LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
The recent publicity surrounding Columbia Unbecoming has
led to much discussion and comment from College alumni. The film
raises accusations of student intimidation by some members of the
faculty in the MEALAC department.
The actions of a few faculty members in a department that is often
viewed as having an anti-Israeli bias and the way the University
deals with the accusations are not unimportant. While we [alumni]
experienced many stimulating and often heated exchanges as undergraduates,
we rarely felt intimidated in the classroom. This controversy is
far removed from most of our experiences, and Columbia should not
be judged by the actions of a few faculty members with a stated
There are a number of issues at play in this story. The faculty
zealously guards its view of academic freedom and its right to express
controversial opinions without fear of reprisal. It is not clear
if the incidents reported took place in the classroom. If outside
the classroom, faculty members’ opinions deserve the protection
of academic freedom, though faculty members have a responsibility
to the Columbia community, as well. In the classroom, there may
be more rigorous analysis of the intent and effect of controversial
Provost Alan Brinkley has stated that existing grievance procedures
are inadequate. President Lee C. Bollinger has set up a committee
to determine if any of the events reported took place in a classroom
and to recommend appropriate grievance procedures if students feel
The Alumni Association leadership has met with various alumni,
deans, trustees and President Bollinger. We will follow up with
alumni and the administration to enssure that Columbia continues
to deserve our trust and support.
Bob Berne ’60
New York City
[Editor’s note: The writer is president of the Columbia
College Alumni Association.]
Conflicts of Interest
As a volunteer alumni interviewer, I am concerned that Columbia’s
response to serious academic problems is inadequate.
Applicants I’ve interviewed were attracted by Columbia’s
intellectual excitement, its New York locale and the opportunities
for in-depth studies in various fields. But I have to wonder whether
the attractions of a Columbia education might be overshadowed by
the questionable activities of one department. As important as it
is to determine the validity, or otherwise, of charges of student
intimidation in the classroom, what is at stake for Columbia goes
well beyond that.
Was it wise to conceal the identities of donors who obviously
had an agenda? In light of all that has followed since the establishment
of an institute with secret funds from (as subsequently revealed)
the United Arab Emirates, a shadowy Saudi charity and a registered
lobbyist for a terrorist organization, among others, greater transparency
might have saved the University embarrassment. Granted, some donors
have legitimate reasons for wishing to remain anonymous, but at
the very least, an inquiry into possible conflicts of interest should
have been made. These conflicts are by no means confined to one
institute or department.
The same cautions should apply, for example, to corporate funding
of university research that restricts publication of the results,
or that defines protocols in ways designed to support claims of
drug safety and efficacy. It’s easy to stand up for academic
freedom in the classroom, though I doubt whether anyone teaching
racism would get very far with that argument. We do, in fact, make
judgments about the content of what is taught. But academic freedom
also entails the responsibility of standing up to donors, whatever
their agenda may be, and reporting research results impartially,
fully and objectively. Does this risk losing the funding? Yes. But
accepting agenda-tainted funding carries the far greater risk of
corrupting academic quality.
The institution can live on its ‘brand name’ for a
while, but eventually the damage to its reputation will affect ratings,
donations, faculty recruitment and applicant quality. I sincerely
hope real corrective action, not merely cosmetic reforms or inconsequential
investigations, will be implemented soon.
Peter Miller ’67
The column (January 2005) concerning Columbia’s investigation
of an aura of intimidation was well-written and could serve as part
of the conclusion of the upcoming report. Indeed it may. No one
can argue with those noble sentiments.
Yet, there are some historic details missing from the column,
and they likely will be missing from the investigative committee
report. The late Professor Edward Said was photographed throwing
stones from Lebanon into Israel. As far as I know, no investigation,
much less censure, arose from MEALAC or the Columbia administration.
More likely, throwing stones at Israel was considered an off-campus
activity falling under freedom of expression. Is there any real
difference between stone-throwing and repression of certain ideas?
There were also reports that tenured professors at Columbia refused
to sign petitions or even support calls for investigation of student
intimidation for fear of reprisals. Were these cases of “Jewish
paranoia” or the result of real fears? Who will investigate
the repression, not of students, but of professors who feared retribution?
Lastly, there is an Arabic word, taqiya, which describes
a religiously sanctioned mode of discourse and a way of answering
questions. I predict that taqiya will describe a great deal of the
upcoming committee report. If there are no Arabic speakers in that
august body, they should ask a member of MEALAC to explain taqiya
Harold Bernard Reisman ’56 SEAS, ’65
Possibly by next issue my concern about Alex Sachare
’71’s “Within the Family” essay in the January
CCT will have been happily resolved. Sachare calls for
free and open discourse about the events portrayed in Columbia
Unbecoming and regarding the (second) faculty panel that President
Lee C. Bollinger set up to examine student complaints of faculty
harassment. Who can disagree with free, open and respectful discourse?
