Quite a shitstorm going on here. Student groups are pretty opposed to the entire event, and the Jewish community has kicked it into high gear.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has accepted an offer to speak next week at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, the University announced Wednesday.
The appearance of Ahmadinejad—widely criticized for espousing anti-Semitic views and condemned for apparent human rights abuses—will mark the head of state’s first-ever public engagement at a U.S. university and seems certain to fuel heated protest on and beyond Columbia’s campus.
University President Lee Bollinger announced the decision to invite the leader in a statement Wednesday evening.
“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,” Bollinger said. “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.”
According to John Coatsworth, interim dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, Ahmadinejad expressed interest in speaking at Columbia in the past month to history Professor Richard Bulliet, communicating through Iran’s United Nations ambassador. When Ahmadinejad agreed to the conditions of speaking at the World Leaders Forum, such as answering spectators’ questions, the engagement was confirmed.
“Opportunities to hear, challenge, and learn from controversial speakers of different views are central to the education and training of students for citizenship in a shrinking and still dangerous world,” Coatsworth said in a statement.
The event, set to take place at 1:30 p.m. Monday in Roone Arledge Auditorium, will consist of a speech by Ahmadinejad as well as a question-and-answer session moderated by Coatsworth. A University spokesman said online registration for the 600-person event was capped within 90 minutes of opening Wednesday night.
The event will involve tight protection measures, including metal detectors, extensive security personnel, and a ban against any bags, purses, or signs. It will be the only event of the World Leaders’ Forum occurring in Lerner Hall.
The invitation recalled a similar proffer one year ago, when Lisa Anderson, then dean of SIPA, invited Ahmadinejad to speak on campus during the 2006 World Leaders Forum.
After learning of Anderson’s invitation, Bollinger chose not to lend it full University sponsorship. The next day, citing security and free speech concerns, Anderson rescinded the invitation—but not before tipping off a firestorm of criticism.
The similarity of the two invitations—and the deafening public response—were enough to confuse one major news service. Thursday afternoon, Bloomberg News reported that Columbia's offer to Ahmadinejad had been rescinded, mistaking a Sept. 2006 statement by Bollinger as having come from this year. The service later issued a correction.
The timing of Wednesday’s announcement coincided with the release of Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, one of four American citizens imprisoned in Iran more than eight months ago. According to Coatsworth, Bollinger had urged Iranian leaders to release Tajbakhsh, who earned a Ph.D at Columbia in 1993, over the summer, though it was not immediately clear whether the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s appearance was related.
“I don’t know whether the timing of this release is connected to President Ahmadinejad’s decision to speak at Columbia University,” Coatsworth said. “I can say that the timing is fortuitous and the coincidence of the two events is happy news."
Ahmadinejad’s appearance will likely spark intense protest from numerous religious, ethnic, and political groups, due to his stated desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” his denial of the Holocaust, his frequent anti-American comments, and Iran’s Uranium-enrichment program, which Iran maintains is for civilian energy use.
At least five student groups said last night that they planned to protest the event. Several student leaders received invitations Wednesday to speak with Bollinger about the event.
In a statement signed by the heads of at least thirteen campus groups, student leaders acknowledged the importance of hearing a diverse range of views but expressed concern that University officials kept them in the dark until yesterday’s announcement.
“In a university setting, no view is too disreputable to be excluded—the goal of a university is to hear and present a wide array of opinions so that they may be challenged and debated in the spirit of free speech and the pursuit of knowledge,” the statement read.
The news of the Iranian president’s arrival on campus came in a busy news week both for Ahmadinejad and Columbia. Less than two days ago, controversial Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist said that he had been invited to return to Columbia, 11 months after his speech in Roone Arledge Auditorium was halted by protestors storming the stage. That offer was put in limbo following the withdrawal of sponsorship by the Columbia Political Union.
Early yesterday, Ahmadinejad caused a stir when authorities confirmed that he requested an opportunity to visit Ground Zero one month ago. The New York Police Department, Secret Service, and Port Authority officials denied the request, saying that it was not possible because of construction. The NYPD also denied it based on security reasons.
And yesterday, Iranian officials issued statements saying they had drawn up plans to bomb Israel in the “unlikely event” of an attack on Iran. While Israel’s foreign minister expressed alarm at the news, the U.S dismissed them as “not constructive,” according to BBC News.
Read the full text of Bollinger's statement.
Read Bollinger's statement from 2006.
Read a statement from student groups on Ahmadinejad's visit.
More details will be posted on columbiaspectator.com as they become available.
But I don't know what to feel. I feel like stopping him from talking would be a violation of the sort of disputatious learning the school says it is built around. Does allowing him to speak on campus mean the school is giving him a platform?
I'd say overall the reaction is pretty negative, though I'm kind of interested in going. Tickets to see him speak sold out in less than five minutes.