Posts Tagged Columbia

Start with two Palestinians

In an interview in February 2003, Edward Said said this:

An outrageous Israeli, Martin Kramer, uses his Web site to attack everybody who says anything he doesn’t like. For example, he has described Columbia as “the Bir Zeit [university] on the Hudson,” because there are two Palestinians teaching here. Two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people! If you have two Palestinians, it makes you a kind of terrorist hideout. This is part of the atmosphere of intimidation that is McCarthyite.

Flash forward seven years later, to last week’s formal inauguration of the new Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. From its website:

Founded in January 2010, the Center for Palestine Studies is the first such center to be established in an academic institution in the United States. Columbia University is currently the professional home to a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and Palestinians, as well as to award-winning supporting faculty in a variety of disciplines.

So how did Columbia go so rapidly from “two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people!” to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and the Palestinians”? Don’t be shocked, but Edward Said was out to deceive in that 2003 interview. Obviously there were more than two Palestinians back then. But I didn’t invent the nickname Bir Zeit-on-Hudson because of their number. It was meant to evoke precisely the atmosphere of intimidation—anti-Israel intimidation—that would later come to light in the “Columbia Unbecoming” affair.

Now that Columbia boasts of being home to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine” (who “will have a national and global reach”), Bir Zeit-on-Hudson hardly sounds far-fetched. By that, I don’t mean a “terrorist hideout”—those were Said’s words, not mine—but a redoubt of militant Palestinian nationalism in the guise of scholarship. And I mean militant: the affiliates of the new center aren’t only engaged in the positive affirmation of Palestinian identity, but are activists in the campaign to negate Israel. This is obviously the case in regard to Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu al-Haj—their field isn’t Palestine studies, it’s anti-Israel studies—but it’s increasingly true of the new center’s co-director, Rashid Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor, an enthusiastic spokesman for the PLO in its terrorist phase and a severe critic of the same leadership in its present phase.

For now, Khalidi is cleverly doing what Said did with his “two Palestinians” shtick. “We have absolutely no money,” Khalidi said at the launch (attended by an overflow crowd). “What our little modest center will be able to do may be some narrow, specific things,” he reassured a journalist from the Jewish Forward. I’m not buying it, and I think that the moniker Bir Zeit-on-Hudson is too modest to convey the scope of the ambition behind this project. So I’m working on an alternative. For a preview, click on the thumbnail or here.

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    Why I’m (still) grateful to Columbia

    This is how I opened my lecture on U.S. Middle East policy to the Columbia University International Relations Forum on November 16.

    As some of you may know, I’ve been a long-time and often sharp critic of certain decisions made by Columbia University. There’s a saying, that honest criticism is hard to take, especially from a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger. In other words, it doesn’t much matter, but for what it’s worth, my criticism hasn’t been that of a stranger. I’ve commented as a professional academic, as a Columbia alumnus, and as a Columbia University Press author, who remembers this great university as a place of diverse approaches and the highest standards.

    The standards I recall were personified by the late J.C. Hurewitz, with whom I studied here almost thirty-five years ago. For the younger of you in this audience, that name will mean very little, perhaps nothing. But for many years, Hurewitz dominated the teaching of the Middle East at Columbia, for which he set a very high bar. I took my first course with Hurewitz along with fellow student Lisa Anderson, who later succeeded him as director of the Middle East Institute and went on to serve as dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. She precisely and elegantly described Hurewitz in these words:

    The motif in J.C. Hurewitz’s professional life has been a belief in the possibility and desirability of fairness.… His commitment to an abstract notion of fairness as a value, both moral and pragmatic, was particularly striking in worlds—Middle Eastern politics, academics, government—where the primacy of personal bias or political inclination has been far more common.… There were, of course, those who believed the effort to be misguided, who said and continue to say that objectivity is impossible and dispassion irresponsible. Hurewitz did not say he was trying to be objective in any absolute or scientific sense, however: indeed, epistemological questions are of no interest to him and he has great respect for the passions of others. He strove to be fair.

    This is not the occasion to ask whether Columbia still elevates those who strive to be fair. I do want to take the opportunity to note that my best recollections of Columbia are the moments when J.C. Hurewitz seemingly floated above partisanship to achieve a higher insight on some highly contentious issue. This is a standard that’s not easy to maintain, and I sometimes fail to maintain it myself. But I learned enough here to know that partisanship, while sometimes a personal imperative, is never a scholarly virtue, and certainly should never be mistaken for scholarship. For that distinction, learned at a different Columbia at a different time, I’m still grateful.

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      Coming to Columbia

      For those who have Columbia University ID’s, I will be lecturing on Monday evening, November 16, on “How Not to Fix the Middle East” at the invitation of the Columbia University International Relations Forum (CUIRF). The lecture will take place at the Roone Arledge Lerner Cinema on the Columbia campus, 2920 Broadway, at 8pm. It’s to be preceded by a reception at 7:15pm.

