On behalf of the Campaign to Respect Academic Freedom at Columbia College: Palestine is No Exception

By Letter to the Editor, by Iymen Chehade

This letter was sent by Iymen Chehade to The Chronicle on behalf of the Campaign to Respect Academic Freedom at Columbia College: Palestine is No Exception.

Columbia College Interim Provost Louise Love has issued a form letter in response to the growing campaign for academic freedom at Columbia. The campaign was prompted by Columbia’s retaliation against instructor Iymen Chehade after a student complained to Humanities, History and Social Sciences (HHSS) Department Chair Steven Corey that Chehade’s screening of the film “5 Broken Cameras” demonstrated that Chehade’s class on the Israel/Palestine conflict is “biased.”

Columbia’s letter trumpets its support for academic freedom and the “strong and continuous support” Chehade has received from Corey for “using this important film” in his class.

But the measure of an institution’s commitment to academic freedom is not the statements it makes about itself, but the actions it takes. So let’s review the facts.

1. After the student complained last fall to Corey about Chehade’s screening of “5 Broken Cameras,” Corey met with Chehade and instructed him to teach the class in a “more balanced” way. Corey also asked Chehade to provide proof of his qualification to teach. If Corey supported Chehade, he would handle a frivolous complaint of “bias” without lecturing Chehade about being “more balanced.”

2. Days after Corey’s meeting with Chehade, course offerings were posted for the spring semester. Chehade had been offered and had signed a contract to teach two classes in the spring, but within hours of posting the course offerings, Columbia removed one of Chehade’s two classes. Columbia defends this as part of its effort to “increase average class sizes” (this is one of the many and changing justifications it has given). The dubious goal of larger and more impersonal classes aside, the fact is that it is highly unusual for Columbia to remove posted classes until after the passage of a few weeks, not a few hours. What’s more, Chehade’s classes regularly exceed average class sizes for the rest of the college as well as average course evaluation ratings for the rest of the university.

3. This is not the first time that Chehade has had to defend himself from such baseless claims, and the fact that the university has continued to entertain these accusations is evidence of a pattern not of support, but of repeated buckling in the face of challenges to Chehade’s academic freedom. In fall 2011, for example, eight students from three different sections of Chehade’s course, some of them members of Jewish group Hillel, signed a petition also making the charge of “bias” against Chehade. In a follow-up meeting between the students, Chehade and some Columbia College administrators, the students cited as examples of Chehade’s bias that he referred to the West Bank and Gaza as the “Occupied Territories” (they preferred the term “Disputed Territories,” despite their status as occupied territory under international law) and that he used the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe how Israel drove some 750,000 Palestinians from their land and homes through violence, intimidation and terror. Dozens of students circulated and signed a petition in Chehade’s defense.

4. Columbia’s statement of “support” for Chehade’s use of the film “5 Broken Cameras” says nothing to refute the baseless claim of “bias” against Chehade, nor does it retract Corey’s directive that Chehade teach his course in a “more balanced” manner.

So let’s consider the following scenario: Imagine that an African-American professor is teaching a course in American history. During the week on civil rights, the professor screens the acclaimed documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” and a white student becomes “uncomfortable” and goes to the chair to complain about the professor’s “bias.” The chair summons the professor and instructs him to teach in a “more balanced” way, and a few days later, cuts one of the two courses the professor was scheduled to teach the following semester.

Is this a sign of the university’s support for the professor’s academic freedom? Or is it yet another example of Columbia College caving in to a student’s personal views about the content of an instructor’s course?

5. Finally, if Columbia is as steadfast as it asserts in its commitment to academic freedom, why would it ever have put Louise Love in charge of such matters in the first place?

In 2005, as associate provost of Roosevelt University, she defended a department chair who fired adjunct professor Douglas Giles because in his World Religions class, Giles refused to bar students from discussing Zionism, Islamic beliefs about Jerusalem and the Palestinian question. Giles’ account of his outrageous treatment by Roosevelt describes how Love characterized the chair as “defending her position passionately” when the chair referred to Palestinians as “animals” and “not civilized.”

In conclusion, we note the words of Columbia student Alex Kim, who signed the petition in defense of Chehade: “As current and future media authors, we Columbia students need an HHSS Department fully capable of giving us sufficient opportunities to explore diverse art and media, which represent a wide array of the realities and possibilities of human experience. The Israeli government’s narrative is already privileged in comparison to those of its stateless Palestinian subjects. To dictate that Professor Chehade give a supposedly more ‘balanced’ perspective in his course is a chilling demand, and undermines academic freedom at our College. There exists a strong demand from the student body for Professor Chehade’s course, and to reduce its availability damages the mission of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the department of HHSS, and the college as a whole.”

Academic freedom is a bedrock principle that a university either supports in a consistent manner or ends up using its own set of biased criteria for when and how to defend it. Columbia College needs to decide what kind of university it wants to be.