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Columbia row raises questions about CMU policies

In his now-infamous speech at Columbia University on Sept. 24, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared “We do not have homosexuals, like in your country ... we do not have this phenomenon.” This was one of many statements Ahmadinejad made that offended students and educators, leading Columbia and other universities to defend or revise their policies on whose views should be allowed on campus.

Currently, President Bush refuses to hold talks with Ahmadinejad on political grounds; therefore, many wonder why the president of Iran was in New York City last month. Columbia was hosting a World Leaders Forum, in which Ahmadinejad was invited to speak — an incident that has sparked much controversy.

Many discouraged Columbia’s actions to prevent Ahmadinejad from speaking. Sheldon Silver of the New York State Assembly threatened to withdraw the university’s state support; students, and neighborhood residents held protests.

One of the biggest points of controversy was Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger’s introduction of his guest, in which he called Ahmadinejad a “petty and cruel dictator,” stating that Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust made him “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”

Carnegie Mellon faculty member Peter Madsen criticized Bollinger’s introduction.

“He wasn’t only critical. His introduction was insulting, purposefully insulting,” said Madsen, an associate philosophy professor. “I don’t think it’s wrong to do that; the man does have a nasty record and accusations against him. [Bollinger] was within his rights to insult him in that way.”

Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon supported Bollinger’s handling of the situation.

“It’s a hard decision to make and I respect the decision he made,” Cohon said.

Cohon read a New York Times article in which a Columbia student said that she had “never felt so engaged in what’s happening in the world as I do right now.” If an event could instill that feeling in a student, he said, then Ahmadinejad’s speech was successful.

“That’s exactly what a president should hope for, and what a university should do, and I applaud that,” Cohon said.

Jarrett Adams, a first-year information systems major, had mixed feelings about the speech.

“I thought the speech, overall, was rather insulting in a demeaning way,” he said. But, he said, that doesn’t mean the speaker should be barred from campus.

“I probably would want him to come here, if the offer were to be presented because it is controversial, and controversy sparks the intellect,” he said.

Columbia’s situation is reminiscent of an incident that occurred at Carnegie Mellon in spring 2005, when Malik Zulu Shabazz, national chairman of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, came to speak.

“He came with a group of people who turned out to be armed with clubs. Some of what he said could be characterized as hate speech — barely related to what he claimed he would talk about, [which was] the importance of blacks pursuing higher education and why that was so important. His speech was a rant against gays, Jews, and whites. He managed to offend just about everyone you could think of,” Cohon recalled.

After the incident, the administration called for a review of the university’s Controversial Speakers Policy. A new version went into effect in February 2007, but still maintained its core mission — promoting free expression.

Cohon said that, even under the revised policy, Ahmadinejad would have been allowed on campus.

“He would have been allowed to speak. And I think if students were allowed to ask questions — that would clinch it,” he said. “[But] if we knew in advance that the speaker was coming to deliver a hate speech and that that created a risk or danger to the campus, those would be circumstances in which a speaker would be barred from addressing the CMU community.”
Madsen, too, supports Carnegie Mellon’s open but safe policy.

“A university has a mission to share knowledge, to investigate knowledge, to discuss issues,” he said. “One of our main values is to acquire knowledge. Close-minded attempts of gaining a diversity of knowledge will not be successful. University really means diversity.”