University Senate                                                                      Proposed: November 15, 2007

 

                                                                                                Adopted:

 

 

MEETING OF OCTOBER 26, 2007

 

President Lee Bollinger, the chairman called the Senate to order shortly after 1:15 pm in 107 William and June Warren Hall. Sixty-two of 97 senators were present during the meeting. 

 

Minutes and agenda: The minutes of September 21 and the agenda were adopted as proposed. 

 

President’s report:  The president raised a series of questions related to the visit of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on September 24.

 

He affirmed his understanding that students can invite whomever they want to campus, for political or other purposes, with any motive, as part of their activities as students.  Faculty and schools and the university, on the other hand, can invite speakers to campus only for an academic purpose.  He said this standard, like any other, must be subject to further debate and definition. 

 

When a school invites someone to campus to speak for an academic purpose, it is the university’s job to defend that decision and to secure the right, the president said.  In this case, a faculty member and a dean of the School of International and Public Affairs wanted to invite the president of Iran to come and speak.  For good or bad, the president of Iran is a significant figure in world affairs, President Bollinger said, and there is a clear academic purpose in interacting with him in an appropriate setting, especially where one is training students to be experts in a field, whether it is Middle Eastern or Iranian or Persian studies, or foreign affairs or diplomacy.

 

The next decision was to include the Ahmadinejad visit in the World Leaders Forum, an annual program that the president set up some years ago to take advantage of Columbia’s presence in New York City. The WLF has enabled the university to engage with world issues in a way that has proven very successful.

 

The president recognized a campus debate on the proper parameters of extending invitations to speakers.  What should be the criteria?  He said some highly respected Columbia people oppose inviting speakers with very offensive views or whose past behavior suggests that they will not participate in academic discussion—that is, they won’t submit to reason, or deal with issues as raised, or avoid the temptation to use the event solely for their own purposes.  The president considered this a serious objection, and the university must always be ready to debate such objections in debating core values of the institution. 

 

The next question was how to structure the event to make it fulfill its academic purposes. He thought one basic requirement should be sufficient opportunity for questions and answers.  How should those go?  Should they be on cards and read to a speaker?  Should they be screened in some way, or should there just be an open mike?  Each approach has pros and cons, the president said, but there must be an opportunity for cross-examination, interrogation and some expression of opposition or agreement.

In this case, the president said, because of the seriousness of the views and actions associated with the present government of Iran, he decided that he would also make an opening statement, expressing his strong disagreement with those views and actions, and expressing it with the full force and authenticity of his own convictions.   This intention was presented to the Iranian mission before the event as a condition for the appearance by the Iranian president. It was made clear that President Bollinger would raise these objections in a very direct, sharp way, because he considered it important for him, as president of the university, to articulate them for the world and for the Columbia community.

 

All of this happened, the president said.  There was laughter.

 

The president listed some questions that have emerged since the event.  Did it generally fulfill the purposes of an academic event?  Were the president’s own comments appropriate or rude?  Were they successful in raising issues of importance?  Will some members of the community feel misrepresented by such remarks, since the president always speaks to some extent for the institution, no matter how much he says he is speaking for himself?  Another serious question is whether a university president’s discussion of public issues may chill speech within the institution for those who disagree with the president’s positions.  Still another is whether such involvements engage the institution with public issues in ways that end up hurting the institution.

 

The president’s own view, in response to these objections, is that serious engagement with important issues of our time should be one of the university’s highest priorities.  Sometimes it will be the president involved in this way, but more often it will be faculty and students. The university is capable of very direct and robust and uninhibited speech, consistent with the fact that it is committed to ideas and to understanding the world.  There’s also a role for passion and emotion as well as ideas, and this is a time to state disagreements.  Those who disagree with the imperative he had just outlined should also state that dissent.  He said the university is

capable of living through the difficult experience of having really strong debate, and then moving on in life.  The president expressed concern that American universities have not been sufficiently engaged with great issues.  He welcomed more of this kind of engagement, and expressed pride that Columbia is as engaged as anyone. But he thought Columbia could do more.

