Columbia U. president reportedly declines Iran invite

By Lien Hoang

NEW YORK – Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has declined Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s invitation to visit his country, the Washington Post reported earlier this month. Although he solicited the invite during Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia on Sept. 24, “Bollinger cited security and other concerns” for not only rejecting the invitation, but banning official faculty visits to Iran, according to the Post.

“I have an interest in going, but I decided that it’s just not appropriate to send anyone now,” Bollinger told the Post.

University spokesman John Tucker confirmed that the Post article was accurate, but said he couldn’t elaborate beyond that.

Several faculty members said they were unaware of the announcement.

History professor Victoria de Grazia, who signed the faculty letter last month that expressed concerns about Bollinger’s regard for academic freedom, distinguished between official and independent visits.

“My understanding is … Bollinger asked no faculty to go to Iran claiming they are representing Columbia University,” she said. “However, if tomorrow I decided I want to go to Iran with my research funds for an intellectual purpose or wanting to visit colleagues, I would go freely.”

She added that, “given that this is free country,” it’s “inconceivable that President Bollinger, a major advocate of the First Amendment, of the free speech movement, would ban faculty from going to Iran.”

Business professor Jonathan Levav joked that the ban probably wouldn’t affect him.

“Being Israeli, I can’t go to Iran anyway because I’m from a country that doesn’t exist, so being banned from entering Iran is not something I lose sleep over,” said Levav, who signed a different faculty letter defending Bollinger.

But Levav agreed with de Grazia, saying he’d like the chance to visit the Iran. “If an Iranian university invited me to go, yeah, I’d want to go, Ahmadinejad notwithstanding.” But Levav also said it was “weird [of Bollinger] to ban visits.”

John Coatsworth, interim dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, noted that both presidents agreed that a delegation of Columbia students should study in Iran. But Coatsworth, who moderated Ahmadinejad’s speech in September, said, “I think in the current circumstances, it would be difficult to send a delegation that would have an academic or educational purpose because of the likelihood that it would be turned into a media circus …. The whole purpose of such an undertaking might well be obscured. If there’s an opportunity … to reopen academic exchanges and contacts … you should try to do it.”

Joy Resmovits contributed to this article.