Friday, September 21, 2007

Ahmadinejad's Hosts


Ahmadinejad's Hosts
New York Sun Editorial
September 21, 2007

Our phone has been ringing with calls from New Yorkers appalled, most of them, that President Bollinger is going to permit Columbia University to host President Ahmadinejad — and sick that Mr. Bollinger is personally going to honor the Iranian anti-Semite, an enemy of our country in a time of war, by personally meeting with him and conducting a dialogue that, no matter how sincere Mr. Bollinger is, will be phony. Mr. Bollinger tried to gussy this up by suggesting, in a statement, that it was some kind of victory for freedom that he got the Iranian to take questions.

The Iranian propaganda operatives in Tehran, one can be sure, are gleeful over Mr. Bollinger's blunder. They know that no matter how tough the questions Mr. Bollinger asks Mr. Ahmadinejad — whether they palaver about Israel, ground zero, human rights, or Madisonian principles like free speech — the Iranian is the victor merely by being received on Morningside Heights. They know that Mr. Bollinger will not permit protesters to rush the stage and physically drive a speaker from campus the way the university permitted students to do when Jim Gilchrist of the Minutemen attempted to speak there.

But the truth is, we've had our innings with Mr. Bollinger and what we've concluded is that he's not the problem at Columbia. He's merely the symptom. He's an earnest, decent, friendly, and gracious university president who — in a time of war — is in deeper grass than he comprehends.

He has never been invested in our wars, he has sided against the military over the question of campus recruitment, he has focused on First Amendment issues without understanding that the right to host an enemy propagandist isn't an obligation to host an enemy propagandist, and he has been enabled by a weak group of donors.

The real problem at Columbia is the group that is President Ahmadinejad's real host — the 24 members of the university's board of trustees. This is a group that has, throughout the long slog of anti-Israel agitation and occasional anti-Semitism on the campus, refused to take a public stand. We number several of them among our friends. We admire many of them. But as a group, they have let New York down and, were Columbia not a self-perpetuating board, would have lost the trust they were given. There is no difference between going to ground zero and going to Columbia, except that the governing body of the former has a deeper understanding of what it means for a country to be at war than the governing body of the other.

Bracing for Ahmadinejad
Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

President Ahmadinejad addresses the parliament on Iran's fourth development plans in Tehran, September 17, 2007.
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Student Groups Question Bollinger on Ahmadinejad
By Josh Hirschland

Nearly 50 student leaders and a dozen administrators sat down with University President Lee Bollinger for an hour on Thursday for a passionate yet civil discussion to air concerns about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s scheduled speech on campus on Monday.

When asked by Bollinger, student leaders overwhelmingly agreed that the event was in line with the academic purpose of the University, but several students expressed their disappointment in Bollinger’s handling of the invitation, with many airing concerns about student participation. Meanwhile, students began to solidify plans for a rally on Low Plaza this Monday.

Students’ concerns with the event included the logistics of establishing a rally on campus and the worry that lending Ahmadinejad a podium from which to speak would elevate and legitimize his views. Those in attendance expressed their greatest concerns regarding how students would be involved in the event itself.

“A girl came up to me after [a College Democrats meeting last night]—she was an Iranian student, an Iranian refugee, and she was near tears. She said, ‘I came to Columbia just for this moment, and I can’t believe the event is closed off before I can even register for it,’” Josh Lipsky, CC ’08 and president of the Columbia University College Democrats, said, while expressing his disappointment that only the most well-connected of students had been able to snatch up seats. He called on those in the room to give their seats to underclassmen.

Administrators said that 80 percent of all seats had been reserved for students. For those without a spot, the event will be available via Webcast. Additionally, student services officials said that plans were already in place to host overflow viewing events in lounges in Wien and John Jay residence halls.

