An Open Letter to Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger

Now, when precisely gravitas and depth of analysis is needed on campus as an antidote to the war hysteria that is sweeping the mass media and pressing upon the President, Columbia is just another weak reed, contributing its pitiful bit to the hysteria. And that is intolerable. It makes a mockery of higher education as a pillar of pluralism in our society. Read on…




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An Open Letter to Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger

      by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Mr. President,

I have just looked over the latest issue of Columbia Magazine. Both from the article entitled “Going Places” and from your interview in “The Evolving University” I am greatly impressed by your vision and by the enormous success of your fund-raising and development team in realizing a grand renewal of the institution. I say ‘bravo’ to you and the staff.

I also mention that where I live, in Brussels, I have felt the new dynamism of the Alumni Association both at our national Club and in the greater European region. This is all to the good.

However, in my own parochial corner of Columbia, Russian studies, I am deeply disappointed and at times shocked by the primitive state of affairs today. I also see no reason to expect better days ahead.

Columbia is where I took my doctorate in 1975. And it is where I came back in the academic year 2010-2011 as a Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute. That year gave me a rather complete and depressing picture of how the administrators and instructors in my field have abandoned the notion of diversity in favor of advocacy and conformism as ‘freedom fighters’ on the Russian front. Even casual perusal of the list of events hosted by The Harriman Institute over the course of an academic year  proves that the program has been hijacked by one side in the debate over the nature of the Russian state and the prospects for relations with it.

Subsequent visits to Columbia to participate in the annual conventions of the Association for the Study of Nationalities held in the SIA Building under the aegis of the Harriman Institute left me in no doubt that a kind of McCarthyism, of absolute intolerance for unconventional thinking about Russia had become the order of the day.

I think in particular of the 2013 convention where perhaps the most egregious case was a presentation entitled “Implications of the Pussy Riot Affair.” The panel clearly consisted of friends of friends, all sharing one political agenda. In several other panel presentations as well, I saw that the presenters assumed that they and the audience were all one happy family of Putin/Kremlin/Russia bashers, that we all believe that the ‘regime’ in Moscow is illegitimate and ripe for overthrow, and that any and all charges against it issued from the dais require no back-up because they are common knowledge. Anyone daring to raise an awkward question was dismissed from the dais as a ‘stooge of Putin.’ Given the host status of The Harriman Institute and its titular interest in Russian affairs, the institution cannot escape responsibility for these abuses.

Until the Ukrainian crisis shocked the American establishment out of its complacency over the imagined permanence of the post-Cold War order, one could understand why my field had done little more than tread water over the past two decades at Columbia just as was the case at other major centers across the country. The Harriman is now led by staff who simply cannot fill the shoes of a Marshall Shulman, who do not have the gravitas to bring reason to bear on popular mood swings such as once justified the institution’s endowment by Governor Harriman.

The shortcomings of the Harriman Institute and of the broader Columbia community of scholars in Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies did not matter much till now.  But NOW, when precisely gravitas and depth of analysis is needed on campus as an antidote to the war hysteria that is sweeping the mass media and pressing upon the President, Columbia is just another weak reed, contributing its pitiful bit to the hysteria that has us as a nation lurching to the precipice with each twist of events in and around Ukraine. And that is intolerable. It makes a mockery of higher education as a pillar of pluralism in our society.

As an example of what bothers me and should bother you, I cite below an events announcement from the Harriman which I received at the start of this week.  Is it reasonable in a community of the enlightened to talk about Putin as a madman?  as a Hitler? Yes, I can imagine that this was raised to draw the attention of a prospective audience. But it is giving legitimacy to views that have no place on campus.


 I understand, even if I intensely dislike, when the mass media engages in ad hominem argumentation. But why is this going on at Columbia, one of the two founders of area studies in 1949 alongside Harvard?   Why is the same faculty member appearing on programs produced by Comedy Central to pitch jokes to the television audience about the current crisis which is evolving along a doomsday scenario? See—kimberly-marten-extended-interview-pt–1

I mention this one faculty member because the example is ready to hand.  But it is not an issue of one or two faculty members, it is an institutionalized turn away from civil discourse and towards stultifying conformism that leaves the research of all faculty much the poorer and less helpful in guiding our federal government  and the broader public to see its way through devilishly complex issues in these trying times.

I wish to emphasize that the point is NOT to replace the prevailing bias of Harriman-sponsored events with another bias: rather it is to remove all tendentiousness insofar as humanly possible and position the university as a neutral platform for debate of vital issues.

In closing, I urge that you convene a committee of inquiry consisting of outside experts and non-experts from civil society to look into these allegations and, if they are justified, to recommend remedial actions.

I am prepared to submit to such a committee a list detailing the failure of The Harriman Institute to live up to its important calling and expectations of its benefactor. The issues include skewed programming, unprofessional management of conferences on University property, preoccupations which may be related to funds taken from Russian sources.  These weak points at the Harriman have no doubt been aggravated by SIPA’s decision a couple of years ago to de-link the master’s in international and public affairs from the area studies programs of the Harriman and other institutes.  The pool at the Harriman has become especially stagnant.

Respectfully yours,

Gilbert Doctorow



Exhibit A:

Russia: An Enigma Once More?

Monday, May 12, 2014, 6:30-7:30 pm

Columbia Alumni  Center, 622 W. 113th Street (between Broadway and Riverside)


A talk by Kimberly Marten, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science, Barnard College;

Deputy Director for Development, Harriman Institute.


What is motivating Vladimir Putin?  The puzzles seem to be multiplying, even as the Russian economy stagnates.  First was the enormous, bank-breaking expenditure on the Sochi Olympics, amid accusations of massive corruption and a human rights crackdown.  Then came the brazen military seizure of Ukrainian Crimea, and a new move toward greater-Russia ethnic nationalism by Kremlin leaders.  Has Putin gone mad?  Is he a new Hitler?  Or is Russia now winning a well-plotted chess game against the West?  Kimberly Marten will provide her take on the issues.


Space is limited, pre-registration is preferred.


         © Gilbert Doctorow, 2014



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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.