Columbia University has invited the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to give a speech tomorrow at the Morningside campus, Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, announced late last night.
Mr. Bollinger in a statement said he did not invite the president himself but learned yesterday that his university had extended the invitation to Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly.
It's not certain, however, that the president will attend a world leaders academic summit that is taking place at the school. Because of the short notice, Mr. Bollinger said he couldn't be sure that high-level security arrangements would be put in place in time.
Columbia's offer to the president, a Holocaust denier with nuclear ambitions who was labeled by Israel's foreign minister yesterday as the greatest threat to the world's values, is sure to re-ignite protest at a campus that was rocked by a controversy over its anti-Israel professors less than two years ago.
Columbia's last-minute offer to Mr. Ahmadinejad was evidently made under secrecy and confusion. Last night, Columbia's vice president for public affairs, Susan Brown, denied that the invitation had been extended, saying it was "rumors, rumors, rumors." Mr. Bollinger released a statement about it just before midnight.
Although he said he strongly disagreed with Mr. Ahmadinejad's views, Mr. Bollinger said he would not stop him from speaking at the university's world leaders forum, which began this week and whose top-billed speakers had been the prime ministers of Croatia and Papua New Guinea.
"I happen to find many of President Ahmadinejad's stated beliefs to be repugnant, a view that I'm sure is widely shared within our university community," Mr. Bollinger said. "So whether or not all of the special arrangements needed for such a visit can be made in this unusually short period of time, I have no doubt that Columbia students and faculty would use an open exchange to challenge him sharply and are fully capable of reaching their own conclusions."
The invitation comes a day after Mr. Ahmadinejad told the General Assembly that Israel's creation was "a great tragedy with hardly a precedent in history" and that the Jewish nation "has been a constant source of threat and insecurity in the Middle East region, waging war and spilling blood and impeding the progress of regional countries, and has also been used by some powers as an instrument of division, coercion, and pressure on the people of the region."
Yesterday, the foreign minister of Israel, Tzipi Livni, called on the international community to "stand against" the threat of Iran, whose suspect nuclear program has become a top security concern for President Bush and Israel.
"They speak proudly and openly of their desire to wipe Israel off the map. And now, by their actions, they pursue the weapons to achieve this objective, to imperil the region and to threaten the world," she said.
Asked about the possibility of Mr. Ahmadinejad coming to their campus, Jewish students yesterday said they didn't believe the university would permit it. One student, Shirin Soufian, said she had heard from an Iranian student in the School of International and Public Affairs that Mr. Ahmadinejad would be speaking. Ms. Soufian said she was organizing a protest against the president.
Mr. Bollinger's decision to welcome the president of Iran could once again put the university's president in the hot seat.
In 2005, Mr. Bollinger came under significant criticism from some Jewish students and professors for his handling of allegations by several students against professors in the university's Middle Eastern studies program.
After students made complaints that anti-Israel professors in the department forbade opposing viewpoints in the classroom and were using their teaching position as a platform to preach hatred against Israel, Mr. Bollinger appointed a special committee to investigate the matter. Many faculty members were opposed to the committee and accused the president of squelching their academic freedom.
After interviewing students and faculty members, the committee dismissed most of the complaints but found that one professor, Joseph Massad, had probably acted inappropriately.
He was accused of threatening to expel a student from his class because he thought she was defending Israeli conduct of military strikes at the West Bank and Gaza Strip
Mr. Massad has since been promoted to associate professor.