<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
Finklestein Tenure battle
Wed, 4 Apr 2007 12:03:34 -0400
Furor Over Norm Finkelstein
Norman G. Finkelstein has been more controversial off his campus than on it. On his frequent speaking tours to colleges, where he typically discusses Israel in highly critical ways, Finkelstein draws protests and debates. When the University of California Press published FinkelsteinÄôs critique of Alan Dershowitz and other defenders of Israel in 2005, a huge uproar ensued Äî with charges and countercharges about hypocrisy, tolerance, fairness and censorship. But at DePaul University, Finkelstein has taught political science largely without controversy, gaining a reputation as a popular teacher.
But the debate over Finkelstein is now hitting his home campus Äî and in a way sure to create more national controversy. Finkelstein is up for tenure. So far, his department has voted, 9-3, in favor of tenure and a collegewide faculty panel voted 5-0 to back the bid. But FinkelsteinÄôs dean has just weighed in against Finkelstein.
In a memo leaked to some supporters of Finkelstein and obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Chuck Suchar writes that he finds Äúthe personal attacks in many of Dr. FinkelsteinÄôs published books to border on character assassinationÄù and that FinkelsteinÄôs tone and approach threaten Äúsome basic tenets of discourse within an academic community.Äù Suchar says that FinkelsteinÄôs record is Äúinconsistent with DePaulÄôs Vincentian values, most particularly our institutional commitment to respect the dignity of the individual and to respect the rights of others to hold and express different intellectual positions.Äù
While the leaked memo led to some false online reports that Finkelstein had been denied tenure, his case is very much alive and no final decision will be made until June, according to a university spokeswoman, who added that the deanÄôs memo was not meant for public consumption and that no administrators could comment.
Debates over scholars who take controversial views on the Middle East are, of course, nothing new to academe. But FinkelsteinÄôs case may be in a category all its own. He portrays himself as a courageous scholar, bringing rationality to discussions of the Holocaust and Israel Äî all the more bold for being Jewish and doing so. While criticizing people who invoke the Holocaust to justify political positions, he constantly identifies his parents as Holocaust survivors.
His supporters tend to characterize Finkelstein as the victim of right-wing, pro-Israel forces Äî and there are plenty of conservative supporters of Israel who despise Finkelstein. But among the groups heÄôs currently sparring with is Progressive magazine, a decidedly left-of-center publication that regularly publishes pieces that are highly critical of IsraelÄôs government. Finkelstein and his supporters also say that criticisms of his tone are an excuse for attacks on his political views Äî and that issue appears to be key to the DePaul deanÄôs review.
Much of the criticism from the dean focuses on FinkelsteinÄôs book The Holocaust Industry. The book argues that supporters of Israel use the Holocaust unreasonably to justify IsraelÄôs policies. While the book does not deny that the Holocaust took place, it labels leading Holocaust scholars Äúhoaxters and huxters.Äù A review of the book in The New York Times called it full of contradictions (at one point he rejects the idea that the United States abandoned EuropeÄôs Jews and then he later praises a book for which that idea was the central thesis) and full of Äúseething hatredÄù as he implies that Jews needed the Holocaust to justify Israel. The reviewer, Brown UniversityÄôs Omer Bartov, a leading scholar of the Holocaust, described the book as Äúa novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, ÄòThe Protocols of the Elders of Zion.Äô Äú
Finkelstein said he could not comment on his tenure case in detail until later in the week, although he confirmed via e-mail that he had been approved at the departmental level and college levels, and that the dean was opposing his tenure. He also questioned the fairness of being judged by whether he adheres to Vincentian values. He said that the issue was never mentioned in his annual reviews and that he had always been told that his research would be judged by Äúthe conventional academic requirements for scholarship.Äù It is wrong for DePaul to raise these issues now, he said. ÄúYou canÄôt spring new criteria at the second stage of the last year of a tenure-track position,Äù he said.
In Dean SucharÄôs letter, he starts by noting that there has been no dispute at DePaul over the quality of FinkelsteinÄôs teaching. He has received Äúconsistently highÄù course evaluations, Suchar writes, and many students report that they have had ÄútransformativeÄù experiences in his classes.
