Lessons learned from Columbia



Bryan Kerns

“I am only a professor who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for; I only wish I could do better,” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger said. His revulsion was clear.

Bollinger, however, was the man who extended the invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He opened the doors of his institution to the “petty and cruel dictator” who sat mere feet away from him, as he described him.

Was Bollinger’s introduction unbecoming of a “professor who is also a university president”? Was his speech so charged that it defeated the purpose of the event? If he was so repulsed by Ahmadinejad, why did he invite him in the first place?

The invitation ultimately opened Columbia to a torrent of criticism. His introduction of Ahmadinejad defeated the purpose of academic freedom. Bollinger could easily have said a few short words and allowed Ahmadinejad’s speech to speak for itself. Surely, the Iranian president – who is a mouthpiece for the mullahs who really run Iran – has had no problem demonstrating his delusion in the past (i.e.: the Holocaust never happened). In fact, Ahmadinejad did just that when he said there were no homosexuals in Iran and asked who would be crazy enough to think that “problem” had spread to his country.

On Monday I sat down with Dr. John Johannes, University vice president for Academic Affairs, to discuss academic freedom in the context of Columbia and in a broader spectrum. Johannes said Bollinger’s remarks were an error in judgment; he should have taken the high road, simply made a short statement and allowed everything to proceed, according to Johannes. He concurred with the notion of many observers that Ahmadinejad has no real power and is controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the mullahs.

Johannes said inviting speakers to campus is a “prudential judgment.” According to Johannes, academic freedom can be constrained in two types of situations. The first is where a physically dangerous situation occurs under the guise of academic freedom. To illustrate this, Johannes referenced an event from his time at Marquette University. A faculty member invited a member of the local Nazi party to speak to his class, and Jewish community groups demonstrated against the speaker outside the classroom. In that sense, a physical danger is presented to the students in the classroom. The second constraint on academic freedom asserted by Johannes – with support from the American Association of University Professors in its 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” – is when a faculty member advocates a policy outside his or her area of expertise. Johannes’ examples were an English teacher devoting a class to challenging the legitimacy of the Iraq war or a political science professor discussing the origins of the universe.

By these standards, Ahmadinejad’s appearance falls well within the boundaries of legitimate scholarly and academic debate. The fact that he is the standard bearer of a despicable regime is not in question. The fact that any statement he makes comes with questionable credibility is not in question. That said, Bollinger’s tactics were far from scholarly. He engaged in the lowest common denominator of intellectual debate – essentially matching Ahmadinejad’s demagoguery sentence for sentence. Bollinger used a scholarly platform that he himself erected to spin the situation in an attempt to spare Columbia some criticism.

Ultimately, his attempt was mostly fruitless. Columbia was still criticized, Ahmadinejad was still recognized as a delusional lunatic and Bollinger incurred the wrath of greater academia for his remarks. Instead of allowing the audience to come to the inevitable conclusion that Ahmadinejad is a propagandist who speaks for a regime that advocates the suppression of its people through despicable means, Bollinger used his platform to express the “weight of the modern civilized world” in a manner that condescended to the people there to see the three-ring Ahmadinejad circus.

All Bollinger had to do was show up, give Ahmadinejad the stage and let him say the ridiculous things everyone knew he would say.

Instead, he showed up, said things that no one expected, gave Ahmadinejad the stage, let him say the ridiculous things everyone knew he would say and at the end of the day, there were two people being criticized: “a professor who is also a university president” and the puppet of one of the worst regimes on the face of the earth. There should only have been one person being criticized that day. Let the madmen speak for themselves; they never disappoint.


Bryan Kerns is a freshman from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].