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2005-04-06

Columbia U. Prof. Rashid Khalidi: "Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom Are Necessary For Unpopular and Difficult Ideas"

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After months of closed-door hearings a, faculty committee at Columbia University released a report that largely cleared professors of Middle Eastern studies of charges that they were intimidating students and stated that there was no evidence of anti-Semitism. We hear professor Rashid Khalidi speaking at a teach-in on academic freedom. [includes rush transcript]

Another debate about academic freedom has been playing out at New York’s Columbia University. After months of closed-door hearings, last week a faculty committee at Columbia released a report that largely cleared professors of Middle Eastern studies of charges that they were intimidating students and stated that there was no evidence of anti-Semitism at the school. However, the panel did criticize Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history, saying that he told a student to leave his class after she defended Israel’s conduct toward Palestinians. Professor Massad denies the charge.

On Monday night, a teach-in addressing academic freedom was held at Columbia.

  • Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies and the Director of the Middle East Institute, speaking at Columbia University, April 4, 2005.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to turn now to a professor at Columbia University, who gave a speech this week, a debate about academic freedom being played out at Columbia University. After months of closed door hearings, a faculty committee at Columbia released a report that largely cleared professors of Middle Eastern studies of charges they were intimidating students and stated there was no evidence of anti-Semitism at the school. However, the panel did criticize Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history, saying he told a student to leave his class after she defended Israel’s conduct toward Palestinians. Professor Massad denies the charge. There was a teach-in on Monday night at Columbia around the issue of academic freedom. I want to thank our two guests for joining us, State Representative Dennis Baxley, a republican Florida State Rep, and Professor Roy Weatherford, Professor of Philosophy at University of South Florida. As we turn now to Rashid Khalidi, who gave a speech at this teach-in. He’s professor of Arab Studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.

PROF. RASHID KHALIDI: Why are academic freedom and freedom of speech necessary? They’re not necessary to defend conventional popular ideas. You don’t need freedom of speech to defend ideas that everybody agrees with. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are particularly necessary for unpopular and difficult ideas, for unconventional ideas, for ideas that challenge reigning orthodoxy. Academic freedom is important, secondly, because it’s necessary to push the frontiers of knowledge forward. That in turn requires protection. That in turn requires support. Pushing the boundaries, pushing at what is accepted, requires the kind of support that academic freedom gives us.

Now, that kind of support doesn’t only come from universities. There are other institutions in society that sometimes give that support. I’m reminded of some of the American foundations in the 1970s and 1980s which gave their support to new and at that time radical thinking about South Africa and about apartheid and played a role which at the time was unpopular, which at the time went counter to government policy, but which was absolutely vital in breaking a false, immoral consensus that reigned in this land, the consensus that the Reagan administration had foisted on this country of constructive engagement with a racist apartheid regime in South Africa. The foundations very courageously did something in the 1970s and 1980s, something that I would suggest they’re not doing in some other areas today, which in turn provided vital support for efforts to push the boundaries.

A third reason that academic freedom is necessary is because it serves to protect precisely the most vulnerable people in academia: junior faculty, people who do not have the protection of tenure. Now, I should say, as someone who happens to have tenure, that unfortunately, this is not a protection that all of those who have it use as often as they should. Tenure should be something that we value, we appreciate, should be something that spurs us to do more, should be something that spurs us to push the boundaries. But for those who don’t have it, academic freedom is absolutely vital, as we heard from the last speaker. It’s not a coincidence that our junior colleagues have been the ones targeted in this filthy campaign by the gutter press and by its allies out in the world.

Because of its value, in all of these spheres, it’s absolutely vital to defend academic freedom. This is something that’s valuable to all of us. It’s valuable to students, it’s valuable to the faculty, it’s valuable to society as a whole. If students were coming to be told ideas that they arrived at university with, they would be getting nothing of value here. If they were not to be challenged, if they were not to be forced to rethink the things that they come here as 18-year-olds or 22-year-olds or 25-year-olds with, what in heaven’s name would be the point of the university? What would in heaven’s name would be the point of teaching? We would just come here with monolithic conventional ideas, and we would leave here with the same monolithic conventional ideas. This is why academic freedom is absolutely vital. It’s not just vital to us, the academics. It’s vital to everybody in this society and it is something which has to be defended not just by academics, but also by students. It’s too valuable to be left to politicians, and heaven knows, it’s too valuable to be left to administrators.

Now, what is the current environment in which the so-called crisis at Columbia has developed? And I agree fully with one of the previous speakers, this is an utterly artificial crisis created from without the university for purposes that are, in fact, much larger than the university. The first element of this larger environment is a campaign that is nationwide in scope, against the autonomy of the universities in the broadest sense. It’s a campaign taking place in state legislatures. It’s a campaign taking place in the columns of newspapers. It’s a campaign which argues that there must be balance in universities. It’s a campaign that based on an utterly spurious argument that the universities are strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that they were strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that the medical schools and the pharmaceutical schools were challenging the stranglehold of industrial medicine, of the industrial pharmaceutical industry. Would that agriculture schools — would that agriculture schools or business schools were challenging the reigning orthodoxies. Would that economics departments, would that engineering schools, would that schools of international affairs were vigorously challenging the reigning orthodoxies in their fields. Would — I could go on and on and on. We should challenge these ludicrous assertions, which are permeating not just the columns of the right wing press, but which we find before important state legislatures today.

The second element in this current environment is swift boat-style attacks on individuals, who are typed and framed as out-liars by right wing political campaigns, which then are picked up by their allies and buddies and friends in the media and in the political class. We have seen this with Ward Churchill, we have seen this with our colleague Joseph Massad, we have seen it again and again and again over the past several years. Finally, we have campaigns around specific issues. I have already talked about the campaign against the liberal academy, and I have already suggested how utterly false the basis of that campaign is. We have a campaign against what are called unpatriotic faculty. Now, the last time I checked, most Americans were against this war, but by the rhetoric of those who would call the majority of Americans who are unpatriotic, those faculty members who have spoken out against this war, that war, our war, America’s war in Iraq, are unpatriotic, so the majority of us are unpatriotic. And the minority that supports this policy are presumably the patriots and can say what they want about us, the majority.

AMY GOODMAN: Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi, speaking at Columbia at a teach-in on Monday night.

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