I write this post as an open letter to Lee Bolinger, President of Columbia University.
Dear President Bolinger:
I would like to know how we, lowly professors and textbook writers, should teach cultural sensitivity to our increasingly diverse student body when you, the President of Columbia University, widely acknowledged as one of the premier universities of the world, act like a culturally insensitive bigot in your introduction of Iranian President Ahmadinejad? What standard are you setting for Columbia University students and for students throughout the country? Are you saying that it’s o.k. to insult people your own university has invited to speak because they disagree with you or even because they espouse views you consider untrue or politically unpopular? I would never think of introducing you as “Lee Bolinger, culturally insensitive clod.” Was your introduction an indication of your lukewarm commitment to free speech? Was this an indication of the extent of your commitment to free and open debate? Is this the way someone who bills himself as a scholar of the First Amendment and of free speech (and the author of The Tolerant Society and Images of a Free Press) introduces someone with whom you disagree? Introducing a speaker as a “petty and cruel dictator” hardly seems a useful way to set the stage for a free exchange of ideas. Is this the image of America—who will only play fair with people with whom we agree and be totally insulting to those with whom we disagree—that you want to communicate to people throughout the world? If these were your goals, then you have been very successful.
But, what I’m particularly interested in is if you intend to apologize—not merely to the Iranian president—who, by the way, also holds a Ph.D.—you’re not that special—but more importantly to the entire academic community, to students at all levels and throughout the country and the world, and to everyone who holds views different from your own who you have insulted and for whom you have set a horrible example of intolerance, bigotry, and cultural insensitivity.