Why Harvard isn’t Columbia

Today’s Harvard Crimson runs an article on the crisis at Columbia. There isn’t much new there, except at the end, where the reporter asks a Harvard professor of Middle Eastern history, Roger Owen, why Harvard isn’t plagued with a similiar problem. Owen’s reply: “Columbia, being in New York, gets invaded by the ideologies of the city itself. The Arab-Israeli dispute, which is hot in New York, tends to be represented on campus in a much more direct way than it would be on the Harvard campus.”

Owen has the order of things wrong. Columbia was invaded not by the “ideologies of the city” (to my ear, a suspect phrase). It was invaded, conquered, and occupied by the ideologies of radical third worldism and Arab-Palestinian nationalism, sometimes borne directly to it from the Middle East. The reason Harvard doesn’t have a comparable problem (at least not yet) is because the administration has pretty much blocked the development of the modern Middle Eastern field. Why? Perhaps it doesn’t particularly trust Owen and his colleagues to bring in the right people.

Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversity, which it marked by publishing a slick 200-page celebration of the Center’s history and ideas for its future. Many of the contributors to the volume complained that the university has avoided authorizing appointments. (“The primary weakness in the study of Middle East politics at Harvard,” wrote one contributor, is “the failure to make senior appointments in Middle East politics.”) But Harvard doesn’t need a Columbia-style train wreck, and if the Columbia disaster hasn’t resonated at Harvard, it means that prudence has paid off. Until Owen and friends acknowledge that the field has an internal problem, and propose a strategy to circumvent it they’ve done neither there’s no reason for the university to change course. Roger, over and out.