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(photo credit: http://www.gs.columbia.edu)
Columbia University was struggling with damage control a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a controversial appearance on campus.
But at the same time, some who opposed the university's invitation took comfort in the fact that Ahmadinejad came across as the "petty and cruel dictator" he was known to be.
The remarks by university President Lee Bollinger - who also called the Iranian president "ridiculous" and questioned whether he would "have the intellectual courage to answer [these] questions" - seemed to echo larger than the Iranian president's, leaving some to wonder why the university invited him in the first place.
Bollinger defended the university's decision on New York radio on Tuesday, saying "I would be stupefied if anyone in the audience in any way thought plausible what he says about the Holocaust and treatment of Israel."
Bollinger was also pushed to defend his introduction, which some criticized as being too harsh, and others as pandering to outside criticism.
"I think it's extremely important that the full force of one's beliefs and challenges be expressed at an event like this; it's too easy to slip into polite discourse, and the tone and character of the event had to convey this kind of challenge."
Joey Spitz, a first-year student at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, said he absolutely agreed with the decision to host Ahmadinejad.
"If we are truly pluralistic, we need figures we don't agree with to come here as well," said Spitz. "No matter how controversial or how disagreeable, I was proud to see the sincerity the university holds for [the] ethos of pluralism and exchange of ideas."
Spitz praised Bollinger for his introduction, which he said encapsulated who Ahmadinehad was: "A fanatic."
"I don't see much merit in what he said. He seemed to be rambling and quoting biblical texts," said Spitz. "The event was definitely a highlight for so many; people talked about it as the greatest moment of their lives, and it will be talked about for years to come - especially if Ahmadinejad continues to do despicable things."
Spitz said he had been pleasantly surprised to hear Bollinger's introduction: "I felt this was his opportunity to clarify the situation about inviting him."
Bita Badiee, 24, who traveled from Miami to protest against Ahmadinejad outside the UN Tuesday, criticized the decision to invite the Iranian leader to Columbia.
"He comes here and he has the right to say what he wants. But if one student there wants to say what they want, not only are they not given the opportunity, but they're punished," she said.
Another young protester who condemned the Columbia invitation, Ali Kavyani, said simply: "It was an insult to America and Iran."
The press had mixed reactions, with some columnists praising Bollinger for posing a serious challenge and others contending that Bollinger's words had come too late.
"Bollinger totally, and very effectively, trashed the guy in his introduction," wrote Time political columnist Joe Klein. "Bottom line: This sort of freedom always works to our benefit. Those who screeched that an Ahmadinejad appearance would be terrible, a travesty of something or other, seem sort of silly now."
However, Michael Goodwin, writing for the New York Daily News, called Bollinger's "surprising verbal smackdown" "too little, too late."
It was clear, he wrote, that Bollinger had "goofed" in inviting the Iranian president to the campus in the first place. "The Columbia prez treated his 'guest' only slightly better than smelly dog-doo on his shoe."
Despite much criticism preceding the event, a Daily News Web poll reported that 57 percent of respondents supported Columbia's inviting Ahmadinejad to the campus.
But some wondered why, with such harsh opening words, the university had even issued the invitation - a question that critics hurled at Bollinger upon first learning of the university's decision.
"What's a little confusing is that after deciding to let the Iranian President speak as a way to promote debate, he nails the guy to the proverbial cross with his searing introduction," wrote Malcolm Friedberg of the Huffington Post.
"On the one hand, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears to deserve nothing less for his hateful positions and policies. But if that's the case, then why invite him to speak at all?"
This sentiment was shared by Iranians, who criticized Bollinger's statements as "shameful" and only added to their image of the United States as a bully.
Michael Dorf, a Columbia Law School professor and expert on free speech, has been looking over Bollinger's introductory remarks with a fine-toothed comb.
Reading between the lines, Dorf said it was clear Bollinger would not have invited Ahmadinejad to campus, and he used his introduction to make this clear. "Bollinger did not think it would be a valuable exchange of ideas, but [John] Coatsworth is the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs and can invite whom he chooses."
Despite the fact that Bollinger decided not to intervene with Coatsworth's decision, the invitation was stamped with Columbia University.
"It was seen as a Columbia event, and Bollinger knew he would take the blame for it, so he might as well mitigate the damage clearly, which is what he did in his remarks," said Dorf.
Bollinger's remarks reflected his "awkward position" in having to defend an invitation he didn't issue, said Dorf.
"It wasn't a set up, but it looks like that," said Dorf.
Though Dorf said he would not have invited Ahmadinejad, he thought his presence raised consciousness in the US about exactly what the sins of Ahmadinejad were.
"In that sense, it served a useful function here," said Dorf. "But we were not effective at persuading Iran or the world of the case against him by inviting him and then dumping on him."
Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.
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