By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Bollinger's remarks assuaged some vehement opponents, including Jacob Kriegel, an activist student leader who called the comments an "appropriate" rebuke.
But others likened Bollinger's comments to offensive and embarrassing schoolyard taunts, and some students are circulating a petition demanding an apology.
"He went overboard in trying to balance a response to a criticism by being insulting," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who originally opposed Ahmadinejad's visit.
Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, views Ahmadinejad as a publicity hound but said that "once you bring someone to the university, unless this is just a cockfighting ring, a certain level of discourse should apply."
Bollinger, a Washington Post Co. board member who once clerked for Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, said his comments reflect his belief that, in extreme cases, it is important to express not only intellectual opposition, but also emotional revulsion.
"I wanted the emotions to match the words," he said.
"Monday, this campus was Lee Bollinger's version of paradise," said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the journalism school. "It's this big plaza in the middle of the city, and at every corner of the plaza, everyone was debating and disputing and speaking, protesting peacefully. That's exactly Lee's vision of what a university should be. He made the day work."
Other days have not worked so well.
In fall 2004, a Boston-based pro-Israel group showed a film in which pro-Israel Columbia students complained they had been intimidated by pro-Palestinian professors. The case ballooned into a protracted debate over anti-Semitism and academic freedom. Bollinger appointed a committee to investigate the allegations, but critics said he was too late and too timid in his response.
Jonathan Cole, former Columbia provost, said in a speech at the time that the pressures bearing down on the university reminded him of the climate on American campuses during the McCarthy era. In a pointed allusion to Bollinger, Cole said that when a professor is attacked for the content of his or her views, "leaders of research universities must come to the professor's defense."
Finally, in March 2005, Bollinger gave a strong speech saying it was "preposterous to characterize Columbia as anti-Semitic."
At an antiwar rally in 2003, an assistant professor said he hoped America would suffer a "million Mogadishus" in Iraq. Bollinger defended the instructor's right to speak. In fall 2006, student protesters stormed a stage and shut down a speech by Jim Gilchrist, head of the Minuteman Project, a group that opposes illegal immigration. Bollinger disciplined the students.
"Most everything I've written about in free speech has been about a national mentality in wartime and how it plays out in issues of free-speech liberties," Bollinger said. "The country has been very, very divided in its political culture and very confrontational in its political dialogue. And that doesn't mesh well with an academic environment that is supposed to have a norm of suspending one's beliefs and trying for understanding."