 

The president said the World Leaders Forum is one way of achieving that kind of engagement.  He said the number of people coming through the program who play major roles in the world, and the opportunities they have provided for faculty and especially students, are really quite remarkable.  He couldn’t think if another institution with a comparable program.  The WLF has had such controversial leaders as Musharraf of Pakistan, Putin of Russia, and Talabani of Iraq.

 

The president said some have asked why he hasn’t handled other speakers as he did the president of Iran.  His answer has been that he is not yet good enough at doing this.  He wished he had done more to engage serious issues with earlier guests.  He said he had a lot to learn in how to manage such encounters successfully, and that was part of the process. 

Did the president go too far?  His answer was that the denial of the Holocaust (and, to a lesser extent, Ahmadinejad’s statements about Israel) is so serious a matter on the world stage that it called for as strong a condemnation as he could make.  Maybe in time he would think he could have said this differently.  Like any good scholar, he said, he doesn’t go through a day without doubting something he said the day before or even an hour before.

 

But he knew it was important for him—and he hoped for the institution—to express strongly and with passion his convictions about these and other issues.  He recognized that many people agreed with this decision and many didn’t. He respected those who didn’t and had talked with many of them.

 

As for the interest of the institution more broadly, the president said the pressure to cancel this event was nearly overwhelming.  He had been through many controversial speech issues, but had never seen such a sense of rising hysteria as in this case.  As he said often then and since, he found it odd that people would find no objection to seeing the president of Iran in the press, on Sixty Minutes, on CNN, and, an hour before he appeared at Columbia, at the National Press Club. He said the press is widely accepted as the proper venue for people to come and speak, but one of the leading universities in the world should not be such a place?  As a First Amendment scholar, he was familiar with debates about the role of the press, including the argument made in the Pentagon Papers case in the 1970s that the press has no business in decisions about releasing classified documents or in giving voice to dangerous views, because those decisions should be left to foreign affairs experts and government officials.  He noted that American society has squarely rejected that argument, believing that the press doesn’t do diplomacy, but informs the public about important issues. The president said the same conclusion is true of universities—they don’t handle foreign affairs; they do discuss great issues.  He said it is simply wrong to think that universities do not have a role to play in the world that might include hearing controversial speakers with whom they are engaged through our government in other ways.

 

The president said, though he has opinions, that he is not qualified to judge such questions as what effect a president’s appearance in the WLF would have in his own country or around the world.  But such questions are not the responsibility of universities. Their responsibility is to take ideas seriously and address them in a scholarly, academic way.

 

At the end of the day, the president said, despite the threats and unhappiness in some quarters about the invitation, this event will not have a significant harmful effect on the institution.  He was now confident of that.  This was not to say that he would have canceled the event if he had somehow beforehand known the results to be different.  He was saying that he defended the event, went ahead with it, and did not think the consequences would be serious. He added that many important people, including alumni and many in the media, believe that going ahead with the event was the right thing to do.

 

Given the university’s right to invite people for academic purposes, the president said, an important question remains whether it’s a good idea to invite someone like this.  He said no one wants bureaucracy, or something like a committee to vet invitations.  But the community has to be open to continual conversation about who’s invited and for what purpose.  

The president said he was proud of the institution, particularly the students.  If any part of the event was an unqualified success, he said, it was the way they responded.  He considered it a great moment for the institution to go through an event this controversial, with such serious commitment to the ideas at stake.  The institution showed a vitality that he would consider a source of lasting pride.

The president hoped that freedom of speech and academic freedom on this campus had been preserved for years to come.  He said a steadfast commitment to the most serious engagement with issues is not easy.  He was confident about the health of the institution, and said he respected almost all of the different points of view he had heard about the Ahmadinejad event. 

 

Sen. Richard Bulliet (Ten., A&S/SS) thanked the president for sharing his thoughts.  As the person who started the initiative to invite Ahmadinejad, Sen. Bulliet said, he wanted to add his own comments.  He said he had made a point in his own writings about the event not to take issue with the substance of President Bollinger’s or President Ahmadinejad’s remarks because that would be appropriate for someone in his role as a mediator. 

 

Sen. Bulliet applauded the president’s decision to have the Iranian president come and speak, particularly given the enormous pressure he had faced in making that decision. 

