University of Michigan students and faculty are split over whether or not Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should have been allowed to speak at Columbia University yesterday.

Chris Herring

Some on campus defended Columbia’s decision to host Ahmadinejad. Others were outraged that it hosted a political leader who has called the Holocaust a myth.

University of Michigan officials wouldn’t say whether they would let a similar figure speak here.

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said she wouldn’t speculate on whether the University would allow Ahmadinejad to speak, but pointed to a statement by E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student affairs, that explained the University’s free expression policy.

“It is a fundamental value of our University that all members of the community and their invited guests have a right to express their views and opinions, regardless of whether others may disagree with those expressions,” the statement reads.

Leaders of some University of Michigan pro-Israel groups slammed Columbia and its president, former University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger.

“Our campus should never extend an invitation to a man actively engaged in murdering our soldiers and terrorizing not only his own Iranian people but the world,” said Ari Siegel, the president of Israel IDEA.

Ben Hamburger, the chair of the student governing board of University of Michigan Hillel, an umbrella organization for campus Jewish groups, said in a written statement that Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust and failure to address human rights abuses in Iran are “reprehensible.”

“While a university must strive to ensure that even reprehensible views can be expressed, it isn’t obligated to invite and provide a platform for someone, however famous or infamous, to voice them,” Hamburger said.

Public Policy Prof. Paul Courant, head of the University’s libraries and a former provost, said the Ahmadinejad controversy wasn’t just a Jewish issue, but part of a larger debate about the boundaries of academic discussion.

“The things he says about Israel and the Holocaust are ridiculous,” Courant said. “But this isn’t principally an issue about Judaism or Israel. He’s a world leader and he has a lot of power – what makes him tick?”

Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia yesterday afternoon as a guest of the ongoing World Leaders Forum sponsored by the school’s School of International and Public Affairs. Bollinger condemned Ahmadinejad in his introduction.

“Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” he said.

Then Ahmadinejad addressed the crowd and took questions.

His answers elicited reactions ranging from anger to laughter.

When asked about Iran’s alleged execution of gays, Ahmadinejad responded: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like you have in your country . I don’t know who told you we have this.”

He called Iranian women “the freest in the world,” bemoaned what he called Israeli oppression of Palestinians and invited everyone not at Columbia to “come and visit Iran for themselves.”

The World Leaders Forum website streamed live video of the session, as did news outlets like CNN and the New York Post. Columbia’s student newspaper, The Columbia Spectator, temporarily replaced its regular website with the Ahmadineblog, devoted to the day’s events.

Not everyone thought Ahmadinejad was the only party that behaved badly at Columbia University.

“It was sad when I read that (Bollinger) harshly criticized (Ahmadinejad),” said Nick Morteza, an engineering doctoral student and board member of the University of Michigan’s Iranian Graduate Students Association. Morteza says he does not oppose or support Ahmadinejad, but he thinks a university should provide an open forum for debate.

“We should allow everyone to express their ideas,” he said.

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