After heated debate over Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance, rumors that a group of Columbia faculty would visit Iran to apologize for University President Lee Bollinger's remarks incited confusion both on and off campus.
Iranian news website Mehr released an article on the alleged trip and its itinerary, setting off alarms and denials of University affiliates on January 8. The article quoted an anonymous member of the "delegation," and claimed that Bollinger refused to meet with Mehr to explain his "disrespectful behavior towards Ahmadinejad."
The University released a statement responding to the article, saying "The university has no knowledge or information about the claims currently being made in the Iranian media."
All professors - about 40 - contacted could not verify Mehr's claim. "I do not believe the story has any basis in fact at all," said Acting School of International and Public Affairs Dean John Coatsworth, who moderated the question and answer session following Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia, in an e-mail.
A Mehr editor did not release the name of the reporter who wrote the article, saying in an e-mail, "We have the news from resources who wanted not to be mentioned by name."
But the article caused commotion, due to the controversy surrounding Ahmadinejad's September visit, which was part of the University's World Leader's Forum. The announcement of the engagement was met with ambivalence from many faculty members, student leaders, and members of pro-Israel organizations, who worried about its implications. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the Holocaust, threatened Israel, and denounced homosexuality in past speeches.
Bollinger replied to criticism by pledging to confront Ahmadinejad on his contested statements.
In Bollinger's introduction, he called Ahmadinejad "brazenly provocative" and accused him of emitting "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."
The remarks triggered further disagreement among those who questioned whether the comments were necessary or appropriate.
At a University Senate meeting following the engagement, several faculty members attacked Bollinger's remarks.
"If you are going to continue to use this as a learning opportunity, if you are going to continue to consider it appropriate to make challenging introductory remarks, I can only pray that you would decide not to belittle, humiliate, and rudely abuse guests of the University because it brings embarrassment and shame on the University," said Robert Bulliet, the professor of history at the Middle East Institute who negotiated the visit through an Iran ambassador to the United Nations.
Bollinger responded, saying the event upheld free speech and "will not have a negative effect on the institution."
At a faculty of the arts and sciences meeting, professors read the Columbia University Faculty Action Committee Statement of Concern to Bollinger. The statement was signed by many professors and questioned Bollinger's stance on academic freedom, specifically saying that the opening remarks "sullied the reputation of the University with its strident tone, and has abetted a climate in which incendiary speech prevails over open debate."
While Coatsworth deemed Mehr's story false, faculty members responded without entire disbelief because of the recent swirl of disapproval. "I have not heard of such a trip and I hope it is just a rumor," said Qais Al-Awqati, a professor at the School of Physicians and Surgeons. "This would be the most stupid thing I have heard about this contretemps, already full of stupid events."
Other professors responded with requests for more information about such a trip. James R. Barker professor of istory, Victoria de Grazia, said by e-mail, "I am abroad and I know nothing about what promises to be a fine adventure." Mehr's article reported that the delegation had prepared an itinerary replete with meetings with Iranian University leaders and a visit to the shrine city, Qom.
Some students said they felt Bollinger's introduction was overprotective-along with other news outlets. For "Adding Insult to Introduction," Time Magazine named it the year's number one awkward moment. Bollinger's incisive opening remarks in September topped nine other awkward moments in 2007, including Britney Spears' "zombie dance," Paris Hilton's cry for mom in court, and David Hasselhoff's drunken shower, as captured on camera by his teenage daughters.
"University presidents have two absolutely fundamental obligations. The first is to defend the principles of academic freedom and free speech. And the second is to protect the institution from the consequences of the exercise of free speech and academic freedom," Coatsworth said. "This is what President Bollinger set out to do."
Coatsworth added that the new intelligence report-saying Iran abandoned its nuclear program four years ago and that Iran had less involvement in the Iraq war than the White House reported-changes his views in retrospect.
"In the longer term, I think the president's opening remarks were perhaps more protective than they needed to be: both of the audience and the institution," he said. "At the time of the speech itself, a good deal of this was not known. President Bollinger relied for his remarks on what had been published in the press."
© 2008 Columbia Daily Spectator via U-WIRE