Columbia's Bollinger on Iran's Ahmadinejad

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Robert Siegel speaks to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger about the introduction he gave a speech by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the school. Bollinger told Ahmadinejad that his policies made him appear to be a cruel and petty dictator.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, delivered a scathing introduction to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday when he appeared on the Columbia campus. Bollinger told Ahmadinejad that his policies made him appear to be a cruel and petty dictator, and he addressed his Holocaust denials directly.

Mr. LEE BOLLINGER (President, Columbia University): In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a fabricated legend. One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers. For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you would come to a place like this, this makes you quite simply ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

Your absurd comments about the debate over the Holocaust both defy historical truth and make all of us who continue to fear humanity's capacity for evil shudder at this closure of memory, which is always virtue's first line of defense. Will you cease this outrage?

SIEGEL: Lee Bollinger has since been criticized by everyone, from former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, to the chancellors of seven Iranian universities. And he's joining us now from Columbia. Welcome to the program, President Bollinger. How do you respond to the complaint, first, from John Bolton and others that Columbia gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad precisely what he wants and that is publicity?

Mr. BOLLINGER: I think that's not really the issue of him. But when he visited here, there were many interviews on CBS and CNN and so on, and of course, his statements at the General Assembly. So he has plenty of opportunities to make his points known. I think if you're going to have someone like this with the views and the actions that he has taken and appears to continue to take, it's extremely important to speak honestly, authentically and directly to those beliefs and actions. And that's what free speech is. And there's always a risk that there'll be some set of etiquette of politeness in the event that will give this a sense of implicit endorsement. And in a real serious dialogue, which I wanted to make this, it's extremely important to have the notions right as well as the word.

SIEGEL: But let me take the word beyond publicity to something that Columbia can't confer that a journalist interview might not, and that is a certain amount of dignity, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presentation was worthy of an academic audience at a great American university.

Mr. BOLLINGER: Well, remember that this invitation originated with faculty from the Middle East and also - the Middle East Studies and also, primarily, from the dean of the School of International Affairs. So when you're really training people to be diplomats and members of the Foreign Service and in government and policy positions, it's very important to know what the world is like - who's in it, what kind of views they hold and how they reason, how they present themselves.

So the only reason for inviting people is in order to advance the educational and research missions of the university, and that can include inviting people whose views and thinking really don't represent what the ideal is. So it really has to be a greater sense of leeway and scope to protect academic freedom fully.

SIEGEL: Well, now, let's say the criticism that you're hearing from some Iranians, including the heads of universities there, which is that unlike diplomats, who might hear out some very odious ideas and very unattractive leaders, that the tone of the presentation and the tone of your questions to Ahmadinejad were - in their view - rude. And at least one Iranian man on the street is quoted in a wire services dispatch is saying that you and the audience behave like cowboys in dealing with their president.

Mr. BOLLINGER: Well, I think I would describe it as a very strong dialogue and debate. And when you have views that the Holocaust didn't occur and you hold conferences on that, and you make statements about destroying Israel, and you're threatening the world with your nuclear programs arguably, and other things, as well as repression inside the society - not to confront them in a really full hearted way, I think, is the bigger mistake.

SIEGEL: After the event, are you hearing criticisms of this sort from faculty, alumni, students at Columbia?

Mr. BOLLINGER: Anytime you do something like this, I'm afraid there are a range of views on every part of this on whether or not he ever should have been invited, and then whether or not the event should have been conducted in this way. I think if you were just there and you saw the students out in the main quadrangle and you saw the students inside the room and you followed the student discussions over the preceding days before that and then afterwards, I think you would reach the conclusion fairly that the - it was just an enormous benefit in terms of a rich dialogue, discussion, debates, protests and the like. So I think while there's always going to be criticism on something like this, I think the overwhelming sense of this was it was free speech at its best.

SIEGEL: Any second thoughts, regrets of things that might have been done better with this visit?

Mr. BOLLINGER: Well, you know, it's too soon, too quick after the event. I think one always has to be self-reflective about something like this. Basically, I'm very proud in the institution and especially of the students. And I think that free speech is hard, and engaging in robust speeches is hard and not easy. It would have been not good, I think, if this had simply been come-and-give-a-speech, answer-a-few-questions and that's the end of that. It really had to take on these issues in a very forthright and sincere and emotional way as well as intellectual way, and I think that happened.

SIEGEL: Just one last point in the non - among the non-academic duties or non-scholarly duties of a university president, raising money is a big one. Have you had people say to you, that's it. I'm not contributing anymore. Or I'm rethinking that chair that I might have endowed or whatever level of objection it might be?

Mr. BOLLINGER: Well, I can tell you honestly, I'm very well aware of the connection between events on the campus and fundraising. And my experience has been there are some people who will stop giving. There are some people who will give more. But fundamentally, these are the things that universities do. And people who give money to the institution realize that, and they don't allow it to interfere with their feelings about the institution in that way.

SIEGEL: Lee Bollinger, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Mr. BOLLINGER: Thank you. Sure.

SIEGEL: Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, talking about the appearance there this week of Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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