Joseph Massad, he who wishes the world would get past the Holocaust and start seeing European Jews as colonial oppressors already, were pure as the driven snow). Bollinger and most of his faculty do not, apparently, grasp that the professors most complained about are part of the those very outside forces. Joseph Massad writes a fairly regular incendiary column for Al-Ahram Weekly the English weekly edition of a major Egyptian newspaper. He's written at least of couple of articles there about this controversy. (Hint: His audience for the articles is not Columbia students.) When Bollinger said it, his comment could reasonably be read as being critical of pressure groups from both sides. The committee, however, makes pretty clear it is the Jewish outside groups - the David Project, the ADL - the organizations who dared to suggest that professors like Massad were part of a bigger problem - are the outside groups to which they are referring. Columbia's grievance process stinks. The David Project makes Columbia Unbecoming as an avenue for the grievances of students who feel that certain professors tried to intimidate them in the classroom and elsewhere. This is Columbia's fault, not the David Project's fault, and the trope, used against virtually every organization that sought to give voice to the student allegations, that their interests as an "outside organization" were not in Columbia's best interest is both beside the point and totally indicative of ivory tower intellectuals who react like children to criticism from the outside.

The Committee's report, in this regard, fully validates the complaints of those who testified and came away complaining that the Committee was more interested in how outside groups were able to cast the University in a negative light than in investigating the allegations made by student eyewitnesses and allowing grievances to be aired.

That the Committee plays political favorites within the faculty is illustrated by its harsh and completely uncalled for condemnation of "faculty . . . [who] encourage students to report to them on a fellow-professor's classroom statements . . ." This appears to be a criticism of Professor Dan Miron, a Jewish professor who has been widely cited as being a shoulder for those intimidated students to lean on in past years. Mr. Miron, one of the good guys in this story, could only be seen as a bogeyman by people who explode at those who do not accept their views. People like Joseph Massad, and apparently, faculty members like the knuckleheads on the Committee.

The Committee finally blames the victim by spending more space condemning so-called unregistered auditors who came to lectures by certain professors and asked "incessant questions" and made "[incessant] comments". This is apparently frowned upon and such behavior "make[s] a powerful argument for banning them from classes except where they have the explicit, prior permission of the instructor."

There are apparently such things as stupid questions. A stupid question is a question which disputes the professor's viewpoint that the professor is too annoyed to answer. And when he gets annoyed, he can kick you out. That's academic freedom for you.

I thank the Ad-hoc Committee for putting to rest once and for all the lie that faculties can regulate themselves or protect academic freedom. If this is the dreck that a self-regulating faculty produces, at an Ivy-League institution no less, it is clear that the faculty is far too conflicted to carry out this task. That doesn't mean faculty regulation is the government's responsibility; it is not and should not be. But this report is a disgraceful example of why, nevertheless, all-faculty bodies are ineffective at protecting anything except the faculty's own particular orthodoxy.

In the future, ad-hoc committees of this kind should be made up of faculty, students, and most importantly, have a majority of people who are neither - respected citizens who can investigate without allowing personal biases to intervene. Floyd Abrams shouldn't have been an advisor. He should have been a committee member.

Abe Foxman issued a statement on the report calling it a "sad day for Columbia". I'd say it's a sad day for those who believed that intellectuals were scholarly enough and professional enough to handle their own affairs.


At 9:41 AM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

This is an excellent piece of writing.


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