 

He said that from the outset of discussions with the UN Mission and Iran, President Bollinger had made it clear through SIPA Dean Coatsworth that he would make remarks prior to those of the Iranian president.  The list of topics changed substantially over the course of negotiations.  Initially it was the Holocaust and the legitimacy of Israel, but eventually it became a laundry list of the major accusations that the Bush administration has leveled against Iran.  Nevertheless, Sen. Bulliet said, the Iranians accepted these as conditions for the participation of President Ahmadninejad. Sen. Bulliet regretted that the audience was not more aware that through negotiations the event had become structured more as a debate than as a guest presentation. 

 

Sen. Bulliet said he had stressed to the Iranian ambassador that President Bollinger’s preliminary remarks would be civil in tone because he was representing Columbia University.  Sen. Bulliet listened to the actual remarks with intense embarrassment, not at their substance but at their incivility and rudeness of tone. He said they cast shame upon the university, as well as belying his own commitments to the Iranian Ambassador.

 

Sen. Bulliet said he had not raised these issues in writing or to anyone outside a circle of close friends.  But when he heard the president say that he would use the Ahmadinejad visit as a precedent so he could learn how to do a better job of making comments introducing guest speakers, Sen. Bulliet said he was disturbed.  Would the president introduce an official from the U.S. government, with whose policies many or most people on campus disagree, with sharp challenges?  If challenging remarks become a precedent, where is the line drawn as to what the president would remark and whom he would consult in advance? As the president had noted, the president speaks not only for himself but, to at least to some extent, for the university.

 

Sen. Bulliet said that personally belittling and insulting a guest of the university is not the same thing as sharply challenging statements or policies associated with that person.  His own sense, from faculty and students and others on campus, as well as people who had communicated with him internationally, was that this was a bad decision.  If the event provided a learning opportunity, and if the president was going to continue to consider it appropriate to make challenging introductory remarks, Sen. Bulliet said he could only pray that the president would decide not to belittle, humiliate and rudely abuse guests of the university. 

 

The president thanked Sen. Bulliet for his candor.  In response, he explained that he had not meant to say that his goal was to provide the same kind of introduction for every guest speaker.  He had meant to say only that it’s important to engage people substantively and seriously about issues related to their views that are raised by their appearance. 

 

Secondly, he had meant to say that these are learning experiences in engaging in serious debate.  And he was open to thinking over time about how such an event could be handled better.  He said such openness to self-criticism is the essence of the scholarly temperament.

 

Thirdly, while respecting Sen. Bulliet’s view of the episode, he affirmed that

raising doubts on the international stage about the Holocaust requires the strongest expression of condemnation. He wanted to raise this issue, along with human rights violations in Iran and support of terrorist activity, as well as some other objections which he recognized as debatable, including the nuclear issue. In raising these issues, he wanted to express especially the feelings and passions involved in confronting what he regard as terrible acts and propagations of ideas.  He did not see such an expression of his own views as belittling or as a personal attack, but as a way to convey his sense of outrage over Ahmadinejad’s views.

 

The president added that he had chosen his words carefully, but that, as so often happens in public life, their subtlety was lost. He had not said, for example, that Ahmadinejad was a “petty and cruel dictator,” but that his views and actions were the “signs” of a dictator.  President Bollinger said he was fully aware that Ahmadinejad had been elected president.

 

Sen. Robert Pollack (Ten., A&S/NS) noted a lack of follow-up to the Ahmadinejad event, with no subsequent teach-ins, discussions, or lectures. He thought the faculty role in the event was marginal at best.  He said he would like to see this issue addressed in the future.

 

Sen. Pollack asked how the university would handle a hypothetical invitation to the eminent biologist James Watson, whose racially offensive remarks during a recent trip to England had cost him his job as head of the Brookhaven Laboratories. 

 

President Bollinger said he didn’t want to treat this subject lightly by speaking about hypothetical guests, because the key question—whether the visit would fulfill an academic purpose—requires more than a quick answer. He expressed willingness to discuss this issue further with Sen. Pollack in another time and place.

 

To Sen. Pollack’s other points, the president said there will be more academic discourse on Iran over the course of the year. Second, he would seek broader faculty involvement in the World Leaders Forum.  In recent years, schools had been asked to participate more in this, through panels and discussions. It is also important to link such events to the curriculum and life of the institution in new ways, and generally to exploit the enormous potential of this institutional asset.

