Who threatens Columbia?

In Professor Joseph Massad’s mid-March statement to the ad hoc committee investigating faculty intimidation of students at Columbia, he listed the support he’d received from various quarters, including petitions and letters. He then added this:

The Middle East Studies Association’s Academic Freedom Committee also issued a letter defending my academic freedom, as did the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

I’d seen all of these missives, with a major exception: the letter from the American Association of University Professors. The AAUP has much more weight than any of the other outfits: it’s the union of professors, and the prime defender of their academic freedom and tenure rights. It can and does censure universities for infringements. I’d assumed that the AAUP hadn’t entered the Columbia fray, so Massad’s reference to an AAUP letter surprised me. I asked the AAUP.

The AAUP confirmed to me that it wrote not once but twice to the Columbia administration the first time, prior to Massad’s appearance before the ad hoc committee, and the second time, after the committee issued its report on March 31. When I asked the AAUP whether it had plans to release the texts of these letters, it answered in the negative. So I asked a journalist to follow up, and he confirmed that neither the AAUP nor Columbia is prepared to release the letters.

Why? Let me propose a hypothesis: the AAUP laid down the law to Columbia. Do this, and we’ll stay silent. Do that, and we’ll go against you. It’s all hush-hush, of course, but it’s massive secret pressure. For all we know, the first letter may have framed the ad hoc committee report, which has been so widely criticized as a whitewash. The second letter may well set the parameters of Columbia’s future treatment of Massad and the Middle East department.

Isn’t it ironic? The ad hoc committee and the Columbia profs have denounced the outside pressure of the tiny David Project, Campus Watch, etc. Well, at least they applied their pressure in a public way, fully above the board. It now turns out that the AAUP, a national advocacy organization with 45,000 members and 500 campus chapters, has been sending missives straight to Low Library missives that Columbia and the AAUP are resolved to keep secret.

When the ad hoc committee issued its report, it said the following: “Although we originally anticipated producing two documents (a confidential report to the Vice President and a public summary), in the interests of transparency we have prepared a single document.” If the interests of transparency are so paramount in this case, let Columbia release the AAUP letters. Let’s determine whether they contain explicit or implicit threats. Let’s find out whether the members of the committee knew the contents of the first letter as they deliberated. (After all, Massad told them it existed.)

Until we see the secret letters, they’ll hang like a black cloud over the ad hoc committee report and over whatever the university might do to resolve the faculty crisis in future.

Update: Guess who’s the featured speaker at the AAUP’s annual convention in Washington in June? It’s Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. She was Massad’s thesis adviser, she later defended him in a letter to Columbia’s president and she still somehow wound up as a member of the ad hoc committee. (A New York Times editorial said the university had “botched this job” by appointing her.) I imagine she knew precisely what the AAUP expected of the committee. How about letting the rest of us in on the secret?