Thursday, September 27, 2007

The people I work with 

One thing about deciding to be an academic as well as an economist is that you find out the university is populated with people nothing like you at all. I conclude this after reading the lead article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, (subscribers' link, temp link) this morning on the reaction to Columbia President Lee Bollinger's handling of the Ahmadinejad invitation by the school's own faculty.

But for many professors at Columbia, Monday's event also revived their impression that Mr. Bollinger had bungled earlier free-speech controversies on the campus and fallen short of his own billing as a staunch advocate of the First Amendment.

"Free speech is what he's been famous for throughout his career, although occasionally he hasn't been true to that part of himself," says Philip S. Kitcher, a professor of philosophy. "This time he was. This is the kind of guy we thought we were getting as president."

Still, Mr. Bollinger faces a host of questions in the wake of the speech by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By using his introduction to castigate the Iranian leader before Mr. Ahmadinejad even had a chance to speak, some professors argue, Mr. Bollinger was not only rude but undermined his own ideals of free speech and academic freedom. And while his withering remarks may have made him look courageous, some academics believe that he misused his role as a university leader. Mr. Bollinger's own words had the effect of aligning Columbia with U.S. foreign policy against Iran, some faculty members believe. And as a result, the university president may ironically have devalued the views of those on his own campus who disagree with that policy.

"His were not intellectual statements; they were political statements," says Gil Anidjar, an associate professor in the department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures. "He has enlisted the university in the rhetoric of war and brought the power and weight of an institution into the debate. Those of us who disagree are only individuals and don't have that power."

Pause on this sentence a minute:
Mr. Bollinger's own words had the effect of aligning Columbia with U.S. foreign policy against Iran, some faculty members believe.
Now let us read from Mr. Bollinger's introduction. Recall, as I said yesterday, the decision to bring Ahmadinejad to Columbia is for the students' education, not to somehow change Iran. Does it further the students' education to ask Ahmadinejad to answer questions about imprisoning scholars, funding terror, building nuclear weapons and fighting a proxy war in Iraq? I do not think he did it particularly well, but I am willing to think it could have been done well.

But the people in the academic sphere I work in do not even want to give him that chance.
Stanley Fish, a legal scholar who served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Mr. Bollinger unwisely heightened the stakes for himself and his university. "By seizing the reins, he set this up as King Kong versus Godzilla," says Mr. Fish. "I was a little surprised to see him inserting himself into this event in an aggressive way."

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who served as president of George Washington University before stepping down in August, says Columbia doesn't need the kind of publicity that the Iranian president's speech drew. And he believes that Mr. Bollinger failed to justify the invitation by making use of Mr. Ahmadinejad's presence to push Iran to advance peace initiatives. "I don't think Columbia got value for the exposure," says Mr. Trachtenberg.

Unfortunately presidents worry too often about publicity and not enough about what their students are learning. It is intriguing that in its coverage, the Chronicle chose not to interview a single Columbia student.