Monday, March 14, 2005

P.R. Guru Quietly Guides Bollinger Crisis at Columbia

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P.R. Guru Quietly Guides Bollinger
Crisis at Columbia
BY JACOB GERSHMAN - Staff Reporter of the Sun
March 14, 2005

In the fall of last year, when Columbia University became embroiled in an academic dispute between some of its Jewish students and a cadre of anti-Israel professors, the school's president, Lee Bollinger, had two options - at least from Howard Rubenstein's perspective.

Mr. Bollinger could either "rush to a quick judgment" or hold a lot of meetings, Mr. Rubenstein said. His influential public relations firm, Howard J. Rubenstein & Associates, which he said has represented Columbia for years, has quietly sought to guide Mr. Bollinger through the stormiest patch of his three-year tenure.

Columbia's president was under pressure to choose the first option, Mr. Rubenstein told The New York Sun in an interview this month.

A number of Jewish leaders saw in the alleged complaints - which included an assistant professor's threatening to expel a student from his classroom after she defended Israeli military strategy in the West Bank - evidence of anti-Jewish bias at the Ivy League university.

Mr. Rubenstein's job has been to help Mr. Bollinger persuade those concerned New Yorkers that Columbia is "not a hotbed of anti-Semitism," the adviser said.

Mr. Rubenstein - who, in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots of 1991, arranged a meeting of New York rabbis with Mayor Dinkins - is a major presence in the Jewish community.

The day after the Sun first reported the accusations against professors in the Middle East studies department, Rep. Anthony Weiner, a member of Congress and Democratic mayoral aspirant, urged Columbia to fire one of the scholars, Joseph Massad, an assistant professor.

In January, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, accused Columbia's administration of failing to protect its Jewish students. On the other side, Columbia's president has bumped up against a defensive faculty that is to some degree suspicious of any investigation into colleagues' classroom conduct.

Dealing swiftly with the allegations, such as by disciplining Mr. Massad, would have been the "easy route," Mr. Rubenstein said. In the long term, he said, Columbia would improve its image by "explaining to different groups the process" of its response to the complaints, which first became public almost five months ago.

Since October, Mr. Bollinger has met personally with dozens of Jewish and Israeli leaders in meetings arranged or facilitated by Mr. Rubenstein. His firm is performing similar services for the university's planned expansion into the Manhattanville neighborhood, some of whose residents resent Columbia's presence.

Mr. Rubenstein declined to say how much the university pays his firm.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, leader of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights and executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said: "Howard Rubenstein is a major player in all of this."

Last month, Mr. Rubenstein facilitated an hour-and-a-half meeting between Mr. Bollinger and a delegation of Orthodox and Conservative officers of the New York Board of Rabbis.

The delegation pressed Mr. Rubenstein on what they believed to be the shortcomings of the faculty committee the president appointed to investigate the complaints against the professors.

A number of Jewish leaders and students have complained that the majority of members on the committee are openly harsh critics of Israel.

Mr. Bollinger, who was accompanied at the meeting by the chairman of the board of trustees, David Stern, acknowledged that the committee wasn't perfect and asked the rabbis for patience, according to the rabbis who were present.

March 14, 2005

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