Columbia University Invites Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler to Speak?

What if Columbia University invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, and Adolf Hitler to speak?

Columbia_University_LogoThere has been a great deal of attention paid lately to Columbia’s invitation to have Ahmadinejad participate in a Q&A session with faculty and students on Monday in an event sponsored by the university’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

John Coatsworth, dean of the school, released the following statement about the event and the school’s decision to not rescind the invitation:

“Opportunities to hear, challenge and learn from controversial speakers of different views are central to the education and training of students for citizenship in a shrinking and still dangerous world. This is especially true for SIPA students, many of whose careers will require them to confront human rights and security issues throughout the globe.”

Later, in a television interview aired on Fox (and posted on YouTube), Coatsworth explained that if Hitler were alive today the school would have no problem inviting him to participate in the same type of event. As much as I am all for exploring different ideas and learning from every experience and individual, I am significantly concerned, yet also conflicted over the school’s stand in this situation.

To endorses Ahmadinejad twisted world view and legitimizes his opinions as academically sound. Ironically, Ahmadinejad would waste no time in sending every faculty member of Columbia to prison for thinking anything other than his party line if the school were in Iran.

Giving him a soapbox on which to proclaim his baseless and maniacal theories seems like a bad choice, as I doubt doing so will give anyone greater insight into the substance of his standpoints. I liken it to the desire of people after a tragic incident such as the shootings at Virginia Tech to understand “why” the violence was perpetrated. But, would the rambling words of a sociopath ever make any sense to those with a rational mind?

Conversely, a colleague of mine shared with me the following thought earlier today:

“Whatever we repress comes back to bite us. When you shine a light in a dark place, there is no longer darkness.”

Grounding this in a human developmental and psychological theory, her very valid point is that simply ignoring something doesn’t keep it from becoming a problem.  And, by confronting it head on you can deal with it directly and intentionally. I can also understand this approach and, to a degree, feel there is strength in confrontation and interaction.

So then should there be limits to academic inquiry or should any experience be seen as one from which learning can occur? This then opens the Pandora’s Box of who is empowered to decide what is and what is not academic inquiry. Frankly, I don’t know if I am comfortable giving anyone that power.

Are you?