Convening of Ad Hoc Faculty Committee
December 8, 2004
To the Columbia Community:
Whenever we find ourselves embroiled in conflict and controversy, as we are right now, it is important to begin by recognizing the enormous pride we all take in being part of an institution unmatched in its historical and continuing commitment to the highest standards of intellectual life. An extraordinary and committed faculty and student body are ready to help us confront whatever problems we may face and find constructive solutions.
We have heard a great deal in recent weeks about academic freedom, and I want to say just a few words about that fundamental principle. Academic freedom is at the center of University life. It makes what we do possible and gives what we do meaning. A spirit of free and open inquiry, born of an impulse to know and understand and uninhibited by prejudice and fear of the unknown, is the hallmark of great universities and a direct cause of their success over the centuries. The broad allowance for imaginative freedom is most certainly the source of almost all scholarly creativity and contribution.
In the classroom, students as well as faculty share in the inherent right to explore and to speak to the subject under discussion. I believe it is imperative that we see students as colleagues in the pursuit of knowledge. The University faculty handbook states that “in conducting their classes, faculty should make every effort to be accurate and should show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own.” Acts of intimidation or discrimination against students or any other members of our community on the basis of ethnicity, gender, political beliefs, race, religion, or for any other reason are antithetical to University policies and principles and are an affront to our community. I am confident that we all agree that such behavior is inconsistent with our values and must not be tolerated under any circumstances.
For more than a month now, Provost Alan Brinkley and I have been meeting with faculty and students to inform ourselves about student concerns over being intimidated and excluded from participating in some classroom discussions because of their viewpoints. These claims by our own students must be taken very seriously, while recognizing that before any judgment is reached all sides must be heard. Until we do this, we will find ourselves unable either to protect students from unacceptable intimidation or adequately defend faculty members from unwarranted attacks.
On Monday, I received a letter from the Provost containing his evaluation of the recent controversies and his recommendations. A copy of his letter is included below. Based upon his evaluation and my discussions with him, we believe it is important to respond to students who feel that they have legitimate grievances about classroom experiences.
Questions of this nature must be dealt with at the faculty, departmental, and school level. In this case, we must turn first to Arts and Sciences and to the Vice President for Arts and Sciences, Nick Dirks. The outcome of extensive and careful discussions is a decision to convene an ad hoc faculty committee to listen to, and when appropriate, investigate student complaints. Arts and Sciences has already conducted a review of its grievance procedures and proposed the creation of a standing faculty committee to respond to future complaints. The ad hoc committee that will be created will allow us to resolve the current controversies in the period before the formation of the permanent committee. The committee will hear all complaints brought to it, investigate those it thinks require investigation, and deliver a factual report to the Vice President, with copies provided to the Provost and me, for appropriate action. A summary of the committee’s report will be made public. The committee will not investigate anyone’s political or scholarly beliefs and will not review departments or curricula.
The ad hoc committee is composed of the following members: Lisa Anderson, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; Farah Jasmine Griffin, Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Jean Howard, William E. Ransford Professor of English and Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives; Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History; and Mark Mazower, Professor of History. Floyd Abrams, William J. Brennan Visiting Professor at the School of Journalism , will serve as an advisor to the committee. Floyd is a highly accomplished First Amendment scholar and lawyer and has spent his professional career writing and working on many of the most important First Amendment issues of our times.
We will take the necessary steps to make sure that students and faculty are fully aware of how they can bring information to the committee. We hope that the committee will work quickly. We recognize that the approach of finals and the end of the fall semester will make it very unlikely that the committee will complete its work until the first two months of 2005. It is essential that the committee be given enough time to administer complete and fair reviews.
Let me state again that our commitment to freedom of inquiry lies at the heart of what we are undertaking here. An important part of that commitment requires ensuring that we, as a university, teach and discuss the most controversial topics of our time without chilling discourse in the classroom while preserving an atmosphere of civility, trust, and mutual respect within the community at large. When – as here – a challenge goes to the heart of what we profess to stand for, we must be ready to make a full accounting of the situation through earnest reflection and self-evaluation and act accordingly to affirm our values and uphold our commitment to the community.
