Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"Columbia Unbecoming"

Today I came across a NYTimes article about the controversy going on at Columbia University, involving allegations of intimidation of Jewish students by professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages department. The professors in question all hold pro-Palestinian viewpoints. The controversy began when 14 students and a Rabbi at the university filmed "Columbia Unbecoming" , a documentary about the intimidation of the Jewish students, funded by The David Project.

As I read the article, a few questions came to mind. They are the same questions which are now facing a panel at the university whose job it is to get to the bottom of these allegations. Of the three professors who are being accused, one incident in particular left me a bit uneasy. Two of the professors are accused of making anti-Israel or anti-Jewish comments. However, Professor Hamid Dabashi was mentioned for having cancelled class to do his "moral duty" to attend a pro-Palestinian rally, but as the article mentions, he is chiefly being accused due to his published political viewpoints. As an academic, the idea that my published political views could cost me my job because I am intimidating students (possibly without even having any form of verbal communication with them) is frightening. Where does academic freedom end and intimidation begin?

Another issue to consider with this issue is the status of both the accused professors and the students. I think we can all agree that professors are usually seen as the power-holders in a student and teacher relationship. A detail worth noting is that none of the students are accusing the professors of capricious grading. I think we also must consider that students are not completely powerless, especially before a professor has tenure. In this case, one of three professors does not have tenure, and this controversy could cost him his job. I don't think Columbia is at a loss for new job applicants, so his position could easily be filled with someone less controversial. My question is: Could these students be using their victim status to their advantage? Also, if universities begin to go after less "controveresial" professors to fill jobs, what will the university community as a whole lose? What happens if political debates in academia stop or are deemed unacceptable?

After reading the article, I tried to see the issue from both sides. No student should have to feel intimidated or uncomfortable in a classroom due to their racial or ethnic background. And a professor certainly should not make racist or prejudiced comments about any group. However, from a professor's perspective, they should be allowed to have political views, even if they are at odds with their students views. As a TA, I can certainly understand that when discussing a hot button issue, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even the last election, my political views will not always match the views of my students. I may not bring up my views during class, but I certainly will express them outside of class, and attend rallies supporting causes I believe in. The world is full of people with differing opinions, and I believe its naive to think the classroom should be void of debate.

I am really interested to see what other people know about this controversy, and what other opinions are on the topic. As I said above, I can see a case for both sides. Discuss...

PS - Thanks to Erin for helping me work through this one.


At 10:32 AM, Blogger Erin said...

I just thought it was a good topic for blogging. No thanks needed.

I do think it is a very important issue to be cognizant of the power instructors hold over their students, and never to enforce our political beliefs onto students. One major point for teaching is to raise issues that get students thinking, about which they wouldn't otherwise.

But this is a totally different issue than holding political beliefs, or even making those political beliefs known in or out of the classroom. The issue of objectivity is by now an old and stale debate - objectivity shouldn't even be the goal. I think the better debate is reflexivity. If students expect professors not to hold opinions in or out of the classroom, this is an unfortunate result of "scientific" discourse. Holding up self-reflexivity as an instructor and writer is a much more realistic and potentially effective way to go I think.

At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Imagine, an academic engaging in behavior characterized as 'rude' and 'snotty.' So, no Jewish students at Columbia and no women at Harvard. Couldn't resist.

It seems the problem at Columbia isn't being helped by the weak lead Bollinger seems to be taking. Did I miss a defense of academic freedoms? The Pollack quote was good: "Many professors have offensive opinions. If the answer to whether you can have those opinions is no, then we're cooked as an institution." That said, is there some line that cannot be crossed, some attitudes not shared, some value systems off-limits? If so, why?

On another blog, Culture Cat, once discussing sexism, I raised the unanswered question whether an academic blogging (in this case Dan Drezner at U Chicago) should be worried about writing of women he thought hot (with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge joke about having an excuse to post photos of said ladies) because this might potentially set up an uncomfortable situation for female (really feminist) students. I think there is likely a difference between the two scenarios, though I can't put my finger on it quite yet.


At 3:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part II, I suppose. Thinking about leadership that helps create safe space for opressed communities - how about UIUC? When Cantor took the lead during the Brown v. Board commemorative events saying that Chief Illini was not an appropriate mascot the "community" and money came down on her to give her the boot. University is business and it has to measure what is an appropriate investment in diversity and freedom of speech.

What does the Prairie Sociology team think about the Illini situation? How are you engaging this issue?


