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Conduct Unbecoming

Columbia University's report on the conduct of its Middle Eastern studies professors is worse than a whitewash.

12:00 AM, Apr 11, 2005 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
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ABIGAIL THERNSTROM once described the American college campus as an island of repression in a sea of freedom. The report of Columbia University's ad hoc grievance committee suggests that Columbia is such an island. On its face, the report presents findings and recommendations concerning allegations by Columbia students that they were subjected to intimidation and abuse by members of the university's department of Middle East and Asian Language and Cultures (MEALAC). However, the report is better understood as a directive to Columbia students to take without protest the poisonous medicine being administered by the anti-Israel, anti-American radicals who dominate MEALAC.

The Columbia Middle Eastern studies faculty has long been a hot-bed of pro-Palestinian activism. (This sorry history was captured by Ron Lewenberg in an article for FrontPage magazine.) The driving force behind this radicalism was the late Professor Edward Said.

Said's spirit lives on within MEALAC. According to Jacob Gershman of the New York Sun, the department chairman, Hamid Dabashi, wrote last fall that Israelis suffer from "a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture." Last winter, MEALAC held a Palestinian film festival that promoted the destruction of Israel. And, according to one of his former students, MEALAC professor Joseph Massad told a class that it was Israelis who massacred their own Olympic athletes at Munich in 1972.

Several MEALAC professors have also been accused of intimidating and/or verbally abusing students who question their teachings. Columbia established the ad hoc grievance committee to consider the students' accusations. However, the committee was stacked in favor of the accused professors. According to Ryan Sager, of the five committee members, two were also members of MEALAC. A third was the dissertation adviser of one of the accused professors (the aforementioned Massad). A fourth has blamed Israel for post-war anti-Semitism and advanced the theory that the United States invaded Iraq for the benefit of Israel. And this lopsided panel was hand-picked by an administrator married to a professor who co-teaches a class with Massad.

Unsurprisingly, the committee produced a whitewash of past misconduct. Even worse, it produced a document that seeks to insulate the radical faculty from future criticism. The report takes the existence of a virulently anti-western Middle East studies department as a given. It does so on the grounds that faculty members have the right to hold and espouse their views, however controversial. One wonders whether the committee would have been this sanguine about a department that was uniformly and militantly anti-Palestinian.

The real problem with the report, however, lies in its hostility towards the natural responses of students trapped in the classrooms of Columbia's radical anti-Israeli activists. For instance, students who might disagree with the proposition that the Israelis killed their own Olympic athletes in 1972 are admonished not to express their disagreement in ways that might "disrupt" the classroom or adversely "affect the pedagogic experiences of their classmates." Strangely, the committee expresses concern over the chilling effect that strident objections to indoctrination by faculty members allegedly has had on students who agree with the MEALAC's radicals. Yet the report ignores the effect that its admonition, coupled with the inherent power wielded by professors in the classroom, may have on dissent.

The committee has even less sympathy for attempts to break the monopoly power of the MEALAC faculty. It proposes a ban on having outsiders audit classes, unless they have "the explicit, prior permission of the instructor." But it's not just outsiders who are to be denied a role in helping students cope with MEALAC's onslaught. The committee finds it "deeply disturbing" that some faculty members provided a sympathetic hearing to students offended by MEALAC's propaganda. And it singles out the school's Jewish Chaplain for expressing his dismay. The committee recommends a "review of the prerogatives and responsibilities" of school Chaplains in order to bring them more closely under the control of "appropriate faculty committees and university offices."