Columbia at its Best
by Gil Anidjar
On June 18, 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger informed his “fellow members of the Columbia Community” that the university had just taken an important step, the completion of a formal application, bringing it closer to its planned expansion into Manhattanville in West Harlem. As official statements on the Columbia website have it, the expansion seeks to combine the fulfillment of Columbia’s role as a global university, and its place among a number of “the nation’s universities.”
This expansion, along with Columbia’s much publicized and repeated appearance in the media over a number of years now, perhaps provides an occasion to reflect on the relationship between the principles of education, which guide or should guide an institution of higher learning, and the political commitments of that institution. After all, much of the conversation surrounding universities these days – and Columbia foremost among them – is precisely with regards to this question: what is the nature of the connection between education and politics? This is a local as well as global question, one that is of national and international significance. And though it may have something to do with the much touted notion of “freedom,” we will see that it is hardly about “freedom of speech.”
Not that they are many, or that they have been able to gather much force, but there are those who oppose the expansion of the university. This, it will be granted, has little to do with freedom of speech; it has to do with a power differential. Insofar as the university intervenes in the environment of the neighborhood – for good or for ill – it is acting politically. It is exercising power. The university is not simply enjoying its right to freedom, much less exercising freedom of speech. As an established and highly recognized institution, it has a freedom which its opponents do not have, namely, the freedom to gather its extensive forces, negotiate with the New York City Council and other political bodies. It wields its legal, financial and political power – forgive me, its freedom – in order to reach its stated goal of expansion. To be on the receiving end of this deployed power means to confront an asymmetry that cannot be denied. It is an experience in powerlessness. The political lesson – for it is a lesson that comes from an institution of higher learning – should be clear. Columbia is a political actor and its actions have political effects as well as a political message (one could argue that this constitutes an ethical message as well): don’t get caught being the little guy. So much for the residents and businesses of Manhattanville.
One could here find grounds for an analogy when it comes to the “global” university: the role it plays, the actions it takes and the statements it delivers, in international politics. In fact, Columbia and its spokespersons (first and foremost its president, who can only speak the words of the institution, checked and approved by its lawyers and other authorizing forces, those who give the president his legitimacy as chief executive officer) have been quite outspoken about marking the global footprint of the institution: the international dimension of its faculty and student body is one instance, international collaboration of a scientific and financial nature is another. It is this footprint that constitutes one of the main reasons for a still larger campus in the city of New York.
The analogy between the local and the global is thus much more than a mere analogy. Turning our attention to a third dimension of Columbia’s political activities will in fact reveal the difficulty of fully distinguishing local from global in terms of political significance and effects. The word in vogue to signify this lack of distinction is, if I am not mistaken, “glocal.”
Now, it is important to remark that Columbia University has made perfectly clear that it is by no means a democratic institution (its decisions may be made in consultation, but there is no democratic commitment, nor a democratic obligation on these decisions or on any other matter pertaining to the university). Of course, we might want to recall once again that it is an educational institution. And it is indeed. But the meaning of that assertion must be related to an additional fact. The university is also a private corporation run by a board of trustees, most of whom have long and impressive affiliations with the corporate world (lawyers, bankers and business executives), with the political world (most often the federal government, but also state government) and with the medical world (doctors and nurses). The distinction between these three “worlds,” as can be gathered from the biographical data for each of the trustees, is not a categorical or hermetic one. And it should be noted that the two primary functions of an institution of higher learning, namely research and education, are not overwhelmingly represented. Of course, the other, if less important, governing body (namely, the Senate of the university) does have faculty and student representation. But what about freedom of speech?
Insofar as the chief executive officer of the university, designated by the trustees, speaks, he does so with the voice of the university, and justifiably so. This is why it is important to recognize that, despite statements to the contrary, an individual occupying an official (or simply, institutional) position is less exercising freedom of speech than enjoying both the privilege and the responsibility bestowed upon him by the institution of which he is the voice. In contrast to the speech of private individuals, here it is only the power invested in the institutional person (not the private individual) that authorizes and enables his capacity to speak. President Bollinger’s communications over the years must therefore be taken as statements of the university that have little to do with personal convictions or overstepping of boundaries (whatever these might be). They do not testify to personal opinions or to his right to freedom of expression (and let me add that insofar as they are posted on the university’s website, accessible and publicized as such, they receive additional material force from the university per se). When President Bollinger speaks, it is the university that speaks (even if dissenting voices might express themselves, might have the freedom – rather than the power and official, authorizing seal – to do so).
On the glocal scene, then, what has Columbia been saying? It has issued statements of compassion at national and international disasters (Katrina, the 2004 Tsunami) and disseminated news about its activities, particularly those of Jeffrey Sachs’ Earth Institute in the fight against poverty and disease. What the university has emphatically not done is express political judgments, taken explicit political action for or against any side involved in a conflict, against or on behalf of any partisan activity or expression of opinion in such conflicts.
But for one exception.
From the outset, the new administration (Bollinger’s inaugural speech is dated October 3rd, 2002) had made clear that it was pursuing a policy of explicitness when it comes to Western Asia, whether on the divestment campaign (November 7, 2002), his statements on academic freedom (and accusations of political harassment and anti-Semitism made against Middle East studies faculty, March 29 2003, October 22, 27 and December 8, 2004; March 23, 31 and April 11, 2005), on the decision not to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (September 21, 2006), on the detainment of Iranian-American scholars (May 31, 2007), on the British Teachers Union’s proposal to discuss a boycott of Israeli academics (June 12, 2007), and more recently on the President of Iran.
Although it can be granted that a number of these statements have a local dimension, it is also the case that they have had Western Asia in their proximate background. It is simply a fact that no other region of the world has attracted the explicit, political attention of the university in its public statements. It should moreover be noted that words like “obscene,” “offensive,” “heinous,” “odious,” and “repugnant” (to mention but a few) have not been used in other contexts. It is in this peculiar context in fact that the university, deploying its commitment to global issues, has publicly claimed: “This is America at its best” (September 19, 2007), or, in a more elaborate version: “The kind of freedom that will be on display at Columbia has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is the power and example of America at its best” (September 24, 2007). What is freedom then? As I was suggesting earlier and as is explicitly argued here, it is a weapon and a power. It is asymmetric. It is the differential capacity to exercise one’s power and to extend one’s pedagogical light to those who do not enjoy the same privilege, the same institutional authorization, the same power (whether they are guests, heads of states increasingly targeted for war, or individual faculty members like Joseph Massad or Nadia Abu el-Haj) To be on the receiving end is hardly an exercise in freedom. It is an exercise in powerlessness.
But it does teach us something. On the question of what should be the connection between education and politics (local and global), this must be the answer. Freedom – for the institution (or the country?) that wields it – is the exercise of political power and self-righteous pedagogy. This is, this must be, Columbia at its best.
And don’t get caught being the little guy.
Gil Anidjar is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. All the information mentioned here was gathered exclusively from the Columbia University, and most particularly from this site(accessed September 26, 2007).