 

The process by which people are invited more generally is part of this process, the president said.  Sometimes, he said, things just happen. At first you don’t know if an event will take place, then you learn it will take place, then when you announce it beforehand there’s controversy, and the event is called into doubt. There’s only a short period of time to sort things out, and you do the best you can. The Ahmadinejad event had these characteristics.

He felt the force of Sen. Pollack’s remark that little had happened in the previous two weeks. He said many, like himself, wanted to rest a bit from this episode and regroup. He said that if senators think there are useful ways to continue discussion of these issues, he was willing.

 

Sen. Karen Green (Libraries) said she had attended two large family events in the previous month at which she had been pressed to defend the University’s invitation to Ahmadinejad and the conduct of the president.  In the course of the arguments she had imparted two bits of information that her relatives had not known, and that seemed to make a real difference to them. One was that the visit was part of a yearlong examination of Iran including other speakers with other points of view. The other was that Ahmadinejad was not the only guest at the World Leaders Forum, which also heard from the leaders of Chile, Turkmenistan, Estonia, and Georgia.  Sen. Green asked what Columbia could do to make such information more widely known.

 

The president mentioned a third insufficiently known fact—that there had been extensive discussion with Iranian representatives beforehand about what he the president would say in his introductory remarks, and that the introduction had not been an ambush.   He recognized Sen. Bulliet’s view that the tone of the introduction was surprising, and repeated his own view that the gravity of Ahmadinejad’s views called for the emotion and passion in that introduction.

 

The president said the university put out a statement on the day of the event to the whole community that made clear that the president would make challenging opening remarks.   

Susan Glancy, the president’s chief of staff, confirmed this recollection.

 

The president said that even though he had expected this event to get major media attention, it took on unexpected extra magnitude because of unexpected related events, like the flap over Ahmadinejad’s attempt to visit Ground Zero.

 

But the president said the question remains in cases of major coverage of a Columbia event, how can the institution assure coverage that is at least accurate, and get the media to correct mistakes quickly?  He said these are hard problems. Columbia has great media consultants and advisers, and EVP for Public Affairs David Stone’s office had done a wonderful job, and yet Columbia hasn’t figured this problem out.  But he thought Sen. Green had asked the right question.

 

Sen. Samuel Silverstein (Ten., CUMC) listed some important points made during the discussion: First, Columbia is free to invite people to the institution that it wants to hear; second, the president has personal opinions he wants to express, and university presidents in general are not outspoken enough about the great issues of our time.  But it would be technically impossible, as well as inappropriate, for a president to decide to introduce every guest speaker, or even a large number of them.  Sen. Silverstein suggested, partly in response to Sen. Bulliet’s comments, that introducing the guest provides a different sort of imprimatur from asking a question after the guest has spoken.  If he waits till the guest has spoken, the president is speaking as a member of the audience, not so much as Columbia University.

 

On the other hand, Sen. Silverstein said, on numerous occasions Columbia people would very much welcome speeches and op-ed pieces from the president, and generally his presence on the national scene. For Sen. Silverstein the lesson of the visit was that the president and Columbia would have come out better if he had responded to Ahmadinejad, rather than confronting him initially.  In that case, the president would not have had the onus of introducing him, of appearing to predetermine or prejudge his positions, no matter how clear it was that his judgments were right.  But speaking afterward would have had the value of responding to things Ahmadinejad said and didn’t say, which deserved the full brunt of the president’s challenge.

 

The president thanked Sen. Silverstein for his comments. In hindsight, he said, he sometimes thinks it was of paramount importance to frame the event in a way that could only be accomplished in an opening statement.  To him the term introduction seemed inappropriate because it suggests a sympathetic summary of someone’s CV.  His statement was more like an opening statement in a debate.

 

On the other hand, he said, his statement was susceptible to being received as a strange introduction, and he was uncertain about whether the statement should have come later in the event. He added, to laughter, that he did not intend to make such opening statements at everybody who comes to the institution, and that at least for a while he would not be much heard from in this way at all.  But, recalling the visit of President Musharraf, he also wondered if he should have asked him to explain his combination of military and political roles, and his inaction against Al Qaeda in his western provinces. In retrospect President Bollinger wished he had raised such issues more strongly because—and this is the point, he said—Columbia takes ideas seriously.