Lee C. Bollinger
December 6, 2004
Dear President Bollinger,
As you know, several weeks ago you asked me to look into the controversy that has arisen around claims by students and faculty of threats to academic freedom and civil discourse on campus. We agreed then that these claims were serious enough to require our attention, and both you and I have spent a considerable portion of our time in recent weeks trying to understand what has happened and how we should respond.
In the course of these efforts, I have met (sometimes alone, sometimes with you) with many groups of students and faculty. We have talked together with students who have complaints about their classroom experiences, including many of those who appeared in the David Project film. I have spoken as well with the heads of the four undergraduate student councils and with other groups of students of very diverse views. We have both heard from and met with many individual students as well. In addition, I have met with several dozen members of the faculty individually, with members of the University Senate, with the Executive Committee of the Arts and Sciences, and with many department chairs. We have both received countless letters, e-mails, and other messages. I cannot claim that these inquiries have given me a complete and reliable picture of these controversial events, but I do believe I understand better than I did what our challenges are and how we might address them.
It is, I believe, important to begin by reaffirming our unequivocal support of the principles of academic freedom that are among the core values of the University and that must be the basis for our response to the present situation. We must continue to protect the right of all members of the University community to express their views on any issue, no matter how controversial, without fear of reprisal. We must affirm again the right of faculty to teach as they wish and to express their views freely in the classroom as long as they do so with academic integrity and in an atmosphere of tolerance and civility.
We have heard claims in recent weeks that some members of the faculty may have violated their responsibility to treat students with tolerance and respect in the classroom. Those claims are extremely troubling, since the well-being of our students and their ability to learn in an environment of civility and trust is one of the University’s most important missions. We need, therefore, to determine if these claims are true, and, if they are, to take steps to address the problem.
Let me summarize, then, the steps I think we need to take in response to the various claims before us and the broader controversy that surrounds them.
Many of us began our consideration of these claims believing that our existing grievance procedures could adequately resolve the questions before us. But those procedures have not proved adequate to this task, for several reasons. First, it is clear to me that the procedures we have are not well enough understood, either by the students who might wish to file complaints or by the administrators and faculty who might receive them. The result is that students sometimes make complaints to administrators who have no authority to deal with the issues, and those administrators, unable to address the problems themselves, have not known where to send students for help. Much of the frustration that many students feel is, I believe, a result not just of their reaction to experiences in the classroom, but also of their feeling that there is nowhere to go to express their concerns. I believe as well that our existing grievance procedures, even if they were better understood, are not sufficiently robust to deal effectively with controversies of this kind.
My first recommendation, therefore, is that all schools look carefully at their existing grievance procedures (as Arts and Sciences is already doing) and that they make whatever changes may be necessary to allow them to deal effectively with unusual challenges such as those we now face. Identifying the necessary changes should entail consultation with students and faculty, who are the users of and participants in these procedures. I also recommend that schools make a major effort to educate students, faculty, and administrators on what the procedures are and how they can be used, so that in the future students with grievances will feel that they have a place where they can express them.
Evaluating the Current Controversy
Given the inadequacy of our grievance procedures, I believe it is important not only that we work to strengthen them, but also that we move quickly to create a process capable of responding now to current complaints by students in a serious, fair, and comprehensive way. I recommend that the Vice President for Arts and Sciences convene an ad hoc committee, drawn from the faculty, to hear student complaints and, when appropriate, investigate them. This committee will help us resolve some of our existing grievances while we await the formation of the permanent grievance processes that Arts and Sciences is committed to creating. The committee will hear all issues students and faculty bring before it, but its mandate will not include investigating anyone’s political or scholarly beliefs or any departments or curricula.
I have great faith and pride in the quality and integrity of our faculty and our students. I believe that we can rely on our community to respond positively to this controversy – both by protecting our core principles of academic freedom and by assuring that the University is doing everything possible to make certain that Columbia remains a place in which students and faculty can discuss controversial issues freely and in an atmosphere of tolerance and trust.