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Pushing The Issues

Pushing The IssuesFletcher School graduate Lisa Anderson, the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, believes that a free exchange of ideas is critical to both education and policy-making.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.27.06] Great minds don’t always think alike. It’s a philosophy that Fletcher School graduate Lisa Anderson lives by and a message the dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs has passed along to her students throughout her 20-year career at the university.

According to The New York Times, the 55-year-old, who is also the James T. Shotwell Professor of International Relations at Columbia, “believes that intelligent educating, as well as policy-making, is best fomented by exposure to ideas and ‘received truths’ contrary to one's own.” Anderson, whose firm belief in free speech has, at times, caused a few waves at Columbia, told the newspaper: “If you don't want to step into the fray, you shouldn't be a dean.”

A controversy recently arose when Anderson, who received a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School in 1974, asked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to speak at the university. According to the Times, while security concerns forced the cancellation of the event, Anderson stood by her decision to invite the controversial leader to Columbia.

“The fact that she and Mr. Ahmadinejad do not agree on ‘the facts’ is precisely why she feels it is so valuable to hear him, and his ilk, out,” the Times reported.

“It's the irony of being a liberal with a small ‘l,’” Anderson explained to the newspaper. “You are willing to entertain the ideas of others, including and perhaps especially those of the people who wouldn't necessarily agree to entertain your ideas.”

Ahmadinejad isn’t the only controversial figure to earn an invitation to Columbia. ''Because of our proximity to the United Nations, we have the great advantage of being able to have a disproportionate number of rogues visiting us,” Anderson told the Times. ''The interesting thing about many of the despots we've entertained on campus is that they are usually personally quite personable.''

After a decade as head of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, Anderson, who the Times described as “a well-traveled Middle East and North Africa scholar,” is stepping down at the end of the year. She won’t likely regret the decisions she made—like inviting Ahmadinejad to campus—with the goal of encouraging debate.

''One of the things a university should represent is a protected place for people to say unpopular things; free speech is important, and loathsome ideas are sometimes the cost of free speech,” she told Times. “Ultimately the way one gets to the truth is through the marketplace of ideas.''


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