      In the CUIRF web announcement, I was surprised to see it suggested that I and Prof. Jack Snyder, my moderator, “may also discuss his [Kramer's] critique of the MEALAC program at Columbia.” At the Columbia Bwog, this grows larger in the telling: “Martin Kramer will also most likely be discussing the Joseph Massad tenure, and his critique of other MEALAC Professors at Columbia.”

      It is not likely. I intend to adhere to my lecture topic.

      Update: Here is a rough-and-ready summary of my appearance at Columbia, from the Columbia Spectator. My thesis, a bit muddled here, is that Obama’s Middle East policy is plagued by a contradiction. The administration undercuts its own ambitious agenda, by its own ambivalence about U.S. dominance. (Obama: “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.”) If the Mideast thinks U.S. power is waning, no one will comply. And they haven’t.

        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.”

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          Columbia set to crash

          The New York Post features an article by Jacob Gershman on the Joseph Massad tenure case at Columbia. I highly recommend it. Gershman covered this story for the now-defunct New York Sun, and he knows all the ins and outs.

          Gershman reports that Massad’s file has already passed muster with President Lee Bollinger, and will be presented to Columbia’s Board of Trustees for a final decision in about a week. Bollinger “buckled,” Gershman writes, rather than face down a determined faculty clique. “The Massad tenure battle,” he adds, “is about the failure of leadership of Bollinger—whose job it is to safeguard Columbia’s academic integrity.” Bottom line:

          Columbia’s trustees must decide: Do they attempt to clean up after Bollinger and stop this absurdity—or do they confer academic legitimacy on Massad’s ideas and agenda? Hesitant to insert themselves in an academic matter, the trustees would be wise to consider the consequences of silence.

          For Massad, of course, Columbia’s trustees are just a rubber stamp. This is why he’s been telling his friends he’s been tenured, even though tenure is only conferred by the Board of Trustees. Rubber-stamping may be the usual role of the Columbia’s trustees in tenure decisions. But I’m also sure that whoever invented the system also imagined that one day there might arise an exceptional case, compelling the trustees to veto a recommendation. If not, why require their approval at all? If so, Massad is that once-in-a-generation case.

          “I know that trusteeship is now contrived as being as passive as possible,” adds Marty Peretz on his blog The Spine, but then asks: “Is the professoriat as a whole so wise as never to be questioned at all? I daresay not. And I know something about universities. At Columbia increasingly, departments and schools in the social sciences behave in the process of hiring like gangs admitting new members.” Peretz goes on to compare Columbia unfavorably to “any and all of the universities in the State of Israel,” not one of which “is so intellectually and politically inbred as is Columbia University.”

          Joseph Massad is the most deformed offspring of this incestuous inbreeding, the ultimate mutant in the Columbia freak show. Three years ago, when Juan Cole was up for a position at Yale, I wrote that “I would be surprised, and even shocked, if Yale appointed Juan Cole.” I never would have said that about Massad at Columbia. Indeed, I once described Massad as “the flower of Columbia University,” a thoroughly Columbia creation. Columbia gave him his doctorate, Columbia University Press published it, and Columbia gave him his tenure-track job. Massad himself recognized that Columbia couldn’t disown him without somehow disowning itself. As he put it in 2005:

          An attack on my scholarship therefore is not only an attack on me and on MEALAC [his department at Columbia] but on Columbia’s political science department [which graduated him], [and] on prestigious academic presses, including Columbia University Press [which published his thesis]… an opinion expressed by Martin Kramer who also condemns Middle East Studies at Columbia.

          I wrote in reply: “Massad couldn’t be more right. All those who have accredited, acclaimed, and published him have scraped bottom, and that applies especially to Columbia University.”

          Incredibly, Columbia’s faculty came close to denying Massad tenure. He received only a 3-2 vote in his favor from his ad hoc tenure committee. A split vote is not a sufficient recommendation, and Provost Alan Brinkley could have put an end to the farce then. But when Massad’s faculty gang brothers threatened to riot, the administration quickly capitulated and authorized an unusual second review. At the time, Marty Peretz wrote: “Even Lee Bollinger won’t be dumb enough to reverse.” Well, Bollinger has reversed, but it isn’t because he lacks intelligence. It is a deficit of courage. Way back in 2005, Dan Miron, the long-suffering Hebrew lit professor in the Middle East department, predicted that Massad would get tenure: “Columbia is not courageous enough to say ‘no’ to this person and face a whole choir of people who would say, ‘Aha, you caved in.’”

          So is Miron about to be vindicated? Is “Columbia not courageous enough”? The question now boils down to this: does any courage reside in the Board of Trustees? Or have they been carefully inbred as well, for passivity and acquiescence? We shall see.

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