CNN’s Roberts Corners Columbia Dean on Ahmadinejad, Minutemen Project

While ABC’s Chris Cuomo played softball with Columbia University president Lee Bollinger on the upcoming speech of Iranian president Ahmadinejad, CNN’s John Roberts directed tough questions to John Coatsworth, dean for Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Roberts opened the interview with a question which summarized Ahmadinejad’s record. "Here's a leader who's advocated the destruction of Israel, denied the Holocaust, and is accused by our government, the United States government, of supplying both fighters and equipment to insurgents in Iraq, to kill U.S. troops. Why would you ever want him on your campus?"

Coatsworth appeared during the 7 am hour of Monday’s "American Morning." Besides the opening question, Roberts brought up two of the condemnations that were issued in response to the upcoming speech, one from Newt Gingrich, and the other from Senator Chuck Schumer. Roberts also asked Coatsworth to clarify his recent comments regarding what would happen if Hitler wanted to speak at Columbia.

The last part of the interview concerned a lecture at Columbia by Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist in 2006 that was disrupted by a large contingent that included Columbia students. "Why didn't you allow Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, that same opportunity to be challenged? I know that he spoke there last year, and his speech was interrupted by students who stormed the stage, but he had a speaking engagement coming up October 6th that was canceled. Why do you allow Ahmadinejad there and not the founder of the Minuteman Project?" After Coatsworth assured that Gilchrist would be allowed to speak at Columbia, Roberts followed up by asking, "Would you be willing to sponsor him? Does he have any value to you?" Coatsworth’s answer: "He doesn't have a value to the School of International and Public Affairs. He had value to the Young Republicans at Columbia, and if they wish to invite again, he will certainly be permitted to speak."

The full transcript of the interview from Monday’s "American Morning:"

JOHN ROBERTS: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won't necessarily be getting the red carpet treatment when he speaks at Columbia University later on today, but he will be allowed to speak, regardless of the tough questions he'll face. Some say that he shouldn't be heard from, period.

DOV HIKIND, NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLYMAN: I call on New Yorkers to make the life of Ahmedinejad, as he is in New York, miserable. Make his life miserable.

ROBERTS: That's some very passionate arguments there today. Joining me now is the dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs John Coatsworth. He's live on the Columbia campus here in New York. Mr. Coatesworth, thanks for being with us this morning....

JOHN COATSWORTH, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY DEAN: Good morning.

ROBERTS: ...Opening question: Here's a leader who's advocated the destruction of Israel, denied the Holocaust, and is accused by our government, the United States government, of supplying both fighters and equipment to insurgents in Iraq, to kill U.S. troops. Why would you ever want him on your campus?

COATSWORTH: Well, precisely because he is the leader of an important country, and one that our country is going to have to deal with in the future. Iran is infinitely more powerful today than it was just three years ago. In the future, Iran is going to be a – is going to hold the key to peace in the Middle East. We have to be able to deal with and negotiate leaders like this, however much we may disagree with their views. Like or not, he is an important guy.

ROBERTS: The question that some people are raising is, what are you going to hear from him, and will he be straight with you as you seek to challenge him? Here's what Newt Gingrich said that about that yesterday. Take a quick listen.

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: [Ahmadinejad] ...is a pathological liar. He is a very effective speaker. And I think that Columbia University is being very foolish to allow that kind of person to have a venue like an American university.

ROBERTS: So, Newt Gingrich is concerned – and it's a concern shared by other people – is that you're not going to get straight answers from this guy. He's a spin-meister. He's a propagandist. How will your students be able to challenge him in a way that they'll be able to cut through?

COATSWORTH: Well, look, we're going to ask him tough questions. If he gives us terrible answers, that will be known by not only the faculty and students of the university, but by everyone in the world. He's on TV when he speaks at Columbia. The Voice of America will broadcast his speech, but also the questions and his answers throughout Iran. The people of the world will know if he's giving answers differently today than he's given in the past.

ROBERTS: Right. There is opposition to his appearance today on both sides of the political aisle. We just heard from Newt Gingrich. Here's what Senator Chuck Schumer of New York had to say about it. 'Free speech means that you shouldn't silence anyone, but it doesn't mean you need to invite everyone to come to speak. I wish they hadn't invited Ahmadinejad.' The concern appears to be giving a platform to a leader, in this country, when the United States government has real problems with him. Aren't you afraid that you're going to be used in a way here?

COATSWORTH: No, Ahmadinejad is a world leader of consequence. He has a platform whenever he wishes to have one. What he doesn't have is a classroom, and that's what we're offering him; an opportunity not only to present his views, but defend them in the face of challenges and tough questions.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Also, you said, when you were asked about this a couple of days ago, quote, 'If he (Hitler) were willing to engage in debate and a discussion to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him.' When it comes to inviting world leaders for this program that you've had going for a few years now, where do you draw the line? Is there anyone that you wouldn't invite? Would you really have invited Hitler?

COATSWORTH: Look, if Hitler had come to the Columbia University in 1939, I would have been outside with the peaceful protesters. Or if I had been dean, I would have been inside presenting him to our students to be challenged. You can't choose your role in life. You can only choose the principles you have to live by. And in this case, we're providing not a platform, but a classroom, and we're going to challenge this guy as he has not been challenged in other places.

ROBERTS: Okay, so why didn't you allow Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, that same opportunity to be challenged? I know that he spoke there last year, and his speech was interrupted by students who stormed the stage, but he had a speaking engagement coming up October 6th that was canceled. Why do you allow Ahmadinejad there and not the founder of the Minuteman Project?

COATSWORTH: We certainly would invite him and allow him to speak on campus, so long as security could be arranged properly. We did not rescind an invitation to him. He's perfectly welcome to come and speak on campus, as long as there's a student or faculty group, or an institutional group, like a school or department that's willing to sponsor him.

ROBERTS: Right. Would you be willing to sponsor him? Does he have any value to you?

COATSWORTH: He doesn't have a value to the School of International and Public Affairs. He had value to the Young Republicans at Columbia, and if they wish to invite again, he will certainly be permitted to speak.

ROBERTS: All right, so, let me just check this with you. If you can provide security for Ahmadinejad, could you provide enough security for Jim Gilchrist?

COATSWORTH: Why, of course.

ROBERTS: Okay, well, maybe they'll re-invite him. John Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, thanks for being with us today. We're going to be tuning in live this afternoon. We'll see how this whole thing turns out. Appreciate it.

COATSWORTH: Thanks, look forward to it.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center