Yet, when Sachare commended the professional backgrounds
and experience of panelists Katznelson, Anderson, Griffin, Howard
and Mazower, he was less than open about the different positions
each has already espoused in public or publications, which show,
if not their prejudgements, their conflicts with the issues they
New York newspapers have told about this and other
Columbia fiascoes for more than four years. So, I cannot be the
first alumnus to worry about it all. I just wish Sachare would follow
his own advice. It is past time for the University to cast light
so we understand and protect the truth, not vested cabals.
Daniel F. Johnson ’61
Boys From Boise
I was greatly moved by your report on the “Boise
Boys” (January CCT) and its tribute to their sponsor,
Gideon Oppenheimer ’47 (who entered with ’45). I knew
Giddy on Spectator, then saw him in the Army where he served
as an intelligence officer; we met again regularly after we returned.
We also were what could be called “Larry’s boys”
— those who came under the influence of the future dean, Lawrence
Chamberlain, soon after he arrived as a government instructor in
1941, and stayed in touch with him ever after.
I’m sure it was Larry (who also came from Idaho) who steered
Giddy to Boise when he wanted to move from Manhattan somewhere closer
to the open country. (One minor correction: I think it took a number
of years after he graduated from the Law School in ’49 before
he ventured West.) I know he loved it there. He never mentioned
his success as an Idaho appeals lawyer (Larry did), but he did report
enthusiastically on his successful recruiting for Columbia there.
I remember the shocked sadness that overcame our
otherwise joyous 25th reunion at Harriman in 1969 when the dean
at the time told us of Giddy’s untimely death — not
a member of our class, but well-known and liked by many of us.
Henry Rolf Hecht ’44
I am happy that Barack Obama ’83 is getting so much favorable
publicity. You seem to “lionize” him. However, in his
own often repeated words and statements, he only acknowledges that
he went to Harvard Law School, without mentioning having gone to
Columbia College. So, while we all wish him well, don’t you
think that we should let somebody else spend words and energy to
“crimsonize” him — and save our Columbia words
and energy for somebody who really appreciates having gone to Columbia
Robert Tang ’71
Thanks for the piece on cartoonist of R.J. Matson ’85 (January
2005). He may cringe at his old College strips, but I remember them
fondly. My favorite was a mid-’80s piece, “The Student:
A Higher Look at Comic Education.” It pictures a ruffled,
young Columbian who returns to campus from a night of drinking and
belatedly remembers he has a paper due at 9 a.m. The student then
pulls an all-nighter typing out an awful paper. Convinced that he’s
going to fail, he prays to Alma Mater. When the professor incredibly
gives him an A, the student heads right back to the bar. College
life reduced to a few simply drawn frames. Brilliant.
Graham G. Dodds ’88
During my senior year, Sidney Morgenbesser took over the senior
seminar from James Guttmann, with whom the four of us who were majoring
in philosophy had started that year. I made my way through a decidedly
challenging experience with Morgenbesser.
Following graduation, I was involved in a serious automobile accident
and sustained injuries that were still evident after returning to
Columbia graduate school in the fall to study Russian language and
I ran into Morgenbesser shortly after the fall semester began
and he said, “You look terrible; what happened to you?”
I recounted the whole story, and in a wonderful blending of past
and present, he said, “You should have told me; I wouldn’t
have been so hard on you.”
He was a challenging and memorable man.
Arthur Alexander ’61
I mentioned the name Leffert Lefferts ’62 to my wife, Jane
(Newham) Barnard ’65, while I was reading the obituaries in
the January CCT. An architect, Jane also is writing a book
on the origin of the street names of Brooklyn. She observed that
Leffert Lefferts was undoubtedly a descendant of an early Dutch
settler of Brooklyn, Leffert Pieterse van Hagewont. He settled in
Flatbush in 1660 and had many sons who, in the Dutch custom, adopted
the patronymic, Leffertse, or son of Leffert.
Hundreds of years later, there are a few traces left in Brooklyn
of this distinguished family. Prospect Lefferts Gardens is a well-preserved
neighborhood adjacent to Prospect Park and was the site of a farm
owned by Leffert Pieterse. The Lefferts Homestead was moved from
Flatbush Avenue and Maple Street to Prospect Park in 1918 and can
be visited today.
Judge Leffert Lefferts (1774–1847) was from another branch
of the family and owned considerable property near Fulton Street
and Bedford Avenue, where two small streets, Lefferts Place and
Brevoort Place, mark the location of Judge Lefferts’ home.
Like his presumed descendant, the earlier Lefferts graduated from
Columbia College (Class of 1794).
James McGroarty ’64 M.D.
[Editor’s note: There’s also a Lefferts Boulevard
in Queens, named for John Lefferts (Class of 1846).]