full of sound and fury: Ahmadinejad at Columbia
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 25, 2007
One of my former schools is in the news this week in a big way: for inviting Iranian president Ahmadinejad to speak at its World Leaders Forum. Like many New York schools, Columbia capitalizes on the UN’s annual summit as an opportunity to bring prominent global leaders to campus. A few years ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin came to Morningside Heights, and the campus rooftops were filled with snipers – quite a sight for Manhattan.
Many of Columbia’s invitees are controversial – but perhaps none so much as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This marks the second time the university has invited him to speak – although last year, the invitation was withdrawn. (For a conservative take on that story, see the New York Sun’s coverage, including this article.)
This time, the university went ahead with the event as planned – and I think it did so for good reason. Men like Ahmadinejad live in little bubbles of their own creation. Putting them before an audience uncowed by their power and unenamoured of their politics forces them to address a less artificial public sphere than that which they encounter in their home countries.
Before the forum, Columbia president Lee Bollinger sent this letter to students and faculty, outlining his rationale for inviting Ahmadinejad to speak – and to answer questions from his audience:
Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:
I would like to share a few thoughts about today’s appearance of
President Ahmadinejad at our World Leaders Forum. I know this is a matter of deep concern for many in our University community and
beyond. I want to say first and foremost how proud I am of
Columbia, especially our students, as we discuss, debate and plan
for this highly visible event.
I ask that each of us make special efforts to respect the different
views people have about the event and to recognize the different
ways it affects members of our community. For many reasons, this
will demand the best of each of us to live up to the best of
For the School of International and Public Affairs, which developed
the idea for this forum as the commencement to a year-long
examination of 30 years of the Islamic Republic in Iran, this is an
important educational experience for training future leaders to
confront the world as it is — a world that includes far too many
brutal, anti-democratic and repressive regimes. For the rest of us,
this occasion is not only about the speaker but quite centrally
about us — about who we are as a nation and what universities can
be in our society.
I would like just to repeat what I have said earlier: It is vitally
important for a university to protect the right 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
But 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.
The great majority of student leaders with whom I met last week
affirmed their belief that this event, however controversial, is
consistent with the values of academic freedom we share at the
center of university life. I fully support, indeed I celebrate, the
right to peacefully demonstrate and engage in a dialogue about this
event and this speaker, as I understand a wide coalition of our
student groups are planning for today. That such a forum and such
public criticism of President Ahmadinejad’s statements and policies
could not safely take place on a university campus in Iran today
sharpens the point of what we do here. 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.
Lee C. Bollinger
If I had been in New York, I doubt I would have gone – I’m not good with confrontation, and I don’t like crowds. But I’m delighted that Columbia made good on its invitation – and all the more so since it resulted in such gems as Ahmadinejad’s “wishful thinking” comment about gays in Iran, which my aunt has posted as a video link on her website.
Update, September 29, 2007:
Having read the text of Bollinger’s ‘welcoming’ speech I do agree with Abu Owlfish that Bollinger erred on the side of grandstanding rather than statesmanship. I do wonder why – and suspect it might have something to do with last year, when Bollinger rescinded the invitation that then-SIPA dean Lisa Anderson had extended to Ahmadinejad. Perhaps he felt pressure – self-imposed if nothing else – to be “strong”, both in seeing through this year’s invitation and making it clear that he did so as a critic.
In any case, I note in today’s Daily Star that Ahmadinejad is comfortable with the idea that President Bush could make a similar appearance in Iran:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who recently addressed an American university in a somewhat stormy session, says that if US President George W. Bush would like to make a speech at an Iranian university he would authorize it. In a statement to state television during his visit to Latin America, the Iranian leader said: “If their president [Bush] wishes to come, we authorize him to make a speech” at an Iranian university.Ahmadinejad was asked by an Iranian television journalist if he would agree to “American politicians” making a speech as he had been able to do at Columbia University during his trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly.
I’m sure Bush will be there on the next plane.