 

The president said that one lesson from this process is that criticism mounts that such an invitation is simply giving a platform to the most destructive ideas, jeopardizing the prestige of Columbia University, and adding to the harms of the world. He said the only answer can be to explain that Columbia’s mission is to engage with ideas strongly and seriously, because that’s what universities do.  The less Columbia does that, the more leverage it’s giving to people to say Columbia can’t invite people like this.  And the more Columbia does this, the stronger it is as a community, committed to its own values. 

 

Sen. Paul Thompson (Alumni) offered the observation that a number of alumni he had spoken to, whether they supported the university’s decision to hold the event or not, thought the president’s last comment—about the “signs of a cruel and petty dictator” comment—was a cheap shot.

 

Sen. Genevieve Thornton (Stu., Bus.) asked why the president chose to communicate to the university community on the day of the event and not earlier.

 

Sen. Bulliet said an email and press release had gone out as soon as the arrangements for the event were in place, at 6 pm on Wednesday, September 19, five days before the event. 

 

Sen. Thornton, a College alum, asked why alumni had no communication before the day of the event.  She was concerned that a lot of her fellow alums formed their opinions through the press.

 

The president couldn’t recall precisely what was communicated to alumni and when.  He did know that UDAR officials were actively communicating with alumni. 

 

Sen. Aaron Pallas (Fac., TC) asked if the president, with some hindsight now, had thought about how the event was represented in foreign media, particularly in Iran.

The president had his own views about consequences of events like this, but he thought they were irrelevant to the decision to invite Ahmadinejad.  He thought it was a losing battle to discuss publicly whether having, say, General Musharraf speak at Columbia is good or bad for U.S. foreign policy or Pakistan.  When the university goes about its academic business, it is serving a different purpose in the world.

 

The same idea applies to the media, he said.  Again, Columbia should not base its academic judgments upon predictions of how different media outlets will respond to a given speech or course or panel discussion on campus, even if those predictions are reasonably accurate.

 

The president said he was still trying to understand the press coverage of the event.  There was an enormous amount of support, for example in editorials of the New York Times and various columnists.  There was also strong criticism. He did not know whether there was more criticism or support.  Judging the reaction to this event requires reflection over time, as impressions change.  For a moment this was a big event in the world, he said, but it wasn’t now. 

 

The president concluded that the university should take academic criteria into account, and not the media or diplomacy or foreign policy. Among the huge variety of reactions to the event, he thought students might provide the best gauge of its meaning. Many of them said that this was among their top educational experiences. And he was proud of that. 

 

Sen. Paige West (Fac., Barnard)  expressed concern about the message students get when so much attention is paid to the Middle East while the prime minister of Papua New Guinea had no attendance whatsoever at his talk.  She asked for an attempt to balance the attention paid to different leaders, both on campus and in press releases.

 

The president welcomed the question. He expressed pride in the fact within 24 hours of the Ahmadinejad visit, students had an opportunity to see the leaders of Turkmenistan, Chile, Estonia, and Georgia.  He agreed that the university could do more to publicize the different forums, but the reality is that people fixate on certain topics, like Iran. 

 

            Recent bias incidents:  The president mentioned recent incidents of graffiti, as well as the noose on a professor’s door at Teachers College. He noted that TC is an affiliate of Columbia, but has its own president and trustees, and deals with incidents like these in its own way. He fully supported President Fuhrman’s handling of the incident. He said these have been very difficult weeks for the Columbia community, and some groups appropriately feel vulnerable, angry, and threatened. He said the whole community needs to unite to condemn such acts. 

           

Effort reporting: Sen. Daniel Savin (Research Officers) said he wanted to raise three issues about of effort reporting and its effect on research officers, which he said he had discussed with Naomi Schrag of the Office of Research Administration.  The first point was that safety training courses and effort report training courses are part of researchers’ university effort. 

 

At this point the president interrupted to say said he didn’t know enough address Sen. Savin’s comments.  He asked Sen. Savin to submit the comments, and he would arrange for a response, possibly at the next meeting.  Sen. Savin agreed to email his comments to the president.

