Confusion at Columbia

On Friday, the Columbia Spectator ran an article by its “news staff” under the headline: “Yiddish Prof Named Acting Director of Israel Institute After False Media Speculation.” The Yiddish professor is Jeremy Dauber, and the institute is the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. Mazel tof to Professor Dauber.

The article adds the following:

Last week, the New York Sun reported that sociology professor Yinon Cohen was appointed permanent director of the institute. The article quoted several professors upset by Columbia’s decision to appoint Cohen, who signed a letter condemning Israel’s policies concerning 2002 military operations in Gaza. The Sun also wrote that it found the information about Cohen on a blog named Sandbox, written by academic Martin Kramer who obtained his master’s degree in history from Columbia in 1976.

[Columbia Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas] Dirks said the Sun’s article was completely false. “I don’t know what the basis for the attack on Professor Cohen is,” he said.

Cohen came to Columbia in fall 2007 as a visiting professor from Tel Aviv University. While Cohen was never appointed director of any institute at Columbia, he recently received the endowed position of Yosef Haim Yerushalmi professor of Israel and Jewish studies—a name similar to that of the institute, which may have been the source of confusion.

The report leaves the vague impression that I contributed to that confusion.

In fact, my blog post made no mention of the Institute. I accurately related that Yinon Cohen had been appointed to the chair of Israel studies first announced in 2005—an endowed chair whose incumbent was recruited by a search committee that included Palestinian activist professors Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod. I’ve followed the fortunes of the chair since 2005, because of the perverse composition of its search committee.

In the academy, endowed professorships are commonly called chairs (the relevant example is here); these should never be confused with administrative chairs of departments or institutes. In the academy, there are people who hold chairs and do no administrative work, and people who are chairs and have time for little else.

The New York Sun subsequently and erroneously reported that Cohen had been appointed to the vacant directorship of the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. Its reporter apparently thought that if Cohen had been appointed to a chair, as I wrote, then he must be chairing an administrative unit, and it must be the Institute. The Sun runs another story this morning, by a different reporter, banishing the confusion.

That out of the way, the directorship of the Institute would seem to be a story worth following in its own right. On the Institute’s own website, there’s a page that hasn’t been updated, reporting this: “The institute is administered by a director and an associate director, currently professors Yosef H. Yerushalmi and Michael F. Stanislawski, respectively. Upon Professor Yerushalmi’s retirement, it is anticipated that Professor Stanislawski will become the director, and a new associate director will be appointed.” Yerushalmi retired, Stanislawski briefly took over, and then quit, leaving the Institute without a director. I wonder why.

Stanislawski, a professor of Jewish history, took to the stage of Columbia’s comic opera in 2005, when he appeared in the supporting role of fix-it man for the university’s president, Lee Bollinger. Stanislawski headed the search committee for the Israel studies chair, which put him in the ludicrous position of vouching for the Palestinian agitprofs. (Example: “Both Professor Khalidi and Professor Lughod will act totally professionally, whatever their political statements outside the classroom.”) He also wrote a letter to Commentary praising Bollinger as “a true and devoted friend of the state of Israel… and an avid and enthusiastic supporter of the expansion of Israel studies at Columbia.”

But a year later, following the first (failed) attempt by a Columbia dean to bring Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to campus, Stanislawski wrote an anguished private letter to Bollinger, asking this:

What possible enhancement of our collective or individual academic knowledge or understanding of the world’s situation would have been augmented by his speaking on campus? Anyone at Columbia who reads the newspapers or watches television already knows Ahmadinejad’s repugnant views all too well; this is not a question of free speech or stifled speech…. The question here, I would propose, is one of the deliberate invitation to campus not simply of a controversial figure, or even one with repugnant and absurd views, but of a purveyor of hate speech.

Of course, this plea had no long-term effect, because the following autumn Bollinger did allow Ahmadinejad to pollute the Columbia campus. In the ensuing fracas, New Republic editor Martin Peretz likened Stanislawski to a court Jew. All of this may or may not be relevant to why Stanislawski left a void at the top of the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies—I have no way of knowing. Certainly the Institute’s tribulations seem like a worthy story for the Columbia Spectator or the New York Sun to unravel.

In the meantime, another egregious protest letter signed by Yinon Cohen has come to light. (Extract: “Academic faculty in the occupied territories! We wish to cooperate with you in opposing the brutal policy of siege, closure and curfew of the IDF.”) “We were happy and lucky to recruit professor Cohen,” Nicholas Dirks is quoted as saying in Friday’s Columbia Spectator. “He’s a terrific demographer.” Well, “terrific” is less than what was promised to the big-name donors of his chair. Originally, the Columbia Record reported that Columbia would “appoint a world-renowned scholar recognized by his or her peers as a preeminent figure in the field of modern Israel studies.” Whether Cohen is a “preeminent figure” is indeed a matter best left to his peers. But if the donors expected that Columbia would land anyone as “world-renowned” as, say, Benny Morris or Michael Oren—or, for that matter, Rashid Khalidi—then they have been thoroughly cheated.

Update, March 13: The Forward, doubtless inspired by this post, set out to discover why Stanislawski quit, and came up empty-handed. Here is the report, by Marissa Brostoff:

Professors at Columbia University have been mum over the abrupt resignation last month of Michael Stanislawski as director of the school’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, an umbrella for scholars anchored in other departments. Stanislawski declined to comment on his change in status at the institute…. Other professors at the institute, as well as the Columbia administration, declined to comment or said only that Stanislawski had resigned for personal reasons.

So the plot thickens.