There is a speech I would not have looked forward to giving -- "welcoming" President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Columbia campus. Luckily it fell to President Lee Bollinger and not to me. Talk about a no-win situation.
President Bollinger, who was Provost at Dartmouth for a few years, scored about 80% on my grading scale. Unfortunately, the areas where he slipped up were rather serious.
So much of his speech is right on the point. Put most simply, we do need to hear what our adversaries have to say. For all the critics of the Iraq war, one would think that there would be overwhelming support for getting the best information possible on Iran before that comes to war as well. And the US can and will take the high road: let our citizens hear Ahmadinejad out, and let them make political decisions. We have elections coming up (lots of evidence of that in Hanover tonight, with all the Democrats in town) and voters should be seriously considering who will best handle the Iranian situation.
But...why then engage in some pretty nasty name-calling? Why call the President of Iran a "petty and cruel dictator?" Why say "I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions?" Why the scornful "You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated?" These are soundbites unbecoming of the President (or even a professor) of one of the world's leading liberal arts universities.
While many seemed to enjoy the sight of Ahmadinejad having to listen to Bollinger's insults, I actually have to hand it to the President of Iran for his response: "In Iran tradition requires that when we in a person to invite to be a speaker we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgment and we don't think it's necessary before this speech is even given to come in with a series of claims and to attempt in a so-called manner to provide vaccination of some sort to our students and our faculty." (Quoted from the Washington Post transcript, with some obvious grammatical problems.) No doubt, Ahmadinejad is no intellectual light weight. Sparring with him would be a good fight.
I also think that Bollinger should have held back on the long list of complaints against Iran. Get up, say why Columbia is having him speak and why people should at least accept that if not be proud of it, and then give him the podium. Save time for questions -- the real learning was in President Ahmadinejad's responses to questions, not in President Bollinger's prepared remarks.
It was a tough situation to be in, with half of the listeners sure to be ticked off no matter what you did. The job of University President is not an easy one.