Last September, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger withdrew Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s invitation to speak at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, overruling the dean in charge of the program. It was the right call, but this year Bollinger has reversed course and decided to allow Ahmadinejad to speak at the forum. Columbia students should show the judgment and decency Bollinger lacks by boycotting the event.
Bollinger’s ill-advised reversal raises the question: What’s changed? Well, since last September, Ahmadinejad has ramped up his crackdown on Iranian universities, purging them of professors who have spoken out against his regime; he has convened a conference of Holocaust deniers dressed up as a scholarly inquiry; he has repeatedly defied calls to suspend Iran’s nuclear program; and he has sponsored proxy wars against Israel in Lebanon and U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, not much.
So what’s behind Bollinger’s change of heart? Evidently this year he secured a guarantee that Ahmadinejad would submit to “a series of sharp challenges” from Bollinger himself, on issues ranging from Holocaust denial to support for terrorism. Bollinger stated that allowing Ahmadinejad to speak at the forum is an essential part of Columbia’s commitment to free speech.
In fact, we know how Ahmadinejad will answer the questions Bollinger plans to ask; he has not been shy when it comes to granting interviews to Western reporters such as Mike Wallace, Anderson Cooper, and, most recently, Scott Pelley of CBS News. Ahmadinejad proved himself fully capable of lying his way through their “sharp challenges,” and he will probably find Bollinger an even less intimidating interlocutor. Ahmadinejad has had plenty of chances to speak freely to Western audiences — and to have his positions challenged — but never have his repugnant viewpoints been given the legitimacy that comes with a speaking slot at a prestigious university.
Nor has Bollinger traditionally demonstrated a commitment to freedom of speech that might allow us to take him at his word. As dean of the University of Michigan Law School, he had a golden opportunity to take a stand for free speech when that school enacted one of the nation’s most draconian speech codes (later struck down as unconstitutional). According to people involved in the fight, Bollinger remained on the sidelines, coming out against the speech code only after the battle had already been won.
Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Rather, it is one more capitulation in series of victories for anti-Israel sentiment at the university. Columbia has long had problems with professors’ intimidating students who disagree with them about Israel’s right to exist, and its Middle East–studies department is a hotbed of anti-Israel hysteria. The sad reality is that there isn’t much daylight between Ahmadinejad’s positions on the legitimacy of the founding of Israel and those of Columbia professors Joseph Massad and Gil Anidjar.
The members of Columbia’s board of trustees bear as much guilt as Bollinger for providing a platform for Ahmadinejad’s views; so far none of them has called for his invitation to be withdrawn, and the board’s chairman has defended Bollinger’s decision. With the school’s administrators demonstrating such a deficiency of leadership, the responsibility for standing up to Iran’s thuggish ruler falls on the university’s students, dozens of whom are planning to protest Ahmadinejad’s speech on Monday afternoon.
Ahmadinejad’s visit provides an opportunity for non-protesting students to do the right thing too. They are adults, and should be mature enough not to attend this disgraceful spectacle. Iran’s president is directly responsible for the deaths of Americans in Iraq. The young men and women of Morningside Heights aren’t being asked to risk their lives for their country, but they should be expected to stand in solidarity with those who bravely do.