Fourteen Columbia professors are protesting the university’s apparent decision to award tenure to Joseph A. Massad, a controversial anti-Israel professor of Arab studies.
The professors are from the schools of law, business and public health. They expressed their concern in a five-page letter to the incoming Provost, Claude M. Steele. The letter asserts that the university’s decision to guarantee Massad a life-time teaching post “appears to have violated” Columbia’s own rules, thus raising profound questions about the university’s academic integrity. The university’s administration, weirdly, still refuses to confirm or deny that Massad won tenure, but yesterday the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department let the cat out of the bag—it announced a beginning-of-term party next week congratulating Massad on gaining tenure.
This week Provost Steele belatedly issued a polite, noncommittal response. In a four-paragraph “Dear Colleagues” letter to the fourteen professors, Steele, a former Stanford psychologist, says he would “welcome” a meeting to discuss their concerns. After he learns more about Columbia’s tenure process, Steele writes, he may “want to make some changes in our procedures.” But nowhere does he state that Massad has, in fact, been awarded tenure. Nor does he acknowledge that the professors raise deeply troubling concerns, that if true, go to the heart of what many regard as the core of a university’s integrity.
The exchange of letters is the latest chapter in a long controversy over Joseph Massad’s activities and status at Columbia, a tumult that has been intensified by Columbia’s stubborn insistence on total secrecy. In the name of safeguarding its academic independence, Columbia’s administration has declined to answer most questions about Massad’s nomination for tenure from the public, or even its own faculty.
Nevertheless, Provost Steele’s willingness to give the concerned professors a hearing suggests that the controversy is likely to continue, at least for a while. For underlying the professors’ procedural concerns about the tenure award is not only their objection to adding yet another stridently anti-Israeli voice to Columbia’s lopsidedly pro-Arab Middle Eastern studies department, but also dismay about their administration’s abject unwillingness to reject a tenure candidate whose academic record is notably thin. Still, Massad has managed to turn himself into what his critics call a poster boy for academic freedom on campus.
Assertions that Massad, rejected for tenure in 2007, had belatedly been granted tenure in a rare second review, were initially reported last spring by Martin Kramer, an Israeli-American scholar on his blog, Sandbox, and in June by reporter Jacob Gershman in an article in the New York Post. Gershman also reported that Columbia President Lee Bollinger and then Provost Alan Brinkley, fearing an outcry from Jewish alumni and donors, had taken “extraordinary measures” to keep the tenure review secret. Finally, Gershman, who has reported critically about Massad for many years, alleges that the trustees rubberstamped the tenure award, though questions they were reported to have raised about the tenure process went unanswered.
In separate interviews, four trustees, all but one of whom declined to be quoted for this article, denied that they had been stonewalled on facts relating to Massad’s review. Stephen Case, a trustee and a major donor to the university, said that university procedures had not been violated. The secrecy, he said, was essential to safeguarding academic independence. “A university is the one place in America where people can say what they think without fearing for their jobs,” he said.
Columbia had followed what Case called a “business judgment rule,” that is, assuming that “what goes on inside the board room is ok unless someone produces proof that the process was tainted or negligent.” He had no reason to believe that Massad’s review had been tainted, he said.
Mark Kingdon, another trustee, responded in an email that he and others on the 24-member board had been “instructed not to speak to the press” about the case.
David Stone and Robert Hornsby, spokesmen for the university, declined repeated requests for specific information about the Massad review or the history of tensions between Jewish faculty and students with respect to its Middle Eastern studies department. Neither President Bollinger nor then Provost Alan Brinkley would grant an interview to discuss, more broadly, the university’s controversial invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other actions that were widely criticized and that antagonized in particular many Jews among Columbia’s faculty and students. Bollinger’s office turned down an interview request in July, pleading an overly full calendar.
Provost Steele also declined to comment on his letter. No university official or spokesman would address the university’s tenure process in general. Instead, they referred this reporter to the university’s Faculty Handbook which discusses its tenure rules and procedures and also to articles about tenure and the Massad affair in the Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper.
Massad did not respond to email and telephone requests for an interview over the summer. Friends said he was overseas. A 45-year-old Christian secularist of Palestinian descent, Massad has been the subject of intense debate about both his teaching style and the quality of his academic research for several years. He has long argued in his scholarly and journalistic work that Israel is a “racist Jewish state” and a “colonial settlement” whose “ultimate achievement” is the “transformation of the Jew into the anti-Semite, and the Palestinian into the Jew.” In Desiring Arabs, the book described by colleagues and friends as his most important work, he also portrays gay activists, whom he calls the “Gay International” as part of an insidious Western hegemonic plot to undermine Arab culture.
In 2004, he was accused of having intimidated and bullied students who disagreed with his views, in particular, his alleged comparison of Israelis to Nazis and his charge that American Jews exercised an undue, unhealthy influence on American foreign policy. Deena Shanker, then a student, accused him of having threatened to eject her from his class two years earlier after she had asked him if Israeli soldiers warned civilians to leave before bombing their houses. Massad said he did not remember Shanker, and in an interview with The New York Times, said he had never asked any student to leave a class. “I never lose my cool. I make it my business not to,” he told the author of a sympathetic profile of him.
Later that year, however, an academic panel convened to examine such allegations concluded that Ms. Shanker’s charge was “credible.” While the panel found no evidence that Massad had made anti-Semitic statements in class, it nonetheless concluded that he had “exceeded commonly accepted bounds” of academic conduct by failing “to show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from his own.”
