Academic Freedom


posted to on April 14, 2005


Last night I attended a meeting organized by the ISO at NYC's Cooper Union that was advertised as "Is there an academic black-list?". Monique Dols, a Columbia student and ISO member, was the first speaker. She has been involved with organizing on campus to protect the academic freedom of professors in the Middle East and Asian Language and Culture (MEALAC) department. She wrote about the struggle in Counterpunch a couple of days ago:


She was followed by Joseph Massad, a non-tenured professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, who has borne the brunt of Zionist attacks on this department. It would be very useful if his talk could be made available on the Internet since it really gets to the heart of the matter. Massad explained that the Israeli government and its lackeys in the USA are trying to eliminate scholarship in the academy around Israel and Palestine, but cloak their attack in terms of rooting out anti-Semitism. He made the case that much of what he teaches in his course is not that controversial in scholarly circles, including Israel itself. These views are not acceptable to the Zionist establishment, however.


The final speaker was Tariq Ali who offered biting commentary on the hypocrisy of these attacks. The Zionists are for "balance" in departments like MEALAC, but where else are there such calls for balance? You would think that from the howls of protest that the media is filled with pro-Palestinian reportage and editorials. The demand for "balance" has even effected his speaking engagements. He is told from time to time from an organizer that they are under pressure to find a speaker with an opposing viewpoint. Ali tells them fine, get Kenan Makiya, Fouad Ajami or Thomas Friedman--but these people have all declined to debate him. Ali made the point that there is nothing wrong with debate. The left favors a confrontation of ideas, but the real drive at Columbia and elsewhere is simply to silence Massad and others like him.


Also invited to speak but unable to make an appearance because of illness was Harvard professor Sara Roy. I had no idea that the same crap going on at Columbia is going on at Harvard. Roy has an article in the London Review of Books at: She begins as follows:


"Recently, at Harvard University where I am based, a Jewish student, using an assumed (gentile) name, began posting anti-semitic statements on the weblog of the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice, an anti-war, pro-Palestinian group on campus. The student, it turned out, is the secretary of Harvard Students for Israel - which dissociated itself from the incident - and had previously accused the HIPJ of being too tolerant of anti-semitism. He now went undercover as part of a self-appointed effort to monitor anti-semitism on campus. In one posting, for example, he referred to Israel as the 'AshkeNAZI state'. Incidents of this kind, which are becoming commonplace on American campuses, reflect a wider determination to monitor, report, defame and punish those individuals and institutions within academia whose views the right finds objectionable. The campaign is directed at area studies generally but the most virulent attacks are reserved for those of us in Middle Eastern studies whose ideas are considered anti-Israel, anti-semitic or anti-American."


It should not come as any great surprise that the Harvard and Columbia administration are caving in to pressure. In the fall of 2002, Larry Summers and Lee Bollinger signed a full-page ad that ran in the NY Times calling attention to an alleged rise in anti-Semitic incidents on campus. This ad was really inspired by a growing movement for divestment from Israel. Another signatory was Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. My letter to Botstein can be read at:


Essentially, people such as Summers and Bollinger are in a quandary. They understand that free intellectual inquiry and Zionism are pretty much incompatible. If you allow departments concerned with Middle East affairs to set their own agenda and hire without outside pressure, they will inevitably hire people like Joseph Massad who has impeccable scholarly credentials. He has 2 books scheduled for publication this year, one from Harvard and the other from Routledge press. Ali noted that the schools would be hard-pressed to find a Zionist professor to replace him unless they scraped the bottom of the barrel and found a Daniel Pipes.


Harvard and Columbia want the cachet of having people like the late Edward Said on the faculty. About 5 years ago, George Rupp--the previous president of Columbia--came to speak to our department. He talked about the competition between NYU and Columbia over which institution will achieve the most prestige. Key to the competition was lining up top names in the faculty, such as Marxist scholar Jon Elster who had just joined the university. I was amused to see Rupp specifically refer to Elster as a Marxist and felt vindicated in front of my fellow programmers.


On April 11th, a letter appeared in the NY Times answering an April 7th editorial calling attention to "Intimidation at Columbia." It read as follows:


 >>The essence of a university lies in not sanctioning professors or students for the content of their ideas - even when some find them offensive. Universities permit radical ideas because they demand rigorous proof before accepting ideas as facts.


Columbia does not operate in the way you describe. Individual departments do not have the "power to appoint and promote faculty," and therefore cannot have that power "wrested away" from them. The tenure review process is carefully designed to exclude a candidate's department from wielding any power over the final tenure decisions.


A close reading of the faculty committee's report would suggest that assertions against Joseph Massad, a professor in the Middle Eastern studies department, have not been proved and that sharp disagreement exists among students about whether the incidents in question even took place.


Akeel Bilgrami Jonathan R. Cole Jon Elster New York, April 7, 2005 The writers are, respectively, a professor of philosophy; a professor of the university and a former provost; and a professor of social sciences at Columbia University.<<


Clearly, what is called for (and which was insisted on at the meeting) is a bold and energetic movement to protect academic freedom. Without grass-roots pressure, people like Jon Elster and Jonathan R. Cole might be reluctant to step forward. Ali was somewhat perplexed by the failure of tenured professors to come to Massad's defense. If they were tenured, why should they be afraid to speak out? In fact, we can only salute Massad himself who has been more visible and outspoken than anybody, despite being untenured.


A very important meeting, all in all.