In late November, Columbia University’s Student Council voted to put the question of whether to recommend that the university divest “from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians” to a full vote of the undergraduate student body. It was the third time that the council considered a divestment referendum in four years (the previous attempts having failed). Raise the topic with an engaged Columbia student, and you will probably learn that few issues have so roiled the campus in recent years.
President Lee Bollinger has long distinguished himself for his vigorous protection of campus freedom of expression. After Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs invited former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to campus in 2007, President Bollinger withstood immense public pressure to cancel the lecture. He resisted that expedient, and instead exercised his own freedom of speech to critique Ahmadinejad’s most outlandish claims, like his assertion that the Holocaust is a hoax. In a statement to the campus, Bollinger explained that Columbia “is committed to confronting ideas—to understand the world as it is and as it might be. . . . Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most or even all of us will find offensive and even odious.” But he gave fair warning, days before the event, “to be sure the Iranians understood that I would myself introduce the event with a series of sharp challenges to the president.” And “sharp” was an understatement. “Devastating” would have been more accurate. That, after all, is the point of a collegiate education: to help young people to mature—in mind and character—by exposing them to a diversity of viewpoints, in a relentless pursuit of the truth.
This week, President Bollinger released a statement on the upcoming referendum. Noting rising anti-Semitism in the country, he explained why he opposes the divestment proposal. Lively debate on contentious subjects is the lifeblood of the university, and that includes the difficult issues touching on the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. But the students leading this initiative are asking for more than discourse and deliberation. Rather, those pushing for a vote recommending formal divestment are using a campus process to make a political statement that reflects—and risks reifying—“hostility and even hatred toward all members of groups of people simply by virtue of a religious, racial, national, or ethnic relationship.” The movement does not reflect a broad student consensus; but it is changing the campus atmosphere in a way that is damaging. Per President Bollinger, “Jewish students are feeling this, and it’s wrong. I feel it, and it’s wrong. We all feel it, and it’s wrong.”
President Bollinger’s leadership is a model for institutions facing the broader Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. He is right to note that there is a point at which legitimate debate turns “into anger, then to hatred and demonization, and invidious discrimination.” When institutions teeter on that precipice, it is the duty of a university president—always with the scrupulous regard for students’ First Amendment rights and institutional dedication to academic freedom, which President Bollinger has shown—to elevate and inform the campus discussion. An ironclad commitment to cultivating a free and open marketplace of ideas is indispensable for any college or university worth its name. But campus role models, faculty, advisors, administrators, and student leaders must never give up their own right and duty to speak out forthrightly against viewpoints that poison the campus and civil society. As they model humility, tolerance, civility, and openness to new ideas, they must also have the courage to condemn indecency, incivility, and prejudice.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 13, 2020
MEDIA CONTACT: Connor Murnane
PHONE: (202) 798-5450