Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, heavily criticized for allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the school, on Monday was enthusiastically applauded for his tough remarks to the Iranian leader.
“I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for,” Bollinger said to Ahmadinejad. “I only wish I could do better.”
Bollinger and the school had been attacked for days by politicians who said it was wrong to give the Iranian leader a platform and by Jewish leaders offended by Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust.
On Monday, page-long ads appeared in newspapers lambasting the school’s decision. Some state lawmakers said they would carefully examine any requests by the school for funding in the future, but they stopped short of trying to revoke promised funding.
But when Bollinger spoke Monday, he was met with sustained applause, and audience members said they were impressed with his forceful speech.
“I thought Bollinger’s introduction was good,” said Arash Nia, a graduate student at Columbia’s Teacher’s College. “Columbia’s reputation was under attack. By giving that speech he was saying, ‘We invited you, but we don’t agree with what you stand for.’ For Columbia, and the world’s views of Columbia, it was the perfect thing to say.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who did not attend the speech, said he disagreed with any effort to cut funding to the Ivy League university.
“The message that we’re sending when we criticize Columbia is that we don’t believe in our own values,” the mayor said. “I can’t stand this guy (Ahmadinejad), but to go and to give the terrorists what they want and to give the people who dislike this country ammunition by saying we don’t even have the freedoms that we preach is just not very smart.”
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that she expected Bollinger to make appropriate comments and that his remarks weren’t the issue.
“I didn’t expect Lee Bollinger to say Ahmadinejad is a moderate or he’s been misunderstood,” she said. “The forum he provided is the issue. He and his university gave this hatemonger an opportunity to speak on one of the most prestigious stages in all the world.”
In his introduction to Ahmadinejad’s talk, Bollinger assailed the Iranian leader on his Holocaust denial and his country’s suspected human rights violations and nuclear weapons program.
“You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated,” he told Ahmadinejad. “Will you cease this outrage?”
During his prepared remarks, the Iranian president did not address Bollinger’s accusations directly, instead launching into a long religious talk and criticism of American governments.
Bollinger promised tough questions, but the strident and personal nature of his attack on the president of Iran was startling.
An English student from nearby Barnard College, Andrea Bachenofen, said Ahmadinejad “was set up to come across defensively.”
“Bollinger’s introduction was an attack and one-sided, and it biased students’ views before he (Ahmadinejad) could respond,” Bachenofen said.
Other audience members said Bollinger’s speech could have been more tactful, and they suggested his remarks were so harsh because he was under severe pressure from the Jewish community.
Protests over the event started last week at the school, with politicians and other civic leaders expressing outrage over the invitation to speak.
On Monday, crowds gathered at the lecture hall where Ahmadinejad spoke, linking arms and singing traditional Jewish folk songs about peace and brotherhood. Thousands of people jammed two blocks across from the United Nations to protest Ahmadinejad’s visit to the city.
Ahmadinejad is in the city for the U.N. General Assembly.
Columbia canceled a planned Ahmadinejad appearance last year, citing security and logistical reasons. Earlier this month, a planned speech at the school by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project, was canceled, but that was a decision by the student group that sponsored the event, not the university.
Associated Press writers Nahal Toosi, Sara Kugler, Aaron Clark and Karen Matthews in New York and Jessica M. Pasko in Albany contributed to this report.
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