Christien Tompkins, CC ’08, co-chair of the United Students of Color Council and member of Students Promoting Empowerment and Knowledge, compared the invitation of Ahmadinejad to that of Jim Gilchrist and said he was “disappointed” in Bollinger’s leadership for going out of his way to denounce the Iranian head of state and but not the “racist” founder of the Minutemen Project. Bollinger replied that issuing statements about all potentially controversial speakers would produce a “chilling effect,” harming the free flow of ideas on campus.

David Feith, CC ’09 and editor of the Jewish affairs publication The Current, expressed his concern that there was a difference between refusing to suppress hateful speech and actively inviting and providing a platform for it. Bollinger responded that the invitation very well may serve to help controversial speakers, but that the negative is “far outweighed by the importance of confronting ideas and not shielding ourselves from the world as it is.”

Other students asked Bollinger why there was so little advance notice, what provisions had been made for protesters, if students not able to attend the event could ask questions, and how students could weigh in on future invitations to controversial leaders.

Beyond the meeting with Bollinger, students were forming the Columbia Coalition, an ad-hoc group created ”to give a safe, peaceful ... scholarly demonstration of the various views that are really within the Columbia campus” according to Aaron Kriegel, CC ’10 and one of the coalition’s coordinators. Kriegel said that more than 20 groups had expressed interest in joining a speak-out that is tentatively planned to take place this Monday on Low Plaza. The group is planning to allot time to student groups to be filled however they wish. Organizers will meet with University administrators early this morning to hammer out security and logistical details.

The group had created an e-mail address to which students could send questions that the moderators would choose to pose to Ahmadinejad at the event. As of press time, nearly 100 students had joined the coalition’s Facebook group.

Columbia has quickly become a central point of criticism and focus from outside the University. The New York Post was interviewing students on campus, news trucks filled Broadway, the Fox News Channel reached out to various student groups to find representatives to appear on air. A helicopter hovered above campus. At one point, Bloomberg News posted a later-retracted article stating that the event had been cancelled.

Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose daughter graduated from Columbia last year, denounced the University for inviting Ahmadinejad. “A man who is directing the maiming and killing of Americans troops should not be given an invitation to speak at an American university,” he said in a statement.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn issued a similar denunciation. “The idea of Ahmadinejad as an honored guest anywhere in our city is offensive to all New Yorkers,” she said in a statement. “He can say whatever he wants on any street corner, but should not be given center stage at one of New York’s most prestigious centers of higher education.”

Meanwhile, conservative bloggers and Jewish organizations urged many to flood Bollinger’s office with e-mails and phone calls trying to convince him to rescind the invitation.

Josh Hirschland can be reached at

Check out our Ahmadinejad multimedia package, with a slideshow and background information on Ahmadinejad and Columbia.

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Statement by University President Lee Bollinger on the Invitation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
By News Board

The Spectator is not responsible for the content of this statement.

On Monday, September 24, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is scheduled to appear as a speaker on campus. The event is sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs, which has been in contact with the Iranian Mission to the United Nations. The event will be part of the annual World Leaders Forum, the University-wide initiative intended to further Columbia’s longstanding tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate, especially on global issues.

In order to have such a University-wide forum, we have insisted that a number of conditions be met, first and foremost that President Ahmadinejad agree to divide his time evenly between delivering remarks and responding to audience questions. I also wanted to be sure the Iranians understood that I would myself introduce the event with a series of sharp challenges to the President on issues including:
·the Iranian President’s denial of the Holocaust;
·his public call for the destruction of the state of Israel;
·his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops;
·Iran's pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction;
·his government's widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women's rights; and
·his government's imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia’s own alumni, Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh.

I would like to add a few comments on the principles that underlie this event. Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas—to understand the world as it is and as it might be. To fulfill this mission we must respect and defend the rights of our schools, our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes. Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the powers of dialogue and reason.

I would also like to invoke a major theme in the development of freedom of speech as a central value in our society. It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. To commit oneself to a life—and a civil society—prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words. That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.

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