In a lengthy response to the committee’s report posted on his Columbia web site, Massad said that the panel’s review suffered from “major logical flaws, undefended conclusions, inconsistencies, and clear bias in favor of the witch-hunt that has targeted me for over three years.” He did not recognize the panel’s “legitimacy,” he wrote, calling the panel “an instrument in the ongoing campaign to suppress academic freedom on the campus.”
Finally, Massad said that Columbia Unbecoming, a polemical film by a pro-Israeli group documenting what it alleged was anti-Israeli sentiment among professors on campus, which featured him, had lied in claiming that he had equated Israel with Nazi Germany. Calling the allegation “abhorrent,” he wrote, he had “never made such a reprehensible equation.”
In their letter, however, the professors cite in a footnote an article by Massad posted on the “Electronic Intifadah,” in January, 2009, entitled “The Gaza Ghetto Uprising.” In the article, they note, Massad likens Israel’s military operation in Gaza to the Nazi crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto. Equally critical of the Palestinian Authority that works with Israel, Massad likens Palestinian chief Mahoud Abbass to a Nazi collaborator and proposes that he salvage his honor by committing suicide.
The letter to Provost Steele, however, does not dwell on alleged shortcomings in Massad’s academic resume. Rather, it focuses on alleged violations of Columbia’s own procedures in having granted Massad tenure. They note, for instance, that Columbia’s rules say that only in “rare instances” should candidates be reconsidered for tenure after having failed their initial review, and that such a review should occur only when there is “evidence of substantial scholarly growth.” But in Massad’s case, they argue, such evidence is lacking, since the manuscript that became Desiring Arabs “must have been part of the original record considered by the first ad hoc” tenure committee. They also argue that Massad may have “misrepresented the status of his work in 2005” by stating that Harvard University Press had agreed to publish it, whereas the book was published by Chicago University Press. (In the preface to his book, Massad explains that he switched publishers after realizing that Harvard and he “had differing visions for the book” and “parted ways.”)
Based on Gershman’s allegations in the New York Post, they also question why the professor who led the first unsuccessful review of Massad’s tenure had “refused to serve again,” why Columbia’s trustees were denied a list of the members of the two review committees, and why the trustees were given a set of “helpful facts” about the university’s Jewish student center after they supposedly requested information about the unusual second review.
Another concern is that the university may have violated its de facto “up-or-out” rule by permitting Massad to teach for an additional year beyond what should have been his last teaching year in 2007-2008.
The professors warn that if such irregularities are true and “not unique to this case,” they write, “they may return to haunt us in the years to come.” Professor Massad’s review is “history,” they say, appearing to concede that it is unlikely that Columbia will revisit or reverse Massad’s tenure decision, “but new faculty come up for review every year.”
In Jewish circles, Columbia’s department of Middle East studies, known as MEALAC, or Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture, has long been seen as Martin Peretz, of The New Republic called it, “a center of anti-Israeli ideology” and “politically inbred.”
Awi Federgruen, a tenured professor of management at Columbia’s Graduate School of Business who helped spearhead the protest, noted that although the list of signers represents a wide range of professional schools at Columbia, not one of them comes from MEALAC. “Nobody in the arts and sciences was willing to sign on,” he said in an interview.
In his book, Massad boasts of his intellectual kinship with another key critic of Israel and Zionism who was long a Columbia fixture – the late Edward Said, a tenured professor of English whose savage critiques of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians made him revered by Arabs and detested by Israelis and their Jewish supporters. Massad describes Said, who died in 2003, as his mentor, friend, colleague and “surrogate father.”
Writing in his blog, Sandbox, Martin Kramer denounced Massad as a “thoroughly Columbia creation.” “Columbia gave him his doctorate. Columbia University Press published it, and Columbia gave him his tenure-track job.” Massad himelf recognized, Kramer added, that Columbia couldn’t disown him without somehow disowning itself.”
Columbia has long struggled to balance its famously pro-Palestinian Middle Eastern studies department with the city’s and its own substantial Jewish population and donor base. Tensions soared in 2007 when President Bollinger permitted Iranian President Ahmadinejad to deliver a speech at Columbia in which the Iranian asserted that there were no homosexuals in Iran. Bollinger was widely criticized for permitting the visit, and then insulting the Iranian leader in his introductory remarks.
Several of those who signed the letter said they were not optimistic that Steele would in fact change any of Columbia’s tenure procedures. Judith S. Jacobson, of the Mailman School of Public Health, said she feared that while he might use the meeting simply to defuse tension rather than to address the internal problems that in her view had permitted someone with Massad’s slight academic credentials to be granted tenure.
The university clearly fears that incidents like this may adversely affect fund-raising. Herbert London, class of 1960 and the president of the Hudson Institute, and Geoffrey Thompson, class of 1963, who has also generously supported the university, told The New York Post in July that the Massad affair would prompt many Jewish donors to reconsider their giving. Despite declining interviews about his tenure review and other sources of friction with its Jewish donors, Columbia’s spokesmen were quick to deny any effect on fundraising. “Despite the economic environment of the past year,” a statement they gave me asserts, “Columbia continues to be ahead of pace” in its $4 billion campaign. “Generous alumni and friends” have already contributed $3.2 billion, and the university has maintained its triple-A bond ratings “when some others have not,” the statement says.
Odds are that the controversy over Massad will not end any time soon.