It’s now up to Columbia’s trustees to say what all the world south of 116th Street knows perfectly well: Joseph Massad does Columbia no credit. Back in 2005, Columbia’s faculty radicals, anticipating this moment, wrote a statement in favor of academic freedom, in which they tried to invalidate the statutory authority of the trustees to promote and tenure faculty. The minutes of the meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on February 16, 2005, contain the relevant exchange. One of the faculty (Andrew Nathan) put it thus:
Clearly, the Statutes of the University accord the Trustees and the President as their delegate almost total power on all aspects of governance including the granting of promotion and tenure to faculty. However, a reading of the Statutes should not close the subject. The question remains, under what circumstances, if any, should the President and the Trustees exercise these statutory powers. Decisions on matters as important as tenure and faculty promotion have… been made at Columbia over the last fifty or so years at the level of the Provost with the advice of faculty, without the intervention of the President and Trustees, and were passed on to the President and Trustees for formal approval under the Statutes.
Columbia president Lee Bollinger took issue:
The President has to be involved and is involved in promotions and decisions with respect to tenure. It is an aspect of his responsibility that he takes very seriously. So do the Trustees. The President continued that he concedes that by custom we operate in a very special way. It is indeed rare for the President or the Board of Trustees to reverse or overturn a decision that comes to them through the faculty, deans, and Provost. Deference that is paid to judgments made at lower levels is exceedingly important to the values of this institution. An extraordinary amount of deference is given to individual faculty, individual departments, and schools in defining their research and curricular agendas, and so it should be. It would however be a big mistake and incorrect as a matter of structural fact to think in the way that Professor Nathan is suggesting.
Bollinger went on to add that “our trustees understand they would intervene only in extreme cases.”
Massad is perfectly aware of university statutes. When he told friends he’d already been tenured, it wasn’t a mistake on his part, or a case of jumping the gun. It was a statement: Massad does not recognize the authority of the trustees to deny him tenure. This is the position of many of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who in May 2006 published their own statement on academic freedom. In it they expressed their view that “[tenure] decisions are, by University statute, subject to review and approval by the trustees, whose customary deference to faculty in academic matters has been essential to the University’s success.” In other words, in the opinion of these faculty, trustees should only review and approve their decisions, and never overturn them.
But it’s the trustees who have the statutes on their side. They are “academic officers” of the university, and if any of them do not take “very seriously” their role in tenure decisions, they shouldn’t be on the board. Bollinger has defended their authority to veto the faculty in “rare” and “extreme cases,” and if Massad isn’t an extreme case, who is?
I was disappointed that Bollinger himself didn’t nix Massad’s tenure. But it might have been too much to expect from one man, even Columbia’s president. He already faces a campaign of intimidation by faculty extremists, who think the job of the president is to defend their excesses. They’ve got a faculty letter going, demanding that Bollinger denounce Israel for allegedly violating Palestinian academic freedom. (To that end, they also held a media-free conclave on Thursday night.) Bollinger has told them to forget it, and I don’t think he need lose any sleep.
Still, an argument can be made that as between Bollinger and the trustees, it is the trustees who should assume (and share among them) the burden of doing what must be done to save Columbia’s name. The statutes empower them to do so, and Bollinger has defended their prerogative. They should not be timid. The larger part of the Columbia community—faculty, students, donors, and alumni like myself—would be grateful for a show of courage, by those who hold the university in trust.
Update, April 27: The New York Daily News this morning runs yet another editorial on Massad, ending thus: “It may not be too late for the board, composed of leaders like Chairman William Campbell, Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit and real estate magnate Philip Milstein, to do the right thing: Deny Massad tenure.”