An extreme case at Columbia

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.”

Too late to stop Massad?

Isn’t it too late to stop tenure for Joseph Massad? This question has been posed to me by a reader, in light of the claim by Massad (via the Angry Arab) that he’s already been tenured.

There’s no way for someone outside the system to know for certain where the process stands. But we do know this: when the Columbia Spectator sought to confirm the rumor launched by Massad via his friend, it found it to be false. The Spectator called it “chatter,” and added this: “The outcome of the controversial Palestinian scholar’s tenure process remains to be seen and the review has not concluded.” (My emphasis.) The article goes on to explain the review process, which is also laid out in the Faculty Handbook. Once the ad hoc tenure committee has made a recommendation to the Provost, the department chair must inform the candidate of that recommendation. But a favorable recommendation still must be approved by the Provost and the President, before presentation to the Board of Trustees. The ad hoc committee only serves in an advisory capacity to the Provost.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake that Massad has been notified that the ad hoc committee has recommended in his favor, and that’s why he’s informing his friends that he’s been tenured. Is a favorable recommendation effectively the end of the process? The same Spectator article quotes Alan Brinkley, outgoing Provost: “The most important part of the tenure process is the ad-hoc committee. Usually there is a strong connection between what the ad-hoc committee decides and what subsequent steps in the process do. They usually are all the same.”

The key word here is “usually.” Indeed, the Faculty Handbook describes as “unusual cases” those instances in which the Provost, President, or Trustees overrule a favorable recommendation by an ad hoc committee. But just how unusual are they?

For the period between 1989 and 1997, we know the answer to that question, because Columbia’s then-Provost Jonathan R. Cole went before the Faculty Senate to review the statistics of all the tenure decisions made between those dates. He revealed that there had been 304 ad hoc reviews during the eight-year period, 38 of which ended in tenure denial. The Provost was responsible for 14 of the 38 denials, having overruled favorable committee recommendations. Put another way, ad hoc committees made 280 positive recommendations, and the Provost (Cole during the entire period) rejected 14 of them—a rejection rate of exactly five percent.

So rejections of favorable committee recommendations, while “unusual,” weren’t unprecedented or even rare in Cole’s time. Indeed, overruling by the Provost appears to be a routine method of tenure denial: in the period reported by Cole, 37 percent of all tenure denials after full review constituted cases of the Provost overruling an ad hoc committee.

Massad’s case is unusual by any reckoning, and would be treated with additional scrutiny by the Provost. But even if the Provost were to recommend tenure, this wouldn’t absolve President Bollinger of his personal responsibility. The Faculty Handbook stipulates: “Upon completion of his or her review, the Provost will submit a recommendation to the President on whether the candidate should be awarded tenure. A nomination is forwarded to the Trustees for their approval only if the Provost and President are satisfied that the candidate deserves tenure.” Massad cannot be tenured unless President Bollinger is satisfied that he deserves it—and, presumably, tells the Trustees why.

It isn’t surprising that it’s come to this: that the faculty would recommend tenure, and that the administration alone would have to assume responsibility for any decision to reject Massad. And as the tenure review seems to have reached just that critical point, the evidence on Massad needs full public airing now more than ever. This is the moment of truth—for Columbia, for President Bollinger, and for the survival on Morningside Heights of what President Bollinger has called the “scholarly temperament.” I heard him, in person, describe his ideal in his Cardozo Lecture at the New York City Bar Association on March 23, 2005, and I’ve quoted his words often:

To set aside one’s pre-existing beliefs, to hold simultaneously in one’s mind multiple angles of seeing things, to actually allow yourself seemingly to believe another view as you consider it—these are the kind of intellectual qualities that characterize the very best faculty and students I have known and that suffuse the academic atmosphere at its best.

Joseph Massad hasn’t a single one of these qualities. If President Bollinger notifies the trustees that he’s satisfied that Massad deserves tenure—something he must know to be untrue—it will be a devastating admission of failure—his and the university’s. Now we shall learn how much courage resides in Low Memorial Library.

Footnote: Read this damning new compendium of the wisdom of Massad. President Bollinger’s contact information is here.