The most charitable way to view the decision of Columbia University's president, Lee Bollinger, to appoint yet another committee to look into free-speech issues and anti-Semitism on campus is that it is a last chance for the faculty to take care of its own scandal. The committee will comprise five professors and be advised by a leading First Amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams. Its assignment is to listen to students, do an investigation of complaints against certain individuals, and give a report to Mr. Bollinger.
A less charitable view - and no doubt a more accurate one - is that Mr. Bollinger has, at the most important crisis of his tenure at Columbia, truckled to his employees in the faculty, permitting them, in effect, to investigate themselves. One can speculate about why he has chosen this course. No doubt he is aware that the president of a university can lose a faculty, meaning lose its confidence and lose any effective authority in his office. Perhaps he is seeking to avoid this fate and hold onto his job.
Good luck. Certainly the members of the Bollinger committee fail to generate confidence. One of them, Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and comparative literature, actually signed the petition calling for an end for American military aid to Israel and for Columbia to divest from companies that sell arms and military hardware to Israel. Mr. Bollinger himself called the divestment petition "both grotesque and offensive," which leads one to wonder why he would appoint Ms. Griffin to this committee.
Another committee member, Mark Mazower, a professor of history, has made the classic blunder of blaming the Jews for anti-Semitism: "If [Prime Minister] Sharon is seriously concerned about anti-Semitism, there is no one better placed than he to do something about it by changing his Government's policies towards the Palestinians," he wrote at one point. In another article, he compared Israel's occupation of the West Bank with Nazi Germany's occupation of Eastern Europe because both are doomed to failure. Mr. Mazower, in other words, is over his head.
The other members include a dean, Lisa Anderson, who supported the appointment to the faculty of Rashid Khalidi, one of the professors most hostile to Israel. Another, Ira Katznelson, is a professor of political science who, the Columbia Spectator reported, railed against the Bush administration at the notorious teach-in where Professor Nicholas De Genova expressed his hope that America would encounter a "million Mogadishus." The last is a professor, Jean Howard, who is vice provost for "diversity initiatives" and who signed a petition against the occupation of Iraq.
It's not merely the membership of this committee that gives us doubts but its mandate. It will take up merely "classroom experiences." Mr. Bollinger promises that the committee "will not investigate anyone's political or scholarly beliefs and will not review departments or curricula." This suggests that if, say, Professor Joseph Massad's "scholarly belief" is that Israel is a racist state that doesn't have a right to exist as a Jewish state, or if another professor, Hamid Dabashi, wants to write about how Israelis have a "bone deep" "vulgarity of character," or if Mr. Khalidi wants to fulminate about how a small group of Jews controls American foreign policy, the committee won't or can't do anything about it.
The thing to remember is that while it may be possible for the president of a university to lose the faculty, it's also possible for a university to lose the support of the community in which it is situated. One doesn't have to write too many news dispatches or editorials about Columbia to start hearing from graduates, trustees, and big givers about how ashamed they are of what is happening at their alma mater. Mr. Bollinger has just written that "Academic freedom is at the center of University life." Well, maybe in the faculty view. But other values are also important, even central. Like, say, truth.
Or excellence. To the extent that this dispute is about freedom, Columbia's leadership may wish to recall that it is a two-way street. The Columbia professors who teach about the Middle East are free to spew their unsubstantiated vitriol. Mr. Bollinger is free to do nothing about it or to truckle to the faculty. But his default may yet force students to turn to those responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws. Or to turn to the trustees for help. And Columbia's funders may explore investing in other universities, including several right here in New York, that put their commitments to truth and excellence at least on a par with their indulgence of faculty freedom.