The Columbia Club of Middle Eastern Studies

Things go from bad to worse at Columbia University, the Bir Zeit of American academe. Articles in yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times and in today’s New York Sun report that Professor Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago is weighing an offer to join Columbia University, as the Edward Said Professor (of God-only-knows—there are no precise details). The donor is reported to be anonymous; an endowed chair at Columbia runs between $3 and $4 million. All this has been rumored for some time, but now that it’s in the newspapers, it’s fair game for comment.

Let me begin with the anonymity of the donor. In Middle Eastern studies, concealment of the identity of donors has become a major contributing factor to the field’s deepening corruption. Twenty years ago, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) passed a resolution calling “on institutions in Middle East Studies to make regular disclosure of the sources of funding for their programs.” It’s a dead letter. For example, a few years back, Harvard University established a program for contemporary Arab studies, “initiated by generous new funding not previously available to the university.” To my knowledge, that’s the most the program has ever said about its funding.

Now Columbia University wishes to establish a chair with an anonymous donor, for a person (and in the name of a person) known for Palestinian activism no less than for scholarship. Excuse me, but Columbia must make known the identity of the donor. Otherwise, kind reader, assume the worst: Palestine’s cause has its share of unsavory advocates, and when they don’t come forward, there is usually a good reason. In a couple of weeks, MESA meets in Washington. It should reiterate its resolution of 1982, especially as MESA’s incoming president, Lisa Anderson, is a dean at Columbia. Hopefully, she’ll get the message.

The other issue of overriding concern here is the apparent absence of any effort by the Columbia administration to promote diversity. Here I don’t mean the false diversity of academic mafias. They think it’s crucial to assemble people of different ethnic, national, religious, racial, gender, and disciplinary backgrounds—provided they say the same thing. I’m talking about intellectual diversity, which used to be a value at Columbia. The only historian of the modern Middle East at Columbia is another Palestinian, Joseph Massad, who is a militant follower of Edward Said. (He’s now up for tenure.) Imagine that Khalidi were added, and Massad were tenured, both to teach history. They work in the same area, and their politics, while not identical, are very similar. The whole thing begins to look like a cozy club of like-minded pals, who peer at the Middle East through exactly the same telescope, from exactly the same vantage point.

I leave aside Khalidi’s scholarship. It is sturdy, nationalist historiography—no stunning breakthroughs or departures, just the usual stuff, done with rather more polish and style. Others can (and will) pick through Khalidi’s political writings for nuggets. I’ve been rather more taken by how little he understands the Middle East generally, and by the sheer density of his ideological filters. (See my Ivory Towers on Sand, pp. 65-66, for the litany of Khalidi predictions about the Middle East that never panned out.) Of course, there’s no substantive penalty for being wrong about anything in Middle Eastern studies—as long as your politics are just right. Here, of course, Khalidi’s credentials are impeccable. I can’t imagine anyone more suited to a chair named in honor of someone who replaced scholarship with politics.

On top of that, Columbia now has a divestment petition, on which its Middle East faculty have an overwhelming presence. (I list them below). On the counter-petition which has many more signatories, there is almost no presence.

Self-referential groupthink is clearly running rampant at Columbia, now reinforced by hidden money, and the administration seems unwilling or impotent to stop it. So the time has come for alumni and supporters of Columbia to weigh in against the cozy conformism on Morningside Heights. The faculty will bleat “academic freedom,” but at Columbia it’s been reduced to their freedom to provide plum chairs for allies and chums. It’s a privilege they’ve so abused that it’s time for the administration to repossess it. I speak as an alumnus. I’m appalled. And I’m not alone.


The following are signatories of the Columbia divestment petition whose major field is the Middle East, or who hold appointments in the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC).

Nadia Abu El-Haj, Anthropology, Barnard
Lila Abu-Lughod, Anthropology & Women’s Studies, Columbia
Samir Awad, MEALAC, Columbia
Gil Anidjar, MEALAC, Columbia
Janaki Bakhle, MEALAC, Columbia
Zainab Bahrani, Art History & Archaeology, Columbia
Elliot Colla, MEALAC, Columbia
Elaine Combs-Schilling, Anthropology, Columbia
Hamid Dabashi, MEALAC, Columbia
Joseph Massad, MEALAC, Columbia
Brinkley Messick, Anthropology, Columbia
Marc Nichanian, MEALAC, Columbia
Frances Pritchett, MEALAC, Columbia
George Saliba, MEALAC, Columbia
Nader Sohrabi, MEALAC, Columbia
Marc van de Mieroop, MEALAC, Columbia

UPDATE: Columbia University’s president, Lee Bollinger, has rejected the divestment petition (as has Barnard president Judith Shapiro). That’s a good beginning. Now it’s time for the administration to ask whether there is enough intellectual diversity on the hallways where the petition found near-unanimous support.

UPDATE+: The Columbia Spectator reports that there are thirty donors, and that some of the names might be released. And Hamid Dabashi, chair of MEALAC, tells the Chronicle of Higher Education that the “notion of ideological conformity here is entirely obscene.” (I guess he hasn’t seen the list above.)

CORRECTION: Joseph Massad is not up for tenure. He just passed his third-year review, and will come up for tenure in four years. If Khalidi joins Columbia next year, students interested in subjects like Israel, Palestine, and the modern Arab world, will get a wide choice: Massad or Khalidi, for the next three years.