As I noted elsewhere last week, Iran’s Mehr News Agency has reported that a contingent of Columbia University professors plan to travel to Iran to apologize “officially” for the rudeness that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffered at the hands of Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger. As the news service left all of these professors “anonymous” and didn’t provide a statement from Bollinger, I had to write that I “sincerely hope [the report is] incorrect,” though I couldn’t bring myself to say that I sincerely believed it was.
Now The New York Times reports that “[o]fficials at Columbia University were taken aback on Tuesday” by the Mehr News Agency’s claims, and one professor commented that it was probably a “metropolitan legend.” That’s a bit silly, as one is surely more inclined to believe that it’s an Iranian fabrication than that Iran has its finger on the pulse of the Upper West Side rumor mill.
The sad fact is that whether or not the story is true, it is perfectly plausible and consistent with the behavior of professors at Columbia and other schools. Once you’ve invited a dictator to your institution and then drafted a letter, signed by dozens of professors, condemning your own university president, is it any wonder the public is quick to believe that a Sean Penn-style fact-finding mission is next? (Note also that Victoria de Grazia, a professor who simply denied all knowledge to the Times, told the Columbia Spectator, “I am abroad and I know nothing about what promises to be a fine adventure.”)
The truth is paramount, but this contretemps is a good opportunity for the professorate to reflect on what it would like its reputation to be. When some shoddy Middle Eastern state propaganda organ has got your number, might it not be that you’ve grown a little . . . predictable?