Professor calls academic freedom into question

By Associate Editor

Anthony Soave
Iymen Chehade, an adjunct professor in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department,  spoke to students, staff and supporters at a March 20 forum on academic freedom in the Conaway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. One of Chehade’s sections of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict was cancelled in November, which recently sparked national attention and campus controversy.

To adjunct history professor Iymen Chehade, reducing the number of sections of his course “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” from two to one was an attempt by Columbia’s administration to silence him, violating his academic freedom.

To Steven Corey, chair of the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department, the cancellation was prompted by the college’s falling enrollment.

The dispute, which began quietly in November during registration for the spring 2014 semester, has mushroomed into a struggle that has gained national attention. Public support of Chehade has led to a petition and a March 20 forum on academic freedom. The college denies Chehade’s claim that he was being punished after a student complaint about a class viewing of “5 Broken Cameras,” an award-winning documentary that follows a Palestinian filmmaker as he deals with Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank.

Chehade filed a grievance with the college in early March, which led to the creation of the petition  that calls for a reinstatement of Chehade’s second section of the course for the fall 2014 semester. The petition has drawn international support, with more than 5,000 signatures as of press time.

Chehade said he was offered a contract for the 2014 spring semester to teach two classes a week before the cancellation happened.

When registration went live for students in November 2013, one section was canceled hours after it had been posted. Chehade said the college canceled the section because the administration buckled under pressure from a student who disagreed with the content of the course and his showing of “5 Broken Cameras.”

Chehade, who has taught two or more sections of “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” every semester since 2010, said the removal of the section is a violation of his right to academic freedom as an instructor.

“I think the college decided to [cancel] it because some students may have issues with the content, such as the case with the student that alleges showing ‘5 Broken Cameras’ was biased,” Chehade said. “The college decided to acquiesce to those complaints that have occurred over the years.”

In 2011, Chehade said he faced similar criticism for his use of the film when eight students complained to the department that his class was one-sided. Chehade said the complaints have more to do with students’ personal beliefs than the content of his course.

“I was targeted because there are people who have problems with bringing this issue to light,” Chehade said. “There is a Palestinian perspective. The class has been given an opportunity to look at multiple perspectives. It’s an open forum for people to garner their perspective on issues and come to their own conclusions.”

Corey denies that the cancellation was related to the content of Chehade’s class and that he ordered Chehade to offer a more balanced course. Corey said a student complained about the content of the course, but he explained to the student that Chehade’s class was

not slanted. Corey said he and Chehade had a discussion about the idea of balance, but that he gave no directive to Chehade that would have required him to teach his class in a specific way. Corey said he respects Chehade’s right to academic freedom.

“I never ordered him to be balanced [when he teaches],” Corey said. “I don’t know where [that accusation] comes from. There is no requirement that the course has to be balanced but rather include multiple perspectives, which is the common approach in teaching.”

Corey said the second section of the course was canceled along with an undisclosed number of other classes in the department and Chehade was offered a second class in accordance with the new bargaining agreement negotiated by Columbia’s part-time faculty union. The contract outlines a new  system for assigning adjunct professors to classes, which is still being perfected, according to Corey. Chehade turned down the second course he was offered, Corey said.

“The point of the collective bargaining agreement is to ensure that he receives a certain number of courses,” Corey said. “My responsibility was to offer him a second class, which I did.”

Corey said he offered Chehade a class titled “Middle Eastern History: To Muhammad.” Chehade said he declined to teach the second course because it was not the Israeli-Palestinian course. He said the Middle Eastern history course had only two students registered and he had never taught it before, which would have required him to spend substantial time building the curriculum.

“It’s important to highlight the violation of academic freedom by specifically targeting the course and removing it and instead giving me a course I had never taught before,” Chehade said. “I don’t understand the logic behind that. Specifically targeting the Israeli-Palestinian course is something that I, of course, objected to.”

Chehade said it is rare for classes to be cut after having been posted on Oasis, and the only section of “The Israel-Palestinian Conflict” course that was offered filled within three days.

“If it is about student interest, which is one of the reasons you’re supposed to give out classes to people, based on student interest, then why would you give me a class that no one seems to be interested [in]?” Chehade said.

Corey said he determines how many courses and how many sections of those courses will be offered based on the semester’s total projected enrollment.

He said a lot of the courses in his department, like “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” are non-major courses, which also factors into whether there will be multiple sections of a class.

“As a chair, it is irresponsible for me to offer the same number of general education courses as we did a few years ago when we had more students on campus,” Corey said. “The number of courses being offered in my department reflects the overall enrollment of the college.”

Deborah Holdstein, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, affirmed Corey’s statements and cited a college-wide directive given by the Office of the Provost to reduce the number of sections of courses.

“It’s unnecessary to have too many sections of one particular class,” Holdstein said. “Chehade’s class was one of many that were reduced. For him to say that there is retribution because of the film is untrue.”

Louise Love, interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, released a statement March 12 emphasizing the college’s support of Chehade’s right to academic freedom. Love wrote that no department was exempt from reductions.

Love said in her statement. “Reductions are not made to alter a specific academic field of study or political perspective,” Love said in her statement. “And, indeed, no course on campus is immune from being offered at a reduced frequency from past semesters.”

Holdstein said the college has no issue with Chehade’s use of the film and pointed out that the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the HHSS Department sponsored a screening of “5 Broken Cameras” in spring 2013.

“Why would we have an objection to that film if we sponsored it?” Holdstein said. “Academic freedom is a very important concept and Professor Chehade has enjoyed academic freedom just as everybody else does at the college.”

Chehade’s claims have drawn support from both students and his union. Diana Vallera, P-Fac president and adjunct professor of photography, said the union is aiding Chehade in his pursuit to reinstate a second section of the Israeli-Palestinian course.

“[Academic freedom] is an extremely important issue that needs to be discussed,” Vallera said. ”We fought very hard to make sure we had solid academic freedom in our contract. Academic freedom is something that we want to … not only for full-time faculty but part-time as well.”

Vallera said the college and P-Fac will ideally solve issues quickly and amicably, particularly given the new administration, but if a compromise cannot be reached, the union may seek mediation.

“We’ll have to sit down and review what our next steps will be,” Vallera said. “Chehade has his own options he can pursue, but P-Fac would then decide if we wanted to send it to an arbitrator.”

Ava Ginsburg, a senior cinema art + science major and president of the college’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine/Jewish Voices for Peace, is a co-author of the petition on and one of Chehade’s former students. She said the human rights issues of Palestine does not receive enough attention on college campuses.

“I don’t understand why the college would cancel a section of the class since it is so popular,” Ginsburg said. “I don’t think retaliating and canceling one of his classes is professional. He’s entitled to both sections of his class and should be able to teach what he wants to.”

Ginsburg spoke at the March 20 forum on academic freedom at the Conaway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. She said the class gave her the historical context of the conflict and it inspired her to pursue a career documentary filmmaking.

“I have a right to be exposed to the Palestinian perspective,” Ginsburg said. “Is making one student uncomfortable enough to cancel a class?”

Chehade also spoke at the forum. He explained that Love denied his grievance and accused her of being biased, prompting applause from the audience.

“Louise Love shouldn’t be let within 1,000 miles of an academic institution,” Chehade said. “To present this conflict as balanced would be a lie and I don’t do that.”

Chehade said he will not stop the petition until the second section of his class is reinstated.

He said he hopes the petition and attention that the college has received for the issue will restore the second section before registration for the fall 2014 semester beginsin April.

“My objective had been to solve this internally, but the college has not wanted to,” Chehade said. “That’s why we’re taking initiative now.”