On September 24th, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke at Columbia University in New York City by official invitation of its president, Lee Bolliger. When hearing the news, I was surprised and altogether pleased that an American university would extend him an invitation, especially under the circumstances. He was in to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly and address the world regarding his country’s allegedly illegal pursuit of nuclear technology.
Allowing Ahmadinejad to speak in such a forum represents the best of American values: academic freedom. It was an opportunity for some of our brightest young minds to come face-to-face with him in an intellectual environment, and debate him on the merits of his positions. As the debate’s moderator said at the outset, “Our responsibility today is to listen and offer questions in an atmosphere of civility and restraint.”
Soon after however, Bollinger, delivered an introduction that flew in the face of this humble request was unbefitting of a university president. Bollinger directly addressed the Iranian president in language akin to the harsh and politically divisive rhetoric of so many in Washington speaking on the subject of Iran and the Middle East.
In his speech, Bollinger failed to account for the fact that this is not just a man, but also the representative of an entire nation.
By inviting Ahmadinejad to his university and giving him such a disrespectful welcome, he has only encouraged the sort of misunderstanding that this forum might have helped to clarify.
Back in Iran, no doubt the anti-Western media will have a field day with sound bites from Bollinger calling their president a “petty” and “cruel dictator” and “astonishingly uneducated.”
Sadly, this gave Ahmadinejad a moment on the high ground. He pointed out that Columbia students could form opinions for themselves after they heard his speech. Naturally, they did.
Just as Bollinger himself predicted, the Iranian president embarrassed himself with his own remarks and evasive, rambling language. To hit a few highlights: Ahmadinejad spoke of the importance of science and knowledge, yet has jailed several prominent Iranian-American intellectuals and more than a few Iranian journalists. Bringing the auditorium to laughter, he at one point commented, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”
Finally addressing his past claims that the Holocaust didn’t occur, he said, “There’s nothing known as absolute.”
It is unfortunate that Bollinger’s comments have become a prominent topic in the aftermath of this event. We give a fool the stage so that he may show us just what a fool he is. Ahmadinejad’s comments should have been given our full attention.
Rather than letting this man’s remarks speak for themselves, Bollinger had to tell us what we ought to think. By cutting down Ahmadinejad before he even had a chance to speak, Bollinger undermined his own arguments about the importance of free speech as a core American value. This was a cardinal sin.
Remember that many of us will be transferring to universities across the country, and most likely, we will attend a conference or lecture where we do not agree with the speaker.
We should give every guest their fair time to speak and to encourage our academic leaders to do the same. We should always consider a speaker’s remarks thoughtfully and not allow our personal feelings to cloud our judgment.
It is almost unnecessary to say that these are difficult times that require cautious speech and nuanced dialogue. If anyone is to set an example in this regard, it should be college students and their professors.