To the Editor:
I’m writing as an alumna of Yale (Ph.D. 2001) and Barnard (B.A. 1993) to respond to Kanishk Tharoor’s December article on what he called “the Inquisition” at Columbia University (“At Columbia, Ivory Tower is under siege,” 12/3). Tharoor’s article was dismissive of the Columbia students, belittling their claims by stating that they were simply “irked” by a professor’s blatant abuses of his position, and misrepresentative of the true nature of the students’ concerns. Mr. Tharoor has not seen the documentary and appears more interested in questioning the motives of those involved than learning the actual facts. I am also writing as a university professor, dismayed at what is happening on many campuses around the country. A biased paradigm of the Middle East conflict has become standard on campuses, and all events are filtered through its distorted lens.
In their ideal form, universities offer professors and students alike the unique opportunity to explore complex thoughts and issues in an intellectually rigorous and safe environment. Classrooms should be havens of learning, where everyone can comfortably participate in a shared exchange of ideas and a Millian pursuit of knowledge. Yet, in reality, too many universities fall far short of this ideal. As much as we professors would like to imagine ourselves as Socratic guides for students who intuitively understand that they must come to their own wisdom, the reality is that we have to struggle against imposing our own conclusions on unknowing students. On some campuses, professors are truly blessed with bright and inquisitive students who question and challenge their teachers. Unfortunately, it is often in exactly these institutions that professors, shielded by their scholarship and publications, and falsely wielding the banner of academic freedom, impose their personal biases on their students and silence alternative perspectives.
Some particularly egregious examples of this are currently occurring on Columbia University’s campus. Columbia, ostensibly committed to the lofty goal of broadening and developing students’ minds, has instead allowed multiple instances of academic abuse by professors to occur. What Tharoor labels “propaganda” and the “hot air of attack” against Massad was a result of the Columbia administration’s consistent ignoring of students’ legitimate concerns. While Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, agreed that classroom intimidation should not fall under the umbrella of academic freedom, certain members of the faculty appear to have ignored this guideline and have attempted to intimidate and silence students who dissent from their virulently anti-Israel views. When some of the students went to the administrative deans to ask for help in addressing their legitimate concerns, they were dismissed, or worse, blamed for the problem.
Therefore, the students turned to The David Project, an outside organization that agreed to provide them with a forum for their voices to be heard. In the film, neither the organization nor the students expressed “vitriolic anti-Arab” sentiment, or any anti-Arab statement at all, nor do they call for Massad’s or any other professor’s resignation. They are simply describing their experiences in classes and on campus and demanding what all students are due: a fair process for the redress of grievances, and classrooms devoted to true academic freedom.
Sharon Fingerer-Goldman GRD ’01
Dec. 27, 2004
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Ramapo College of New Jersey.