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Coatsworth: “[Bollinger] was fulfilling an institutional function”

Posted by vmsalama on September 27, 2007

NEW YORK – It’s not everyday that one has the opportunity to hold a lively Question-and-Answer session with one of the world’s most notorious leaders.  For John Coatsworth, Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, coming face to face with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was a rare opportunity to put this controversial leader on the hot seat with regard to a number of issues ranging from his views on the Holocaust, to Iran’s nuclear armament and more.             
Ahmedinejad’s visit to Columbia this week sparked an international debate over whether a man who has referred to the Holocaust as “a myth” and has called for the “elimination” of Israel should be granted an invitation to such a prestigious university.  Columbia went ahead with the program, but to many, the concerns of Ahmedinejad’s critics were satisfied during the blistering introductory remarks delivered by the university’s President Lee Bollinger.             
In this exclusive interview, Coatsworth discusses with Vivian Salama his debate with Ahmedinejad, as well as the controversy surrounding his visit, and Bollinger’s equally controversial speech.   
Vivian Salama: What was your overall impression of President Ahmedinejad’s visit to Columbia? 
John Coatsworth:  There was indeed a debate that seemed to involve principally a relatively small number of people that were unhappy that Columbia had invited President Ahmedinejad.  Even if that number is small in relation to the population, it was a group that was extremely unhappy with what we had done.  The group itself included some people who were related to the Armed Forces.  I got several emails from people who were either in the Armed Forces in Iraq, related to people in Iraq. A much larger number of emails were from people who were concerned about Ahmedinejad’s views on Israel and the Holocaust.  Then there were a number of emails from people who had strong feelings based on some patriotic sentiments.
 Q: What’s your overall assessment of the exchange you had with President Ahmedinejad during the Q&A portion of the program? 
Coatsworth:  I was asking questions on behalf of students.  I wasn’t able to cover all the questions.  I felt President Ahmedinejad to be like many politicians who preferred to answer questions that you don’t ask rather than the ones you do.  I was quite prepared for that and not at all surprised when he responded with an answer that was either inappropriate or off the point.  When he did, it just prompted me to ask the question again.
 Q: What would you liked to have asked him that was not asked or addressed in the forum? 
Coatsworth:  If the forum had been limited to just us, I probably would have asked more about Iranian relations and conditions under which [Ahmedinejad] would be willing to cooperate with United States in achieving peace and stability in the region. I think we could have gotten into a discussion that would have gone on longer but one in which we would have had a more clearer idea of how the Iranians want this whole thing to evolve – so that was a disappointment if you will. 
Q: Many people have criticized Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger for the rather tough remarks he made during his introductory speech.  What’s your take on it? 
Coatsworth: There are three things I can say to this. 
First, we did prepare the Iranians for the fact that [Bollinger] would be sharply challenging the policies of Ahmedinejad at the very outset of the talk
Second, I think the President of the university felt an obligation to distinguish between the invitation we had extended to the speaker on the one hand and endorsing his views on the other. Columbia’s institution does not endorse the views that he sighted in his presentation.  That was an important point for the President to make
Third, I think President Bollinger’s introduction was directed not so much to the people in the auditorium, but to those who had raised objections to the talk itself.  Those were the people he was addressing with those remarks.
Q: Do you think that was fair? 
Coatsworth:  The issue that was raised in most of the comments we received following the event and in the newspapers and emails was the question of courtesy.  I think the comments had been divided between those who believed he was confronting President Ahmedinejad and those who felt his remarks were discourteous – undermining the civility of the event. 
It was meant to be a forum for exchange of ideas.
There were certainly concerns of both sides.  [Bollinger] was fulfilling an institutional function and his approach was appropriate given the circumstances.  It is not my place to second guess him
Q: Do you think the event was a success – especially given the hype before and after the forum? 
Coatsworth: I think it was an educational success in many ways.  It certainly provoked discussions on campus about free speech and how important it was.  It also raised awareness with regard to the nature of US-Iranian relations and what kind of regime Iran is and how we should deal with it in the future
It certainly was an interesting experience for students who feel there is a need to engage those kinds of ideas – especially for those who may go on to hold government or policy making positions in the future.

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