More MEALC Fallout at Columbia University

More MEALC Fallout at Columbia University

Columbia University spokesperson Susan Brown emphasized to the Indypendent that such behavior by faculty was “absolutely unacceptable,†and noted: “to have somebody in class to spy violates both the spirit and the principles of the classroom environment.†Brown also expressed the hope that new grievance procedures would not only provide avenues for students resolve tensions with faculty but would also help professors deal with “political assaults†from groups outside the university.

Since the MEALAC controversy first erupted in the fall of 2004, several incidents involving faculty members from the University Medical School have become part of the public record. An email sent to Prof. Massad by Medical School professor Moshe Rubin on October 20 read: “go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned get the hell out of America you are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar.â€

When asked why the administration wasn’t investigating Rubin, University Provost Alan Brinkley told the Socialist Worker that while he personally abhorred Rubin’s racism, the e-mail was a “private correspondence,†and was thus outside of the administration’s jurisdiction.

Another Medical School professor, epidemiologist Judith Jacobson, has been vocal in her condemnation of both Massad and the MEALAC curriculum, attacking the make-up of the ad hoc committee and telling the New York Sun that student complaints that led to the formation of the ad hoc committee were "just the tip of the iceberg." In addition to her work in the medical school, Jacobson also serves as Vice-President of the pro-Israel academic group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), and coordinates the organization’s Columbia chapter.

When asked about the reports of faculty spying contained in the ad hoc committee report, Jacobson initially denied that she had any knowledge of the allegations. “I don’t know anything about what was in the committee report,†she told the Indypendent. “I wasn’t aware of any of this until about March or April of 2002. I didn’t even know Professor Massad’s name until the spring.†Later, however, Jacobson did acknowledge that she had met with groups of Massad’s students and asked them to tell her about their experiences in his class. “I thought that the faculty could help students, help them ventilate, and help them deal with these things,†she said. Later, Jacobson admitted that while she “can’t exactly remember what we said to the MEALAC students, we did tell them that were available for the them to bring incidents to and we could talk them over.†When asked if she could support a student who monitored the content of professor’s in-class statements and reported that substance of that content to another professor, her response was blunt: “Why not? What is so bad about that?â€

“The reason this is occurring right now is that the ad hoc committee report is trying to appear balanced,†Jacobson told the Indypendent, “and they are going after people like me who appear to support the students, and the whole reason that we are supporting the students is because of the failure of Columbia’s grievance system.â€

Jonathan Knight, a spokesperson for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), notes that while it might be unusual for a faculty member to ask students to direct concerns that they have to him or her directly, rather than to approach an administrator or department head “its not unusual for students to seek out a faculty member who might be sympathetic to their plight and for the faculty member to request more information about what is going on. It doesn’t sound to me like it was a spying situation.â€

At the same time, however, Knight acknowledges that Massad certainly might “have had a real fear that his remarks were being used against him by organizations outside the university.â€

Indeed, Massad sees a much more sinister designs underlying the meetings between his students and University faculty members. “A student of mine (now at the School of International and Public Affairs), who self-identified as a “Likudnik,†also approached me on campus one day during the Spring 2002 semester,†Massad told the ad hoc committee on March 14. “[He told me] that he and a few other students had been invited to see a female professor at the medical school. He described the meeting as so ‘surreptitious’ and ‘conspiratorial,’ that it felt that they were planning on having me ‘murdered.’ In fact, the plan was to strategize how to get me fired. The student told me that they discussed the option of meeting with a female administrator who worked at the time at the Middle East Institute, to coordinate the plan with her.â€

The ad hoc committee itself wrote that it was “deeply disturbed that faculty were apparently prepared to encourage students to report to them on a fellow-professor's classroom statements. Such behavior undermines the standing of the professoriate as a whole, erodes the relationship of trust that ought to exist between a teacher and his students, and threatens to turn the latter into informers.â€

Columbia spokesperson Susan Brown refused to comment on any specific disciplinary actions taken by the University with regard to the incident, saying only that “if steps were to be taken with regard to that situation, it would be done faculty to faculty, through the normal disciplinary channels, within either the department on the academic unit.â€

The Columbia University Medical School did not return requests for comment.

Chris Anderson is a doctoral student in Communications at Columbia University. He can be reached at cwa2103 (nospam) columbia (dot) edu