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Late Wednesday afternoon, students were informed that the President of Iran would be speaking on campus... Monday. The announcement has understandably caused a stir on campus - and around the country - as students, alumni and faculty debate the merits of bringing such a controversial speaker to campus.
A university has an obligation to provide its students opportunities to deepen their knowledge and understanding of world events. Columbia has done as much through its invitation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and should be commended for a decision that will earn it few favors in the public eye.
Columbia's invitation to Ahmadinejad is an impressive demonstration of the university's respect of free speech and open debate. The Iranian leader is a pivotal player on the world stage, and providing him a forum to speak is the best way for the university to live up to its mission to serve as a "center for public discussion and debate on the large economic, political, social, and cultural questions," as stated in the World Leaders Forum literature.
PRESIDENT Ahmadinejad's repression of student protest, denial of the Holocaust, and systematic human rights abuses are reprehensible. However, the university's invitation is not an endorsement of these positions, nor does it legitimize Iran's designated head of state.
We may deplore the fact such a vile man has been elevated to the international stage - as we should - but to deny his status as a political leader would be foolish. Rather, the university's invitation prevents a rare opportunity for students to encounter ideas that run completely counter to their values and sensibilities.
An educated student body must be willing to be challenged by diverse and upsetting ideas, and Columbia's invitation to the president has provided just such an opportunity. However, now that the university has extended this invitation, administrators must ensure that as many students as possible can benefit from this opportunity.
While the university cannot reasonably guarantee that every interested student will have a seat at the event, it should provide overflow rooms where students can watch the speech via simulcast. ADDITIONALLY, all students should be given the opportunity to e-mail questions that they would like the President to address to be considered for selection by President Bollinger or Dean Coatsworth. These measures would ensure that the considerable acrimony and inconvenience generated by Ahmadinejad's appearance are not in vain, and that students are allowed a meaningful academic experience.
Most importantly, students must have the space and resources to coordinate protests against Ahmadinejad's ideas. They must have every opportunity to show their disgust with Ahmadinejad's comments or to protest his presence - provided such demonstrations do not prevent the Iranian president from speaking.
Columbia has offered students an opportunity to be a part of a global conversation about Iran's place on the world stage. The university's students must live up to their end of the bargain - listening attentively and challenging the president on his positions.
From a September 20 Columbia Spectator editorial
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