Columbia Still Reeling Over Visit
Before Iran’s president took the stage at Columbia University on Monday, the university’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, sent out an early-morning e-mail message, calling on students and faculty “to live up to the best of Columbia’s traditions.” Yesterday, many critics questioned whether Mr. Bollinger had met that test himself.
On campus and in editorials across the nation, on political blogs and throughout academia, there was a sharp division of opinion about Mr. Bollinger’s pointed introduction of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a man who exhibited “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator” and whose denial of the Holocaust was “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”
Some said Mr. Bollinger’s remarks were just the rebuke that Mr. Ahmadinejad deserved. Others said they were embarrassing and offensive. And there were still questions about whether Mr. Ahmadinejad should have been afforded a public platform at a prestigious university at all.
Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia, said, “The tone from the host of an event was uncivil and uncalled for.
“The president of the university had every right to state his differences,” he said. “That was more than acceptable. But I believe it was embarrassing to the university, frankly, that they should decide to invite him and then treat him in this manner.”
But Emily Steinberger, a sophomore who is a spokeswoman for LionPAC, a pro-Israel group at Columbia that had vehemently opposed Mr. Ahmadinejad’s invitation, applauded Mr. Bollinger.
“President Bollinger was caustic in his criticism of Ahmadinejad, but anything else would have been inappropriate and troubling,” said Ms. Steinberger, of Teaneck, N.J. “Bollinger repeatedly said that his invitation in no way represented a condoning of Ahmadinejad’s worldviews and policies, and yesterday he proved that.”
Columbia’s provost, Alan Brinkley, said the controversy “was of a magnitude we hadn’t seen before.”
“This really was the biggest event I’ve seen since I’ve started as provost,” said Dr. Brinkley, who called it too early to judge the fallout for Columbia.
A university spokesman, David M. Stone, said that Mr. Bollinger, a legal scholar whose specialty is freedom of speech and freedom of the press, was not available to comment yesterday because he had a tight schedule.
A number of Iranian-born scholars — experts about the Middle East who now live in the United States — said they were shocked by Mr. Bollinger.
“If I as a faculty member had done this in front of my president, I would been out the next day,” said Ali Akbar Mahdi, a professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University. Dr. Mahdai, who is a critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s, added, “I was taken aback.”
So was Hamid Zangeneh, a professor of economics at Widener University in Pennsylvania and editor of The Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis. “I was disgusted by the uncivilized behavior by President Bollinger,” he said. “I don’t think it is becoming for the president of a university to engage in such behavior. It wasn’t academic. It wasn’t common sense.
“Instead of behaving like a scholar, a president,” he said, “he behaved like a hooligan.”
Some Jewish groups that were among the most vocal critics of the Ahmadinejad invitation applauded Mr. Bollinger, but remained critical of giving the Iranian president a stage.
“He definitely came out swinging, with the whole world watching,” said Elliot Mathias, director of Hasbara Fellowships, a pro-Israel organization, said of Mr. Bollinger.
“I was glad to hear how strongly he condemned him,” he added. “But I don’t think it makes up for the invitation. With someone who denies the Holocaust, who wants to destroy Israel and to turn the Western world into an Islamic caliphate, there is not room to have discussion. It is like discussing with the Ku Klux Klan whether blacks are inferior.”
“If you invite someone, you have to be polite,” he said. “Ahmadinejad scored points, especially in their culture. If you permit an enemy to come into your home, you still treat him with dignity and respect. Therefore, we lost. The points that President Bollinger made were fine. But to close with insulting words almost undid everything he said before. It was not a good teaching experience.”
Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor who was a consultant to the Coalition Provisional Authority set up in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, said he did not consider Mr. Bollinger’s performance to be rude.
“There are some issues where it is appropriate to be delicate and careful, and to use exaggerated politeness,” he said. “But there are some issues of such grave importance that being too polite to your guest is actually a betrayal of your beliefs. For Lee Bollinger, the Holocaust is one. I applaud him for that.”
Gary G. Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia’s Middle East Institute, said he would be surprised if there were “any long-term price” for Mr. Bollinger’s remarks.
“A lot of people will be pleased that he came out swinging, that he was willing to tell like it is, to be tough,” he said. “I bet right now that his in-box has a lot more congratulatory cables than negative ones.”