Last fall, shortly after Columbia College instructor Iymen Chehade showed the documentary 5 Broken Cameras in his course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he was summoned to a meeting with Steven Corey, chair of the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Science.
The Oscar-nominated film is a nominally Israeli work (an Israeli codirected, and it had some Israeli funding) with an entirely Palestinian point of view. Mostly filmed by its protagonist, Emad Burnat, it chronicles the life of his young West Bank family, along with six years of protests against Israel's wall of separation, which had cut off part of the Palestinian village of Bil'in's agricultural land. In the end—thanks to an Israeli court decision in the village's favor and the increasing visibility of the protests—a portion of the wall is moved back toward the Israeli settlements that loom on the near horizon.
Chehade recalls that in their meeting Corey informed him a student had complained of bias in his class, and had mentioned 5 Broken Cameras in particular. Chehade, who's been a part-time faculty member at Columbia since 2007, says Corey also questioned his qualifications and told him that he should be "more balanced" in his teaching. Chehade describes the meeting as adversarial, and says he asked why the student hadn't been sent to him, which would have been the normal procedure.
Chehade had already been contracted to teach two sections of the same course for the spring semester, but a week after this meeting, and just hours after registration opened, one of those sections was canceled.
In a phone interview Corey said he and Chehade talked at the meeting about presenting "multiple perspectives" in the course. He denied ever telling Chehade to be "more balanced," and said he told the student to talk with him, then come back if things weren't resolved. He also said the class was canceled because the school had to cut back and in the previous spring term the class had only been half filled.
Chehade has an answer for that: he says the course had an enrollment of 12 instead of the maximum 25 last spring because it was scheduled for Saturday mornings at 9 AM, not a popular time with students. "This is the latest example of them going fishing in terms of finding reasons," he says.
Chehade complained to P-fac, Columbia's union for part-time faculty, which filed a grievance charging that his academic freedom had been violated when the course was dropped. The grievance was denied, as were two appeals, the last decided by Columbia's academic vice president and interim provost, Louise Love.
But last month the Illinois branch of the American Association of University Professors, investigating at Chehade's request, weighed in on his side. In a report addressed to Love, Peter Kirstein, chair of an AAUP committee on academic freedom, issued the finding that, given the manner in which the student complaint was handled and the subsequent course cancellation, "Professor Chehade's academic freedom was violated."
Chehade was born and raised in Chicago; he earned his master's degree in history and education at UIC. But his parents came from Palestine, and he's made Middle Eastern history and politics his academic specialty. Like many adjuncts, he juggles multiple teaching gigs, which currently include SAIC and Roosevelt. He says his Israeli-Palestinian course at Columbia is especially popular and almost always fills up. Student comments on Rate My Professors praise both his teaching and his "super gorgeous" looks. (Chehade has also tried his hand at acting and playwriting. Last year you might have seen him playing Tony Rezko in Agency Theater Collective's Blagojevich docudrama I Wish to Apologize to the People of Illinois. In 2009 he produced a play of his own, Garden of the Three, about a Palestinian family in occupied territory.)
A group of supporters, mostly Columbia students and faculty, organized a March 20 forum at the college that attracted about 60 people. In a brief speech there, Chehade admitted he'd received complaints about the course before, but said no student had ever accused him of a bias that affected a grade. And he maintained that to present as balanced a conflict pitting a powerful state against an occupied people would be "absurd" and "a lie."
"So I don't do that," Chehade said in his remarks. "I offer my students the opportunity to see the reality of the situation on the ground."
He also told the group that prior to walking into his appeal meeting with Love, he knew that as associate provost at Roosevelt University she'd defended a department chair who referred to Palestinians as "animals" and "not civilized." (The department chair had been referring to suicide bombers.)
"Could you imagine if someone said that about other groups—African-Americans, Jews? Would they have a job?" Chehade asked the audience. "Would the people that support them have a job?"
Other speakers at the forum included representatives from Students for Justice in Palestine/Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia and Ali Abunimah, author and cofounder of online publication the Electronic Intifada. Abunimah said he sees Chehade's situation as part of "a general assault on academic freedom at universities." He said that university presidents will "do what makes donors and corporations happy" and "fawn over war criminals," and noted that he was part of a group that shouted down a speech by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert at the University of Chicago in 2009. Forum moderator Eric Ruder encouraged anyone who hadn't yet signed to check out an online petition supporting Chehade that had already attracted thousands of signatures.
Columbia College issued a statement last week objecting to the AAUP committee's findings and accusing it of relying on one-sided information. According to the statement, Chehade's course was dropped because of "scheduling and enrollment demands" and the problem is a "pending labor-relations matter." Columbia maintains that it firmly supports academic freedom, and that "the AAUP failed to produce any credible evidence to suggest otherwise." Love wasn't available for comment.
The AAUP letter recommends that Chehade be offered two sections of the course in the fall, and that Columbia reassess the way it handles student complaints, claiming that this one "should have been dismissed."
"The issue of 'balance' is frequently used to rein in a professor from critical thinking," wrote Kirstein. "Columbia College acted in a manner that strongly suggests a desire to suppress a narrative that deviates from the predominant accepted discourse on matters pertaining to the long-standing conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian population living in the West Bank and Gaza."
P-fac is seeking an outside arbitrator.