Zafra Lerman Credit: Courtesy of the Columbia Chronicle

Columbia College professor Zafra Lerman has weathered some stormy relationships in her 33 years at the school. She lost the chairmanship of the science department—which she founded—in the late 1980s, after a significant faction in the department rebelled against her. And three years ago Columbia brass ordered a midnight raid on her lab at the college’s Institute of Science Education and Science Communication. The break-in led to the firing of a member of Lerman’s staff, who allegedly used a lab computer to generate cartoon images of Columbia president Warrick Carter that had been popping up on posters around the school and on a Web site. Now the latest storm is blowing up into an international academic squall.

According to Lerman’s attorney, Laurel Bellows, the professor returned from a lecture gig at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo last month to find that she’d been suspended without pay, locked out of her office, and banned from campus. To make matters worse, Bellows says Columbia is “torpedoing” the project dearest to Lerman’s heart: the Malta Conference, a biennial meeting of scientists dedicated to fostering peace in the Middle East. Columbia has provided critical administrative support since its 2003 launch. But in late October, with the fourth Malta Conference scheduled to start in Amman, Jordan, on November 14, the college canceled most of its staff support and a promised donation. Bellows says the administration instructed Lerman’s staff not to communicate with her, canceled her international cell phone, and took full control of the conference account—which had been set up and managed through the college—making it impossible for Lerman or anyone associated with the Malta group to access it.

Nearly all of the money in the account was raised by Lerman and her colleagues from outside sources—including UNESCO and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry—and was earmarked for conference travel and expenses. Bellows says about 80 people from places like Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine are expected to attend, and six Nobel laureates had been slated to speak.

Paul Walter, a member of the conference organizing committee and past president of both the American Chemical Society and the American Association of University Professors, says the total conference budget is about $300,000, with just $15,000 pledged by Columbia—a loss that could be overcome. But commandeering the account right before the conference? That’s a problem. “What Columbia College has done is certainly unusual,” Walter says. “I’ve been on the organizing committee for eight other international conferences and never have I heard of anything like this.”

Walter says the Malta Conference grew out of a conversation he and Lerman had at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. “We were talking about things we as chemists might do for peace,” he recalls, and about how “if you get to know people as human beings, it makes a difference. There was very little opportunity [in the Middle East] for that. And they need to get together on scientific issues too: water, the environment, education. Zafra took the idea and ran with it.”

Conference deputy chair Elizabeth Ann Nalley wrote to Columbia provost Steven Kapelke on October 26, objecting to the abrupt loss of administrative support and asking that the conference records be given to Lerman and that the money in the Malta account at Columbia College be transferred to an account set up by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry by November 2. Last week, in spite of two additional letters to Columbia, Nalley said she’d received no response. “We don’t know what’s been paid or who’s making the decisions about payment. We don’t know who’s in charge, and they won’t tell us.”

Nalley says Columbia is also trying to gain control of a National Science Foundation grant of $50,000 intended for the conference, requesting that the NSF transfer it from Lerman to someone in the English department. Committee members are concerned that they’ll have to “dig deep into our pockets” to cover expenses, she says. “It’s bizarre. I’ve never heard of a university functioning like this.” Some of the Nobel laureates have withdrawn, she adds, “and I think any future conferences we have are in jeopardy. We’ll have to completely divorce ourselves from Columbia. They seem to not care about their reputation.”

Columbia responded to questions about Lerman’s suspension and the Malta Conference with a brief e-mail. Diane Doyne, associate vice president of public relations, marketing, and advertising, wrote that the college is “suspending” its financial contribution because of “challenging economic times.” But “we continue to provide the administrative support—including payment of invoices—that makes the conference possible. Any allegations to the contrary are simply false.” Regarding Lerman, she said the administration doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

Bellows says top administrators at Columbia “have been targeting [Lerman] for years,” and the conference is collateral damage. Lerman, who is Jewish and grew up in Israel, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on October 5, after she was suspended, charging religious and ethnic discrimination. It was after that, Bellows says, that the college ordered Lerman’s staff to stop working on the conference and took control of the Malta money.

According to Bellows, Columbia administrators will argue that Lerman’s tenure should be revoked at a faculty committee meeting scheduled for November 30. Bellows declined to discuss the alleged cause for revoking tenure except to say that the grounds, involving the use of a grant, “have not been very specific,” and that whatever Lerman did had been approved by Columbia’s administration “at the highest level.”

“Any professor who has tenure at Columbia should be very concerned about the way this process is being handled,” Bellows says.

Before she left for Jordan last Saturday, Lerman declined to go into specifics, but called Columbia’s actions a “vendetta,” and said, “Anything I did the provost and vice president of finance knew about and approved.” Just last April, Lerman said, “the provost wrote on an evaluation that I am a goodwill ambassador and my commitment is unmatched. Now they say I am too detrimental to be on campus.”

The Quietest Neighbors

The latest big idea for the landmark Three Arts Club building? A columbarium. Crain’s reported last week that architect Bill Bickford of DePree Bickford Associates wants to buy the 95-year-old brick structure at Dearborn and Goethe—home to thousands of women artists over the years, until it was shut down in 2003—and use it to store the cremated remains of up to 15,000 people, with niches going for as much as $10,000 apiece. Bickford, whose firm has done work at Graceland Cemetery, expects to get the place for about half the $13 million developer Mark Hunt paid. He says the building’s exterior and first floor would be restored and opened to the public, and special parking arrangements would be made for memorial services.

Sue Basko—a founder of Friends of the Three Arts Club, which hopes to restore the building to its original use—has asked 42nd ward alderman Brendan Reilly to apply for a change in the zoning law, pronto. As things stand, Basko says, “anybody can turn their backyard into a cemetery or their house into a columbarium.”