Last week, I reported that Dean Lisa Anderson at Columbia University had invited Iranian President Ahmadinejad to speak, and that the event was canceled. The reason given at the time by Dean Anderson was "security reasons" but I suspected that it had something to do with the potential tarnishing of Columbia's reputation as well. Now, the New York Sun confirms:
The dean of Columbia's school of international and public affairs, Lisa Anderson, had independently invited Mr. Ahmadinejad to speak at the World Leader's Forum, a year-long program that aims to unite "renowned intellectuals and cultural icons from many nations to examine global challenges and explore cultural perspectives."
In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, Mr. Bollinger said he canceled Mr. Ahmadinejad's invitation because he couldn't be certain it would "reflect the academic values that are the hallmark of a University event such as our World Leaders Forum." He told Ms. Anderson that Mr. Ahmadinejad could speak at the school of international and public affairs, just not as a part of the university-wide leader's forum.
Ms. Anderson's assistant cited an inability to arrange for proper security as the reason for the cancellation.
Mr. Bollinger told Ms. Anderson that while he finds Mr. Ahmadinejad's views "repugnant," she has the "right and responsibility to invite speakers whom she believes will add to the academic experience of our students."
President Bollinger made the right call here. Ahmadinejad is certainly not a "renowned intellectual," and if he is a "cultural icon" it's only because he's the world's most prominent Holocaust denier, America-hater, and, as one critic puts it, "Hitler wannabe." Columbia would have been humiliating itself to have Ahmadinejad speak at this particular forum.
In general, I agree with Alan Dershowitz:
Alan Dershowitz, said universities must either declare that they will serve as open platforms or articulate clear standards regarding who is welcome to speak on their campuses.
"Bollinger should have said that anybody can speak at Columbia period, but he would never say that. This was an educational moment missed by the university to articulate what its standards are," Mr. Dershowitz said.
But in this case, the World Leader's Forum did have standards, and Bollinger was well within his authority in declining to endorse the idea that Ahmadinejad is either a renowned intellectual, or someone whose "cultural perspetives" are worth hearing.
UPDATE: Hmm. The World Leader's Forum website actually speaks of inviting "government leaders," not just intellectuals and cultural icons, so Ahmadinejad was within the purview of the program, and it also looks like Dean Anderson was put in charge of the program. Of course, ultimately the President of a university gets to decide who gets invited by the university to a prestigious lecture series, which is far different than inappropriately intervening with, e.g., who gets invited by student groups, but it turns out Dershowitz was right even in this case; Bollinger made the correct decision that he didn't want Columbia's reputation besmirched by Ahmadinejad, but he did so on an ad hoc basis without articulating standards that apply universally. This makes it look much more like a decision motivated by a desire to avoid bad publicity rather than a principled decision to uphold some academic standards in the relevant program.
Indeed, one has to wonder about the academic content of a program "co-sponsored this year by a variety of on- and off-campus partners, including the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia Business School, the School of the Arts, the Earth Institute, the Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Committee on Global Thought, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Congressman Charles Rangel's office." Sounds less like an academic program, and more like a program to boost Columbia's visibility by brining in famous "movers and shakers." As such, it's not surprising that Bollinger would intervene when the program was to boost Columbia's visibility in an undisreable way.