At 11:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

- and if a white prof. made similiar remarks about blacks and/or africa, would you be taking the same stance? I rather doubt it....

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Erin said...

Welcome jonk. You can look through some of the prairie sociology archives and look at various posts I've written about or mentioned the "chief" issue. Such as the boycott currently going on in "Community and Music." There are some earlier ones, too. But this blog has been going since after the major demonstrations occurred last spring, unfortunately.

As for the last anonymous comment. Hold up. Read the article in the Times or another source about what these professors allegedly said/did. None of them attacked a Jewish student directly or indirectly. None of their grades were affected, and some of these professors didn't even have the students in class.

I'm struggling to see a parallel between this and blacks or Africa (continent), Israel (nation-state).

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am assuming Anonymous was responding to me (jonk). Let it be clear that I was not defending alleged actions of certain professors. I did begin my post with a critique of that "pro-Isreal professor" (what does this mean that the Times characterized him as such?) Miron statement that many students over the years have complained that certain professors were "rude" and "snotty" - my point here was that assuredly this complaint is likely heard all around "top-tier" (among other, of course) institutions about their privileged faculty (and students, for that matter).

And Anonymous, I believe I would take a similar stance if "a white prof. made similar remarks about blacks and/or africa". As there are assuredly throngs of academics out there who are "guilty" of racism against blacks, glbtq, etc., most obvious would be 'The Bell Curve' co-author Herrnstein, who I believe taught at Harvard. Perhaps A, you could be more specific about what similar remarks are bad, as the Times was unclear about what did exactly happen. As should have been clear, I was asking questions about what kind of behavior and speech we should accept and not accept from students and faculty alike, the bottom line being what kind of environment is fostered in academic communities, largely policy designed by administrative actions and the wishes of major (business-minded) funders.

I believe that environments can be tolerant of difference while also fostering safe environments for folks that would be the objects of power - indeed a difficult task. I would prefer a (closer to) civil dialogue about differences (of religion, behavior, ideology, etc.) than see each side wage smear campaigns. Folks that "we progressives" see as bigots won't change their opinions by being called names and levelled with job-intimidation, I imagine this only entrenches such beliefs.


At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would concur with the anonymous poster. It has become popular and fashionable for WASP liberals to be anti- Israel, as well as anti-Christian. The official stance of several nations in that region, that Israel does not have the right to exist, somehow is ignored and representatives of that ideology are excused when they tacitly endorse terrorism and racism towards Jews on campus. A. Rhogone

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous mr. chips said...

As a jewish student at Yeshiva University (if you aren't familiar look it up) this issue is incredibly distressing. On the one hand, I feel for my fellow jew who must deal with the unabashed and often hurtful opinions made by pro-palestinian profs. On the other, teahcers must have the right to share thier opinions and have free debate in the classroom, especialy when the classes subject is centered around the israeli-palestinian conflict.

For two consecutive summers, I took physics at Oakton Community College in Skokie and DesPlaines. The Prof. name, I believe, was Mahmoud Khalili. I had never spoken with a Muslim before in my life. Since then, I haven't had the oppurtunity either. I'm not sure how it began, but before I knew it we were toe to toe. Some of the things he said incensed the hell out me. I was mystified how someone could defend suicide bombings. I was appaled at his disregard of Israels right to defend herself. And yet, I wouldn't trade those conversations for all the money in the world. Prof. Khalili helped me realize that not everyone is going to agree with me or you or a Columbia Univ. student. But nonetheless he is entitled to his views as I am entitled to mine whether or not they piss me off. Free debate is critical to any learning endeavor and objectivity is impossible. Rather than quell what we deem objectionable we must embrace it and fight it head on. Yell, yes! Silence, never.

Whether or not this can be applied to Columibia is well beyond me. Everyone has an agenda including my fellow jews. I suspect that they are not comp-letely transparent just like the Profs. I implore my fellow students - do not take the path of silencing these Prof. If this happens, free debate is truly lost.
email me at ddayboy@gmail.com

At 12:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mr. Chips,
I have Dr. Khalili as a professor for an Astronomy intro course right now, and all I've ever heard from him about war is that bloodshed just causes more problems. Basically, he seems like a mild mannerred man who thinks war solves nothing. It surprises me that you find him offensive, I wonder what made him speak about suicide bombing altogether? To condone it publicly in class? Sounds a little fishy. Nobody in their right mind would put his a** on the line in a physics course to condemn Israel...He teaches using lots of metaphors, and I forgot when the topic of war came up...
PS I am an Orthodox jew, with family in Israel.

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