“I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 24 September 2007

Back in the dark days of the American “culture wars” of the 1990s, I read a surprising newspaper column on higher education by a well-known conservative writer–I can’t remember whether it was George Will or Joseph Sobran. Since both of them usually made me shudder, I was surprised to agree quite wholeheartedly with an argument he was making about the nature and content of college education. Colleges, he wrote, should not offer students courses on popular culture. Not because popular culture is necessarily evil or degenerate, but because this (the content, if not the analytical position) was something they could get from the market. Works by and talk about Madonna, the Ramones, and, even then, the Simpsons, are things students receive daily in their cars and their apartments and from their friends. What a university education should offer students is precisely what is not normally available in the broader world, what they cannot get on the open market: Shakespeare, Moliere, general relativity, the history of Polish nobility in the 16th century. None of these topics can be researched or taught or sustained as bodies of knowledge without subsidy. The market can provide us with the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, but not with Shakespeare himself (the exceptions–Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Baz Luhrmann directing the extraordinary Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet, and a few others–prove the rule. They were successes precisely because they were so rare and so surprising). All of what we think of as high culture, from symphony concerts to sculpture, depends on financial support from foundations and governments and wealthy individuals to support its performance and availability (the fact that we can still buy Shakespeare’s plays in bookstores is due entirely to the fact that the market for his work is supported by his forced consumption in high school and college classes).

The university is a privileged place in that it is the main site, in our culture, for the generation and maintenance and distribution of such unusual knowledge. It is also the main site, in our culture, for the generation and distribution of unpleasant and unpopular knowledge. Both the faculty who staff institutions of higher education and the administrators who develop and maintain them have the responsibility to nurture this element of university life. We need to be able to provide our students and the broader public with perspectives on the world they might not be able to find elsewhere in the general marketplace of ideas, different from the ones they find on respectable media outlets like Fox News or ABC or CNN or even the subversive cesspools of PBS or the New York Times. We need to be able to provide them with information they do not receive from their parents or their friends or their bosses. Without being one of the primary stewards of unusual knowledge–along with libraries, museums, and archives–the university simply has no function.

It was with a sigh of sad recognition, then, that I watched the comments of Columbia President Lee Bollinger last night as he introduced Iran’s cruel, petty dictator, Mahmud Ahmedinejad, whom Columbia had invited to speak at the university’s World Leaders Forum, to an audience of students, faculty, and staff (video at www.cspan.com; transcripts of President Bollinger’s remarks available at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/07/09/lcbopeningremarks.html, and a transcript of President Ahmedinejad’s remarks at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/24/AR2007092401042.html).

Bollinger denounced his invited guest’s record on human rights, his support for terrorism, his habit of Holocaust denial, his arrest and incarceration on fantastic charges of Iranian-American scholars, his stance toward Israel, and much more. We’ll leave aside the fact that such behavior was outstandingly rude. My disappointment had to do not with the particular charges, most of which are accurate, if superficial, portrayals of the small, paranoid politics of Iran’s current ruling elites. My disappointment stemmed from the fact that Professor Bollinger was content to leave it at that, denouncing his guest at the same time that he preened himself on providing a “free speech” platform for him. My disappointment stemmed from the fact that Professor Bollinger provided neither his students nor his faculty nor the broader public with a single idea, a single approach, a single perspective, a single thread of knowledge that they could not have gotten in the broader marketplace of ideas. My disappointment stemmed from the fact that people are widely evaluating Professor Bollinger’s attack on Ahmedinejad as the bravery of a man who fearlessly spoke Truth to Power, when in fact, he merely repeated what everyone else in his audience already believes, already says, already takes for granted. Speaking Truth to Power is only courageous when you stand to lose something by doing so. Mahmud Ahmedinejad can do nothing to Columbia University or to its interests as a result of Professor Bollinger’s criticism. What Professor Bollinger did was cheap, and easy, and predictable, and, from his position as President of Columbia University, necessary. Unfortunately, that structural necessity cost him a major opportunity to teach his audience, his guest, and the public.

Professor Bollinger, attempting to mollify critics of his institution’s invitation of the cruel, petty and ignorant dictator, had his cake–inviting a world leader to his university–and ate it, too, expressing, in his final lines, “the revulsion [of the modern civilized world] at what you stand for.” I don’t think this is a bad thing. I don’t think Ahmedinejad needs to be celebrated or coddled or approved of. “World leaders” of all stripes ought to be criticized to their faces, laughed at, and derided publicly far more often than they are. But to criticize Iran’s leader for “interference” in the affairs of its next-door neighbor, Iraq, while Professor Bollinger’s country is stomping on that neighbor from half a world away; to criticize Iran’s development of nuclear power and even nuclear weapons technology when such developments are a rational political response to the Middle East interventions of the great powers, the doomed economy of petroleum, and a broader regional arms race; to criticize the Iranian government’s paranoid reactions to scholarship when Professor Bollinger’s country is excluding and deporting scholars whose views it does not like, is something of a dereliction of duty as well as an exercise in bad faith.

What might Professor Bollinger have said instead? Perhaps he could have recounted to his audience and to the cruel, petty and ignorant dictator the history of political reform in Iran during the early twentieth century, as a way to reinforce the notion that classically liberal democratic ideology and practice have deep roots in his country. Perhaps he could have provided for the Columbia audience and the press some reminder of the roots of the troubled relationship between Iran and the great powers who have so energetically exploited that country’s natural resources over the last hundred years, eventually overturning Iran’s political progress in mid-century through a joint U.S. and British coup against a popular elected leader. Perhaps he could have used language similar to Ahmedinejad’s to emphasize the importance of knowledge and learning, and used that to hold the Iranian President to task with respect to his government’s restrictions on the press. Perhaps he could have called on the American government to enhance cultural exchanges between the two countries, to open up diplomatic channels closed for the past generation, to call for dialogue and negotiation between the two former allies rather than further to repeat for his audience the sorts of stale accusations–accurate or not–that they can read every day in the New York Sun. Perhaps he could have asked his audience to think more deeply about the questions Ahmedinejad and other Middle Easterners have repeatedly articulated over the decades: why do Palestinians have to pay the price for Europe’s hatred of its Jews? Why do the great powers get to speak of technological development in the poorer countries of the world while restricting that development in practice, as suits their whims? Perhaps he could have provided his audience ideas that they cannot easily draw from the broader marketplace of ideas.

The saddest thing about the whole episode, though, is that it could not have turned out any differently. Do not expect Professor Bollinger to exercise the same ruthless criticism against politicians from his own country or those of our allies. Do not expect to hear him recounting the list of countries in which Harvard’s Henry Kissinger has warrants out for his arrest as a result of judicial investigations of accusations of war crimes. Do not expect to hear him criticize Stanford’s Hoover Institution for offering employment to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose hideous botching of the Iraq war cost thousands of Americans and Iraqis their lives. Do not expect to hear him criticize Georgetown University for employing Douglas Feith, who was instrumental in the same fiasco. Do not expect to hear him issue even mild criticisms of President Bush or Vice President Cheney. Why not? Because to do so would cost him the support of numerous alumni. To do so would expose him to criticism for being Soft on Terror. To do so would endanger the fiscal health and public image of the institution to which he is responsible as President. The possibility of Speaking Truth to real Power, Power that can harm your institution, is rightly and legitimately foreclosed to a university president.

The saddest thing about the whole episode for Lee Bollinger, as for the rest of us, is that when he became Columbia’s president, he left behind his ability to speak as Professor Bollinger, and to provide his students, his faculty, his staff, and the broader public with knowledge and perspectives that they cannot get from television.

Gregory Starrett