The dispute over the tenure review focuses on research. The College Personnel Committee, a faculty-elected body that reviewed FinkelsteinÄôs candidacy and unanimously endorsed it, raised concerns about the ÄútoneÄù and Äúfrequent personal attacksÄù in FinkelsteinÄôs work, Suchar writes. That committee, however, concluded that Äúthe scholarship was, on balance, sufficiently noteworthy and praiseworthy to merit their support for the application for promotion and tenure.Äù
Suchar disagrees. ÄúI find this very characteristic aspect of his scholarship to compromise its value and find it to be reflective of an ideologue and polemicist who has a rather hurtful and mean-spirited sub-text to his critical scholarship Äî not only to prove his point and others wrong but, also in my opinion, in the process, to impugn their veracity, honor, motives, reputations and/or their dignity,Äù Suchar writes. ÄúI see this as a very damaging threat to civil discourse in a university and in society in general.Äù
Finkelstein has also threatened to sue DePaul if he is denied tenure, Suchar writes, adding that this fits into the pattern. ÄúDisagreements over the value of his work seem to prompt immediate threats and personal attacks. This does not augur well for a college and university that has a long-standing culture where respect for the dignity of all members of the community and where values of collegiality are paramount.Äù
SucharÄôs memo was sent to a universitywide committee that will now review the case, which will then work its way to the president.
Supporters of Finkelstein take issue with the deanÄôs letter. ÄúThis is all because of Dershowitz wanting him to be fired. These people play rough,Äù said Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University who has blogged about the case and who is on the board of the Illinois conference of the American Association of University Professors. (Via e-mail, Dershowitz Äî who has previously battled with Finkelstein Äî said he had no information about the case.)
Kirstein questioned why the dean would mention FinkelsteinÄôs threat of a lawsuit. ÄúDoesnÄôt this country allow people to do things like suing?Äù he asked.
It would be appropriate for a dean to question the accuracy or significance of a professorÄôs work, but not to focus on its tone, Kirstein said.
On the question of the tone of oneÄôs writing, Kirstein said he had plenty of experience. In 2002 he was suspended from his job after he sent an e-mail to a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, calling the cadet Äúa disgrace to this countryÄù and criticizing the Äúaggressive baby-killing tacticsÄù of the military. Kirstein was reviled by many conservative groups and defended by many civil liberties groups.
ÄúTonality is usually a red herring to destroy controversial speech that elites donÄôt like,Äù Kirstein said.
Anne Clark Bartlett, a professor of English and president of the Faculty Council at DePaul, said that it is Äúnot commonÄù for deans to write letters disagreeing with the views of a department and collegewide panel reviewing a tenure candidate. But she also said that the faculty handbook did give deans that right.
Bartlett, who said she does not know Finkelstein, said that she has not taken a stand on his case and wants to see how the process plays out. She said that it was important that administrators respect that the universityÄôs regulations Äúgive the faculty primary responsibility over promotion and personnel mattersÄù for professors.
Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that the national office of the group had recently received the deanÄôs memo and was paying close attention to the case, but had not been asked to play a formal role. He said that the deanÄôs involvement and raising the issue of tone were not Äî in and of themselves Äî cause for concern with regard to academic freedom. He said that any questions about academic freedom would focus on the fairness of the deanÄôs comments, the due process afforded to Finkelstein, and how those comments were viewed in the totality of the evidence about FinkelsteinÄôs tenure bid.
However, Kreiser said that the AAUP believes that Äúordinarily a dean would defer to the judgment of a faculty memberÄôs peers.Äù AAUP policy calls for administrators to have Äúcompelling reasonsÄù that they can present before they overrule a faculty recommendation on tenure.
ÄúThe dean would have to provide compelling reasons,Äù Kreiser said. The question going forward will be: ÄúWere the deanÄôs reasons compelling?Äù
Äî Scott Jaschik
¬© Copyright 2006 Inside Higher Ed