The Choice Columbia University Made - Then and Now

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The speech delivered by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University on September 24 has been dissected at length by the press and the media. What is less known is the fact that the university found itself in a similar position seventy four years ago, but with a very different outcome. Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, reports, on George Mason University's History News Network, that in 1933, Hans Luther, Nazi Germany's ambassador to the United States and a senior official of Adolf Hitler's regime, was invited by the president of Columbia to speak on campus and to be the guest of honor at a reception. The visit caused an uproar among students and faculty. Students who criticized the invitation were derided by the university as "ill-mannered children". President Nicholas Murray Butler continued to face ongoing protests throughout the decade, as Columbia insisted on maintaining friendly relations with Nazi-controlled German universities through student exchanges and participation in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg. Eventually, in the late 1930s Dr. Butler belatedly changed his position and spoke out against the Nazis. Dr. Medoff suggests that, in giving President Ahmadinejad a public forum this week, the current Columbia administration "seems to have learned so little from the mistakes of the 1930s". But is that really so? A New York Times editorial of September 25 supports the university's decision to invite the Iranian leader to speak. The Times states, " We can imagine no better way to give hope to opponents of Iran's repressive state than by showcasing America's democracy and commitment to free speech. And we can imagine no better way to lay bare the bankruptcy of Mr. Ahmadinejad's views than to have him speak, and be questioned, at a university forum." Should Columbia University have invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak? Isn't this how a democratic society and an educational institution should treat this "petty and cruel dictator", as Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president, described Mr. Ahmadinejad - offering him the right of free speech, but, at the same time, forcing him to confront the student protesters who challenged him for his Holocaust denial, his threats against Israel and the repression of Iran's citizens?