Famed Pulitzer-Prize winner and Mount Holyoke College luminary Professor Joseph Ellis took it on the chin in a devastatingly critical article in The Boston Globe (June 18, 2001). The point of departure of Globe reporter Walter Robinson’s “Professor’s Past in Doubt: Discrepancies surface in claim of Vietnam Duty” was Ellis’ popular course on Vietnam and American Culture, one of the most sought-after classes at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Students particularly praised the course for the instructor’s integration of his own personal anecdotes as a combatant in the Vietnam War.
Only Ellis was never a soldier in the Vietnam War. His only military experience was a three-year teaching stint at the US Military Academy at West Point. The investigative reporter also uncovered falsehoods and exaggerations regarding Ellis’ supposed anti-war activism and leadership role in the movement while a Yale graduate student.
Upon hearing the allegations against Ellis, Mount Holyoke President Joanne V. Creighton initially expressed total support for the professor. Robinson wrote, “Holyoke President Joanne V. Creighton released a brief statement to the Globe praising Ellis, but not addressing any of the newspaper’s questions. During nearly 30 years at Mount Holyoke, she said, Ellis ‘has earned a reputation for great integrity, honesty, and honor…The college is proud to have him on our faculty.'”
This unqualified support was short-lived. Once Ellis admitted to Robinson’s allegations, the situation changed dramatically. Ellis’s apology ran in several newspapers. Holyoke’s Creighton responded to Ellis’s admission:
While I was dismayed to learn about this issue through the press, I do not question the right of the press to pursue the truth. Misleading students in the classroom is a serious academic matter, and claiming service in Vietnam falsely is disrespectful, especially to all those who have served. Now, in view of the college’s commitment to the highest standards of academic integrity, it is the duty of the college to investigate the facts that have been brought to light and to move ahead judiciously and justly.
It was but three years ago that another academic icon was exposed as deceitful and dishonest by misrepresenting personal experiences. In an August 1998 Commentary magazine article, Justus Reid Weiner charged famed Columbia literature professor Edward Said with publicly lying about his childhood experiences. Weiner wrote:
As a living embodiment of the Palestinian cause, he [Said] has made much in print and on film of his birth, childhood, and schooling in Palestine, telling a story of idyllic beginnings and violent disruption—of a paradise lost—that resonates with personal pain while also serving as a powerfully compelling metaphor for the larger Palestinian condition.
Weiner convincingly documents that, though Said was in fact born in the Talbieh section of Jerusalem, he spent the bulk of his childhood in Cairo, the son of a prosperous businessman, and then attended elite American prep schools and universities. Weiner noted that on Said’s birth certificate, prepared by the ministry of health of the British Mandate, his parents specified their permanent address as Cairo, and, indicating that they maintained no residence in Palestine, left blank the space for local address.
Moreover, Said claims to have fled from his Talbieh home in order to escape the invading Jewish armies in December of 1947. He therefore considers himself a Palestinian refugee. In fact, Said’s immediate family had left Palestine of their own volition for business reasons over a decade before.
The difference in the reactions to the fall from grace of these two academic superstars is striking. Whereas Ellis’ falsehood became the topic of prominent, harshly critical articles in scores of publications, Said’s dishonesty was described in guarded tones in only a handful of magazines and newspapers. It never made the headlines in the way the Ellis debacle did. Moreover, in the few articles on Said, some of the columnists spent more time attacking the messenger, Justus Weiner, than the dishonest Columbia professor.
Also, the difference in the reactions of the university administrations to the flagrant breaches of academic integrity and honesty are glaring. Notwithstanding the Mount Holyoke president’s initial attempt to paper over the issue, once Ellis admitted his deceit, condemnation was strong.
In contrast, Columbia’s president, George Rupp, turned a blind eye to Said’s inaccuracies and never even reprimanded him. He issued no public statement outlining the university’s reaction to the allegations against Said. Virgil Renzulli, Columbia’s associate vice president for public affairs, somewhat defensively suggested that the Said controversy did not “pertain to his status as a Columbia University faculty member, where his position is as a literary scholar and critic.”
It is notable that Columbia, one of the most highly regarded universities in America, would not hold a tenured professor to recognized standards of moral and professional conduct. What kind of role-model can such a professor be to his students? And what kind of precedent is the university setting by its inaction?
Said again violated commonly accepted codes of professorial behavior in a notorious episode at the Lebanese-Israeli border. There he hurled a rock at an Israeli guard post while visiting in July, 2000. Calling his act a “symbolic gesture of joy” he maintained that he had not known he “was the object of attention.”
Indeed, he did become the object of attention as many outraged Columbia students and faculty members wrote to the school’s paper in disbelief that rock-throwing at an Israeli guard post was apparently an acceptable expression of joy. Once again, university officials desisted from censuring Said in any way.
What is it about Said that allows him to emerge unscathed from the type of academic controversy which left another distinguished colleague in a most precarious position? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the political correctness of the day which allows many who espo use the Palestinian cause the latitude to say whatever they want regardless of its accuracy. In addition, there seems to be reluctance on the part of the world press generally to hold Palestinian spokespeople accountable for their statements.
Guest columnist Alana Menitoff, a sophomore at Barnard College, was a summer intern at CAMERA