Columbia’s Troubles Bubble Up Through the Bubbly

Last night, Columbia College (the university’s undergraduate college) threw its big bash of the year: a black-tie gala at the Plaza Hotel, held in honor of five alumni recipients of the John Jay Award for professional achievement. One of them, the renowned classical composer John Corigliano, added what a report this morning calls a “moment of drama,” when he “briefly silenced the crowd with his muted but nonetheless unexpected criticism of Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies program.” Corigliano reflected on his own undergraduate days:

I didn’t know it at the time, but I felt encouraged to go on and be a composer because I wasn’t discouraged by the kind of fundamentalist “there is only one way” kind of composing. I say this because throughout this country there has been an enormous, enormous amount of publicity about the various departments of Middle Eastern Studies, and about the fact that the anti-Israeli policy in these [departments] is enormous. And one can say that of the department of Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Columbia, that that’s true here.

According to the report, “Corigliano’s comments drew raised eyebrows but also sustained applause.” Bravo, maestro.

When this sort of complaint crops up in a midtown dinner (which, by the way, raised $700,000 for scholarships), you know that Bir Zeit-on-Hudson has a real problem. I predict it will get worse before it gets better. According to another press report, the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), the heart of darkness and home to such extremist luminaries as Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, is already in the midst of a dramatic expansion. And the History Department, where Rashid Khalidi is about to become the Edward Said Professor, is also seeking to add an assistant professor. In the self-referential friend-brings-a-friend world of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, it is Khalidi who will have the biggest say in that hire. In fact, the push for the junior slot was put off until Khalidi signed on. “If we were going to have a distinguished senior professor of modern Middle Eastern history, then [Khalidi] should play a central role in choosing who the junior person is in the field,” announced one member of the department. Does that sound like a formula for producing intellectual diversity, or like a mechanism for guaranteeing intellectual conformity?

Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, across all the departments, have functioned like a private club for more than a decade. Until the administration breaks it up, nothing will change. In the meantime, let’s acknowledge John Corigliano. The man who composed the Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin and the Pulitzer-winning Symphony No. 2 has done his alma mater a big favor. He said out loud what untold numbers of friends of the university are saying in private. This time the criticism was in a minor key. The next time, the university may not be so lucky.

UPDATE: Hamid Dabashi, the chair of MEALAC, has written an intemperate letter to the Columbia Daily Spectator, firing in all directions. Criticism of his department is denounced as “fabricated lies,” “pernicious lies,” “malicious misrepresentations,” “misguided accusations,” “insults to the dignity of my colleagues,” etcetera. It’s delightful to see this militant squirm under the heat of the spotlight.

“I find it particularly distasteful,” storms Dabashi, “that as we are honoring our alumni they can muster such rude audacity to discredit the very institution that is honoring them.” Really. The John Jay Award has two roles. In some cases, its purpose is to honor donors and friends. In others—like Corigliano’s—it is to allow the College to bask in the fame of a highly accomplished alumnus. Corigliano was perfectly within his rights to exclude a rogue department from his endorsement of today’s Columbia.

Dabashi—get this—also says he has written an “official letter” to the dean of the College, demanding an answer to this question: “Did he or anyone else from Columbia College publicly defend the good name and the dignity of my colleagues who have served generations of Columbia students honorably with the fruits of their teaching and scholarship?” That would have given the evening a splendid touch. It’s not enough that Columbia is pumping up MEALAC with new slots and resources. Dabashi expects deans to jump up in their tuxedos to defend MEALAC’s blatant excesses, against perfectly legitimate criticism.

Three times in his letter, Dabashi writes that the episode was an affront to the “dignity” of the department. “Dignity” isn’t an intrinsic characteristic of a university department: it has to be earned, and it can be lost. MEALAC’s “good name” is in serious question, and if its members want it back, they can take a first step: dump Dabashi.