President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University in New York on Monday, September 24, 2007. I have argued that Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, should not have preceded the Iranian president with such a hostile and denunciatory introduction. Not all agreed with me. I am pleased that Mr Fish in his op-ed in the New York Times, who vastly underestimates the value of teaching as a moral act, is at least correct on this point. University presidents should exercise all due restraint and remove themselves from on-campus debates concerning geopolitical issues.
While Professor Fish is admittedly approaching this issue of presidential political advocacy with a Machiavellian perspective: how to separate a university from facing the whirlwind of controversy. Nevertheless his conclusion while not based on ethics or protecting academic freedom, is an appropriate remonstrance of a president acting as if he were the final arbiter of issues that are quite elusive in accommodating final conclusions or absolute verities:
How does President Bollinger fare by those measures?
The first thing to note is that Bollinger has been an excellent administrator as president of the University of Michigan, and before that as provost of Dartmouth College, and before that as Dean of the University of Michigan Law School. The second thing to note is that he is a prominent and respected scholar of the First Amendment. The third thing to note is that in deciding to confront President Ahmadinejad head-on he may have been speaking to constituencies within the university that were unhappy about some of his earlier actions in the ongoing controversy about the teaching practices of the Middle East Asian Languages and Cultures Department. In short, there may have been internal reasons – reasons not fully known to me and other commentators from the outside – that could account for his decision to take center stage and aggressively attack the Iranian president before he spoke.
Nevertheless, it does seem to me that as a general rule what an administrator should do when a controversial speaker comes to campus is lower the stakes and minimize the importance of the occasion. Not minimize the importance of the issues, but minimize the role of the university, which is not a player on the world stage but (at most) a location where questions of international significance can be raised in an academic manner.
Bollinger was correct when he said in his remarks that it is appropriate “for the university to conduct such an event,” but it is not appropriate for the university to be a front-and-center protagonist in the event. When Bollinger hurled his challenges at Ahmadinejad, he was saying explicitly. “here’s where I stand on these issues,” and therefore saying implicitly, “here’s where Columbia University stands.”