 

Executive Committee chairman’s report:  Executive Committee co-chair Paul Duby (Ten., SEAS) said the committee had devoted considerable discussion on October 19 to Ahmadinejad.  He appreciated the president’s decision to discuss the topic at the present meeting.  Sen. Duby agreed that the event was terrific for students academically, and said Columbia will look back proudly on it in 20 years. 

 

Sen. Duby reminded senators that the Executive Committee had referred last spring’s resolution to limit rent increases in Columbia apartments back to Housing Policy.  He and co-chair Sharyn O’Halloran (Ten., SIPA), would discuss the resolution on with Housing Policy on November 7. 

 

Sen. Duby said he and Sen. John Johnson (Stu., Law) had attended the Trustees plenary on October 6. The two topics discussed before the trustees went into executive session were the capital campaign, which seems to be 20 percent ahead of projections, and the strong recent performance of the endowment, in a report from portfolio manager Narv Narvekar.  Sen, Duby said Mr. Narvekar would be the guest of the Senate Budget Review Committee on December 13. 

 

Sen. Duby said he was trying to recruit some law professors to serve on the Rules Committee.

 

Committee reports

            Physical Development Annual Report, 2006-07:  Committee chairman Ron Prywes (Ten., A&S/NS) touched on three points from the report, which covered work done under the leadership of former chair Bradley Bloch.

 

The first was that a system was set up last year to review new capital projects, in which EVP for Facilities Joseph Ienuso presented capital project documents to the committee a few days before presenting them at the quarterly meeting of the Trustees Physical Assets Committee.  This arrangement has given the committee a useful early look at projects.  

 

Secondly, the committee will do more outreach to the community this year.  He invited senators to raise space issues for the committee to pursue.

 

Finally, Sen. Prywes said the committee had devoted most of two years to studying the planning that led to the Northwest Corner science building.  It now wanted to use that knowledge to work more on how decisions are made about movement into Manhattanville and, just as importantly, who will move into Morningside space vacated by units moving to Manhattanville.  Sen. Prywes said the president had invited the committee in a meeting last May to take on these issues.

 

This year the committee will be considering decisions being made and how they’re being made in a joint effort with the Task Force on Campus Planning, which includes chairs of several committees. There will be meetings with a number of deans and vice presidents to learn their priorities, along with the projects that will be part of the Manhattanville development. 

 

            Recent Acts of Hateful Intimidation and Vandalism on Columbia’s Campus (Student Affairs):  Sens. Johnson and Andrea Hauge (Bus.), student caucus co-chairs, presented the report, which had been distributed at the door.

 

Sen. Johnson expressed appreciation for the president’s willingness to discuss the Ahmadinejad visit at length at the present meeting.  He said the discussion reflected many student concerns.

 

Sens. Johnson and Hauge then read the two-page report aloud   

(www.columbia.edu/cu/senate/annual_reports/07-08/saccrime07.htm), and invited input from senators on each of the three issues they had raised: communication, resources, and introspection on student interaction, diversity and the curriculum.

  

Sen. Johnson emphasized that the questions about communication came up especially in the wake of the Teachers College episode, which received a lot of media attention.  He noted that students at TC and Columbia were troubled to learn about the episode from the media before hearing from their own administration.  He asked for any responses that the student caucus could convey to students or to External Relations in its deliberations on this issue.

 

Sen. O’Halloran, chair of External Relations, said the report, which she was seeing for the first time, raised detailed questions for consideration by administrators, as well as her committee.

 

Sen. Johnson invited students to comment.  Sen. Hauge invited faculty to comment.

 

Sen. O’Halloran said the students had done a good job of stating the issues, and of starting the effort to identify where gaps in university responses to events of this kind. 

 

Sen. Hauge invited comments on resources and the questions for introspection.  Sen. Johnson said the caucus wanted to make sure these issues are not lost, because they elicited strong responses at student meetings.  He said some might view the issues for introspection as isolated from the others raised in the report.

 

To applause, the president thanked the students.  He said students had played a helpful role in bringing administrators together to address these issues, particularly A&S VP Nick Dirks and College Dean Austin Quigley and their staffs.

 

The president adjourned the meeting at around 3:15 pm.

 

Respectfully submitted,

 

 

Tom Mathewson, Senate staff