Enough Said? Probably Not.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
NEW YORK -- Lee Bollinger walks into the lecture hall and, easing out of his jacket, begins to set up a hypothetical: Let's say I'm a senator who wants a law that prohibits glorifying violence against Americans, he says. Tell me why such speech is constitutionally protected.
As students in the class answer, the Columbia University president encourages, prods and interrupts. "Speak up!" "What do the great justices say?"
This, on Wednesday, is Bollinger the teacher: relaxed, confident, brisk.
But on Monday, the atmosphere was tense when Bollinger hosted a campus forum featuring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran who is known for Holocaust denials and his expressed desire to eliminate Israel.
The event has drawn attention to Bollinger's record at Columbia, where issues related to Israel and the Middle East have exploded in controversy in nearly every one of his five years as president. At many institutions, the controversies might be purely academic, but at Columbia, they are points of passionate belief among students, faculty, trustees and donors.
"One is always taken aback, always surprised, by just how difficult these situations are," Bollinger said in a telephone interview from Paris, where he flew after class on Wednesday for an alumni conference.
"I do think there are issues where it's very hard to find your way through them, and nobody is going to be happy in the end," he said. "I think anybody who's at the center of really controversial issues feels this way -- that it's a fairly isolated position to be in."
The latest fracas began when Columbia invited Ahmadinejad to speak at its World Leaders Forum, a lecture series that Bollinger, 61, inaugurated to expand the school's reach into international affairs.
Outraged alumni flooded Bollinger's inbox with e-mails demanding that the university rescind the invitation. A few students threatened a week-long boycott. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn asked Bollinger to cancel the event, and Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, said lawmakers would consider reducing financial assistance to the university if the event took place.
Acknowledging the intense pressure, Bollinger said: "You simply cannot let that influence your decision. It is completely inappropriate."
On the day of the speech, with thousands of protesters inside and outside the Columbia campus gates, Bollinger upbraided Ahmadinejad during the introduction, referring to him as a "petty and cruel dictator" who lacks "intellectual courage," has a "fanatical mind-set" and could be "astonishingly undereducated."
Ahmadinejad responded by saying that in Iran, tradition requires courteous treatment of invited speakers.