By Hayley Negrin
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 5, 2007
University President Lee Bollinger welcomed more than 50 students into his mansion last night for a conversation in which he defended his remarks toward Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
At the first fireside chat of the semester, Bollinger answered questions from students—who were chosen from several hundred applicants by online lottery—on issues ranging from the proposed Manhattanville expansion to Columbia’s role in the world as a global university.
Bollinger, who has been criticized by some students for calling Ahmadinejad “a petty and cruel dictator” after inviting him to speak at the World Leaders Forum, defended his statements on the basis of Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust and his desire to wipe Israel off the map.
“I have no interest in an excessively polite exchange when there are these massive issues involved,” Bollinger said.
When asked whether he had plans to follow through on his proposal—personally accepted by Ahmadinejad during his speech—of sending a delegation of Columbia professors and students to Iran to study, Bollinger said that he was open to it but “a lot would have to be worked out for that to happen.”
In response to the negative attention he received for extending an invitation to the Iranian head of state, Bollinger cited Columbia’s institutional character as a reason for his decision not to revoke the invitation. “We have to define ourselves in terms of our own institutional values—we can’t run a university based on political or fundraising circumstances,” he said.
Bollinger also encouraged students to invite speakers to campus and said he would support any speaker students chose to bring in an effort “to continue the dialogue.” He added that no individual’s views are too unacceptable to be heard.
The University president began the discussion with a speech about globalization.“I think it’s a great time to go to college. ... In my lifetime, I’ve never seen the world have more potential than it does right now. Obviously there are serious problems, but this enormous chance to create this global society with this sense of economic interconnected-ness is extraordinary” he said.
Bollinger also stressed his belief that the institutions that the United States have in place to deal with globalization are not up to speed with the issues facing the world today. He also said that the United States would have to learn how to exist in a world where it isn’t necessarily the world’s only super power.
“Your world is different than mine,” he told the undergraduates in attendance. “In a sense, we don’t know how to prepare you for this new world. You have to show us what you need.”
One student, who did community service in Harlem over the summer, expressed her discomfort with the Manhattanville expansion project, saying that she didn’t know how to defend the University’s plan to her co-workers who were upset about the situation.
Bollinger apologized for the situation and explained the University’s reasoning for choosing the site over other possibilities in midtown Manhattan and Westchester.
“We should be trying to embrace this community across racial or ethnic lines. This was an act of embracing the challenge of being a part of Harlem. ... I’m really committed to making this beneficial to our neighbors,” Bollinger said.
Students generally expressed their pleasure with the event. “I felt that he was honest with his own beliefs and true to what he had been saying. ... I thought the conversation was open and honest,” Valerie Sapozhnikova, CC ’10, said.
Rajesh Ramakrishnan, SEAS ’08, disagreed. “He gave an answer, which is much more than Ahmadenijad did. To be fair, I don’t think he did much more than that. I think, probably because it was only an hour and a short time period. I think most of the people who asked questions didn’t think through the issue, so he probably wasn’t required to give a full answer,” he said.
Hayley Negrin can be reached at email@example.com.