Lee Bollinger v. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Friend or Foe of Academic Freedom?

It is an open question to be sure but I think it is arguable that when a president interjects herself or himself into a campus conversation on a major geopolitical event, it threatens academic freedom by creating an official position that may thwart debate and revisionism. I am pleased the Columbia University president is in total agreement with me but I am dismayed that Lee Bollinger contradicts his own standard of presidential abstention from on-campus political debate.

Shortly after the Iraq War Crime began in March 2003, an assistant professor of anthropology and Latino(a) studies, Nicholas De Genova, denounced the American barbaric invasion at an anti-war teach-in and rather provocatively called for “a million Mogadishus” in advocating the defeat of American imperialism in the region. I agree with him but I would have chosen a different example so as not to suggest that deaths of any nation’s armed forces are to be encouraged. I did then and do now support the notion of defeating American hegemonic penetration but with non-violent resistance of direct action and massive civil disobedience.

In any event, the mercurial Lee Bollinger was under pressure to fire Professor De Genova, a probationary tenure-track professor. To his credit, he did not terminate his appointment but instead denounced his “Mogadishu” remarks made at the Columbia University teach-in on his website and later in an address before the National Press Club in Washington on April 2, 2003:

“Over several generations, a custom has developed on college and university campuses of holding “teach-ins.” These are informal gatherings where faculty and students come together to discuss and debate the pressing and important issues of the moment. They are not authorized or officially sanctioned classroom experiences. Like any political discussion, comments can vary widely in their merit. In the interest of promoting full discussions of public issues, presidents of universities do not normally comment on particular speeches made at such events.” [Emphasis added]

What Dr Bollinger is clearly stating is that presidents should not comment directly on speeches made at a university because it could have a chilling effect on academic freedom. While admittedly addressing teach-ins, the principle obviously extends to other venues of “speechifying” on a campus. Yet in the cases of Dr De Genova and President Ahmadinejad–even BEFORE his address– the president interjected himself with harshness and vitriol.

It appears that the Bollinger Rule: do not interject oneself in a partisan manner in critiquing speeches on campus, can be broken to placate a tribal American public that either demanded patriotic correctness from Dr De Genova or an Israel Lobby that seeks the censorship of revisionist thinking on the Israel-Palestine conflict and German genocide during World War II.

Dr Bollinger should be praised for extending an invitation to the Iranian president to speak at Columbia but should exercise courage in adhering to his publicly stated principles of academic freedom especially during times of controversy. This means exhibiting appropriate restraint in order to avert infringement on the free flow of ideas on a university campus. University presidents must carefully weigh their own rights of free speech, even if the president of a private university, versus its deleterious impact on academic freedom.

Professor Kirstein YouTube Interview on Iran Television:

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