Speaking as someone who still believes in free speech and in allowing people to speak even while protesting their ideas:
I understand that Columbia U's president, Lee C. Bollinger, was under tremendous pressure for having invited Ahmadinejad in the first place. But the university is supposed to be a place where ideas are freely exchanged. We don't want to indoctrinate our students; we want to teach them to think critically. What a great opportunity for students to hear, first-hand, not only what this man's beliefs are, but also the political spin he puts on them. I mean, think about the possibilities for learning, here - about international politics, about addressing conflict in a rational way, about using research and evidence to argue a point - these opportunities only increase when we come face to face with notables whom we revile, particularly if they're smart.
The free exchange of ideas is not helped when a university president feels it necessary to critique and insult the invited speaker as a preface to his remarks: "'Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,' adding, 'You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.'"
In response to what the Times called an "attack," President Ahmadinejad noted the following: "In Iran, tradition requires when you invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students enough to allow them to make their own judgment, and don’t think it’s necessary before the speech is even given to come in with a series of complaints to provide vaccination to the students and faculty."
And you know what? He's absolutely right (in theory, anyway - from what little I know about Iran's history, I'm pretty sure that these traditions haven't always been followed, if you know what I mean). Now, I'm not giving this man the moral high ground. I'm just saying that Bollinger should have stuck to his guns, not caved to what I'm guessing was both political and financial pressure, and simply let the talk happen. There was no need to launch an attack. What purpose does that serve? Do we honestly think that the people who were there in support of Ahmadinejad - if there were any - suddenly saw the light after Bollinger's digs? Or do we suspect that maybe, seeing this man treated so unprofessionally, they were even more stubbornly convinced that he was right?
Is this the future of academic debate? I hope not.
And, FWIW, it makes me sick to see the Times jumping on board, as well - almost as sick as I am made by the fact that, in all of this, somehow President Bush has emerged looking like a man of integrity and intellect:
"'When you really think about it,' Mr. Bush said, 'he's the head of a state sponsor of terror, he’s — and yet an institution in our country gives him a chance to express his point of view, which really speaks to the freedoms of the country.'"