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Columbia Clears Department of Anti-Semitism Charge

In a report made public last Thursday, the committee investigating charges of academic intimidation at Columbia University said it could identify only one instance of faculty misconduct in the university’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department.

Addressing allegations of anti-Semitism within the MEALAC department, the committee—a panel of five Columbia professors appointed by Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger—said it “found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.”

The 24-page report comes in response to what has become a media and political fracas on the Columbia campus, which began after a group of students voiced concerns about the school’s MEALAC department to administrators last year. The debate intensified when the Boston-based David Project—a pro-Israel advocacy group—released a 40-minute film titled “Columbia Unbecoming” last fall. In the film, Columbia students allege that members of the MEALAC department intimidated them with anti-Israeli rhetoric on a series of occasions both in and out of the classroom.

The only instance that the five-person committee deemed inappropriate involved MEALAC Professor Joseph Massad, who the committee said “exceeded commonly accepted bounds” in an altercation with student Deena Shanker in 2002.

Shanker testified that after she asked whether it was true that Israel issued warnings prior to bombing certain regions, Massad instructed her to leave the classroom if she continued to deny actions committed by Israelis against Palestinians. Two classmates corroborated Shanker’s account, the committee said, and three students could not recall the incident in their testimonies.

In a statement to the committee, Massad denied the accusations and said that he would never ask a student to leave the classroom. In an e-mail, Massad said that he thought the report was “inaccurate and unfair.”

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“The report gives no reason why Shanker’s account and her witnesses are more credible than mine and my witnesses,” Massad wrote. “The only explanation is that this illegitimate committee has bowed to the very outside pressure which it criticizes as well as the pressure coming its way from the Columbia administration.”

Members of Columbians for Academic Freedom—a student group made up of many of the students involved in the production “Columbia Unbecoming”—conducted a press conference in front of Columbia’s main gates on Thursday, protesting the committee’s report. The group did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but at the conference Columbia senior Ariel Beery said that the group will “continue to fight for students rights’ until the university listens,” according to the group’s website.

The report also sharply criticizes the university’s grievance procedures, focusing its five recommendations on improving the Columbia’s complaint process. In the report, the committee said that no adequate system exists for students and faculty to voice their concerns.

“These failures reflected both the negligent or misguided behavior of individuals and widespread systemic confusion about responsibility and authority,” the report said.

Columbia administrators have rallied behind the report’s recommendations and have said that action will be taken in the near future.

“I deeply regret these problems persisted and were not remedied earlier,” Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger wrote in a letter to the Columbia community. “Within the next two weeks, we will announce specific actions that address recommendations in the report.”

Bollinger—a finalist for the presidency at Harvard in 2001—has remained largely silent on the Columbia crisis in recent months, soliciting criticism from both MEALAC opponents and supporters alike. In a speech before the Association of the Bar of the City of New York last month, Bollinger offered an ambiguous assessment of the current situation, saying only that transgressions in academic freedom should not be accepted “without consequences.”

Last week, a group of graduate students circulated a petition calling for his resignation for his reluctance to defend Columbia professors.

Bollinger and the committee he appointed have drawn criticism from professors outside of New York City. Harvard’s Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz—a vocal critic of the MEALAC department and a pro-Israel advocate—took issue with the committee’s findings.

“The conclusions lack credibility because of the terrible mistake that a good man, Lee Bollinger, made in selecting the committee,” he said. Critics have alleged that members on the committee have inappropriate ties to anti-Israel campaigns and hold other conflicts of interest.

In February, Dershowitz pledged to form a second committee to investigate the allegations if Columbia’s committee harbored “bias” in its procedures. In an interview with The Crimson, Dershowitz said that he is still exploring option of appointing another committee.

“I’d like Columbia to release all of its internal documents first, and then we can select another group of people whose whole career has been devoted to academic freedom and civil liberties,” he said.

The ad hoc grievance committee was formed in December 2004 and met with 62 students, alumni, faculty, and administrators, and received 60 written submissions during its nine weeks of investigation.

—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.

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