Columbia’s Darkest Hour… So Far

On Sunday, I posted an entry at my weblog Sandbox, on a conference scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, at Columbia University. The conference was to deal with the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the advertised speakers included the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.

The event looked to me like a public relations set-up and a disaster in the making. For months now, the national press has reported Columbia’s mishandling of the crisis prompted by the documentary film Columbia Unbecoming, in which Jewish students tell of faculty intimidation over Israel. In the midst of this maelstrom, at the last possible minute, and out of the blue, came the announcement of the conference. In a planned day-long event, to be punctuated by a luncheon and capped by a reception, the Israeli ambassador would be rubbing shoulders with three key players in the controversy: President Lee Bollinger, Dean Lisa Anderson, and Middle East Institute director Rashid Khalidi.

I believed that an all-smiles photo of the ambassador with these people, at this time and place, would undermine the courageous students who have come forward with their accounts. So I urged the ambassador to reconsider his appearance, and he did. According to a press report, he consulted with Jewish community leaders, reviewed the situation at Columbia, and decided to cancel the engagement. (According to that same report, Columbia has “postponed” the entire event until September.)

I applaud the ambassador’s decision. It must have been a difficult call. It’s the mission of Israeli diplomats to make Israel’s case, and in pursuing that mission they seek to sit at any table, stand on any podium, and enter into any dialogue. Only the most extraordinary circumstances would justify a decision to cancel an engagement to speak to a distinguished audience in a prestigious setting. And a speech in the Low Library Rotunda of Columbia University, preceded by greetings from the university president, is precisely the sort of event that an Israeli ambassador covets—in normal times.

Alas, these are not normal times at Columbia. In his consultations, the ambassador would have heard this: Columbia’s leaders have failed to lay out a roadmap for resolving the problems exposed by the film. One American Jewish leader, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), has gone on record expressing disappointment with Bollinger’s performance. “We haven’t seen anything except talk,” Foxman said earlier this month. “It’s a process without an end.” Ambassador Ayalon’s gesture amplifies that message of discontent.

This is Columbia’s darkest hour so far, and it’s mind-boggling to think that it’s come to this. Many facts surrounding the affair are disputed, but one of them isn’t: the university’s leaders failed to detect the problem early, diagnose it in a timely way, and act decisively to solve it. I first wrote in some detail about dysfunction in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) way back in the summer of 2002. A year later, the distinguished composer John Corigliano caused a stir by criticizing MEALAC during an acceptance speech at a Columbia award dinner—and he got a round of applause for it. Corigliano, I wrote the very next day, “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.” Columbia has been very unlucky since I posted those words, but MEALAC would never have attracted the attention of the filmmakers if the administration had opened its eyes earlier.

Indeed, if the administration had only listened to other faculty, it might have heard the oncoming train. “The university should have looked at MEALAC five or ten years ago.” Those aren’t the words of the Hillel rabbi or a med school professor or the head of a Jewish organization. They belong to Professor Richard Bulliet, who for nearly thirty years has taught Islamic and Middle Eastern history in the History department. It’s safe to assume there was similar grumbling in the faculty lounges. Sure, you would have had to strain to hear it above the noisy doings of Edward Said and his acolytes. But registering rumbles before they become roars is what administrators are paid to do.

Even now, Bollinger’s strategy for managing the crisis has been inept. Only in the bubble of Columbia would anyone think to create the kind of committee that Bollinger created to investigate the problem. This contraption, flawed in its composition, vague in its brief, shot through with conflicts of interest, is precisely the sort of half-measure that would send stockholders fleeing if Columbia were a corporation. Far from easing the credibility crisis, it has exacerbated it.

What should Columbia conclude from the ambassador’s gesture and the collapse of the conference? It’s this: the worst isn’t over just because the New York Times has done its article. Columbia’s situation can worsen, and I believe it will worsen, unless and until the university comes up with an operational plan for addressing the grievances of students and breaking up the cult that pretends to be Middle Eastern studies. That takes leadership. As soon as Bollinger’s committee finishes its work next month, it’ll become irrelevant to the bigger question. And at that point, Columbia’s president will need his own plan, and the determination to see it through.

Let there be clarity on this final point: no one advocates a boycott of Columbia. The Israeli ambassador isn’t an academic, he represents his government, and it’s his duty to act in a way that upholds the dignity and interests of the State of Israel. At this moment, he believes this duty is best served by avoiding Columbia, and I think he’s absolutely right. But his act implies nothing for the regular academic traffic in which Columbia is so central. I can’t commend Columbia to aspiring students of the Middle East, but I wouldn’t hesitate to participate in a purely academic activity of the university. And if I were advising Bollinger, I’d tell him to begin to engage prominent Israeli scholars in an academic discussion of Columbia’s problem. (By “Israeli scholars,” I don’t mean the Israel-bashing post-Zionists regularly feted at MEALAC and Rashid Khalidi’s Middle East Institute. I mean people in positions of academic leadership.)

I’m rooting for Columbia, and I have a vested interest in its redemption. I earned a master’s degree in history there (thirty years ago), and Columbia University Press published my tenure book (twenty years ago). The enduring value of these credentials depends partly on the enduring good name of the university. I pray the day isn’t far off when the ambassador of Israel can ascend the steps of Low Library without pangs of conscience. It’ll be the same day I put my Columbia diploma back on the wall of my campus office.