November 3, 2003

Khalidi's move to Columbia raises diversity questions

As a fellow U of C student, I can empathize with the difficulties Tim Michaels faces trying to write a comprehensive, informative, and engaging article about the recent departure of Rashid Khalidi while coping with classes and midterms ("University Scrambles to Replace Khalidi," 10/20/03). But I still feel his article falls far short of covering the debate around Khalidi and his new position.

Michaels' assertion that "Khalidi's views, while controversial at times, were popular in the media, and his outspoken presence expanded the University's public profile" could also apply to Leopold and Loeb. "Popular" and "expanded the University's public profile" merely mean that Khalidi's pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli speeches were covered widely in the news. That these are positives is something Michaels implies but doesn't substantiate in his article. I question the Hollywood axiom that there's no such thing as bad coverage.

But we certainly learn that the quoted Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) faculty support Khalidi without qualification, or at least none that they'd care to express to Michaels. That they do so under the guise of contributing to debate could apply equally well to any opinion no matter how reprehensible, like Thabo Mbeki's views on AIDS. Perhaps any opinion is beneficial at the U of C, so long as it causes controversy and fosters debate. That would seem to be law lecturer Susan Gzesh's point, however true debate would require a forum where divergent points of view are analyzed, supported by evidence, and the merits of each weighed. Such a process would presumably discredit someone like Mbeki at the U of C, but I have my doubts. Perhaps Khalidi's views don't lead to debate and instead lead to polarization or even serve to create a hostile environment for those who end up on the wrong side of the issue and must work or study under a professor on the other side. Debate is healthy in academia, but polarization is anathema. This appears to be political science professor Charles Lipson's point in his quote calling attention to the issue of faculty's views potentially creating a climate of fear where alternative viewpoints may be excluded. Ironically, it is unclear if Lipson meant excluding Khalidi's views or those of his opponents. Of course that raises the question of whether there is a dearth of professors who share Khalidi's views in NELC and the U of C. It certainly would not appear so from Michaels' article.

Clearly Michaels has read www.campuswatch.org; after all, he cites their negative rating of Khalidi in the article. But it appears he neglected to read the article covering Khalidi's assumption of the Edward Said Professorship at Columbia, which ironically is right below a link to his article in the Maroon (www.campus-watch.org/survey.php/id/22). If he had read the Frontpage Magazine article, he would have at least been aware of the controversial aspects of the appointment: 1) The lack of a divergent opinion in Columbia's Middle Eastern Languages and Civilizations (MELAC) department and the likelihood of Khalidi's arrival suppressing, not encouraging debate. 2) The absence of an open hiring process for Said's former position, despite the fact that every full-time MELAC faculty member and the dean responsible for the hiring were admirers and supporters of Khalidi and his views. 3) The possibility that the donors who pay millions to support Khalidi's new chairmanship may include foreign governments as well as charitable arms of Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the possibility that these donors may in effect have purchased Khalidi because his views match their own. That the Middle East Institute, which Khalidi chairs, also receives $900,000 from U.S. taxpayers further complicates the issue. 4) Finally, the lack of accountability for appointments. The issue of whether they further diversity and probing debate, or further unbalance a department is not taken up in Michaels' article.

The final quote from Joseph Dorman addresses this obvious concern with diversity, however, it reads to me like a product disclaimer¬ósomething readers wink at because they know it's only there to avoid lawsuits. "Our department's role remains, I trust, one of encouraging informed discourse and independent thinking among students and faculty, and to the extent that strong-willed individuals often serve as catalysts for controversial subjects, I believe we will miss Rashid very much indeed." Again this limp praise for Khalidi's role is applicable to virtually any polarizing figure. Wouldn't Osama Bin Laden also represent a strong-willed individual who serves as a catalyst for controversial subjects? Of course he would, but I sure wouldn't want to take a class from him.

I have deliberately avoided another recitation of Khalidi's anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian views as he's expressed them publicly. The point is not that he has these views, which is all his defenders seem to be focusing on, but why his appointment to a department where everyone holds these views furthers debate. That our own U of C professors immediately employ this same argument in defense of Khalidi makes it relevant here as well, especially since the lack of such diversity in NELC at the U of C has received similar criticism. Lipson makes a strong case for the importance of a diversity of scholarly opinion and the need for probing debates on controversial issues, so why aren't the presence or absence of such diversity and debate themselves the main issues here? It's a cop-out to focus the argument on the merits of campuswatch.org's mission or how one feels about Khalidi. The real argument is whether Khalidi really served the beneficial role that all such controversial academics supposedly serve; that of creating a diversity of opinion within their departments, fostering probing debates that further academic understanding of an issue and acting as catalysts for that debate to occur at all. Further, if Khalidi performed this service here, was it really beneficial and to what degree if any does the controversial nature of an academic or department's views detract from the values of a university? Michaels had a tough subject to cover in one article, and he did an admirable job, but there's a lot more to say on this topic and the article does not begin to go far enough. There's no more important topic in academia than the issue of diversity of opinion and debate¬ócornerstones of U of C values-yet they are barely raised in the article. Especially considering that the article was focused on the need to fill Khalidi's position, what better time to consider exactly these questions. These are issues the Maroon has taken on before, notably last year's commentary on politicizing the classroom and faculty ideologies centering on Khalidi and the faculty furor over campuswatch.org. How about a return to this debate now that Khalidi has left and we've had a year to consider the issue?