Finkelstein and academic freedom

nf_ap0715_3_nuncscio.jpg You many not have heard of Norman Finkelstein. You may hate his guts. You might have seen him embarass and enrage Alan Dershowitz on Democracy Now. You may have read everything he's ever published. Whatever your relationship to the controversial scholar, the decision by DePaul University to deny Finkelstein tenure says a lot about the state of public debate and academic freedom in the United States.

An outspoken critic of Israel and the political uses of Anti-Semitism, Finkelstein is an intensely polarizing and divisive thinker. His very public clashes with pro-Israeli public figures- such as his public pantsing of Dershowitz- have made headlines and earned him many stauch allies and bitter enemies. He's also been accused of being anti-Semitic, despite the fact Finkelstein is Jewish and his parents were both holocaust survivors. But the controversey that surrounds Finkelstein is not the issue. The issue is how universities, in contradiction of their own founding principles, can act to stifle debate and punish scholars for exercising the freedom to publicly, frequently, and loudly criticize received truths.

Although he was recommended for tenure by the Political Science Department at DePaul, the University Board for Promotion and Tenure (UBPT) voted 4-3 to deny Finkelstein's Application. On June 8, 2007, DePaul President Dennis H. Holtschneider upheld UBPT's decision.

Why was Finkelstein denied tenure? The UBPT itself praised his scholarship:

The UBPT acknowledges Professor Finkelstein's record of accomplishment. By all accounts, he is an excellent teacher popular with his students and effective in the classroom. He is a nationally known scholar and public intellectual, considered provocative, challenging and intellectually interesting.

The UBPT also notes that the two external reviewers of Finkelstein's application rated his scholarship favourably, although several faculty colleagues raised some question as to the accuracy of his evidence.

Here's the real nub of the UBPT's complaint:

The UBPT expressed several concerns touching upon [Finkelstein's] scholarship, specifically what they consider the intellectual character of their work and his persona as a public intellectual. The UBPT acknowledges that Dr. Finkelstein is a controversial author, provocative and challenging. Yet, some might interpret parts of gus scholarship as 'deliberately hurtful' as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefull critique or challenge accepted assumptions. Criticism has been expressed for his inflammatory style and personal attacks in his writings and intellectual debates.

President Holtschneidern adds:

I have considered the fact that reviewers at all levels, both for and against tenure, commented upon you ad hominem attacks on scholars with whom you disagree.

There are several red flags here. First of all, 'character' and 'persona' are never acceptable criteria to evaluate a tenure candidate. Tenure applications are typically evaluated against teaching, research, and service, both to the university and the community at large.

Second, The UBPT makes very vague aspersions about critics expressing 'several concerns touching upon' Finkelstein's scholarship. Holtschneider comments that 'reviewers at all levels' have criticized Finkelstein's ad hominem attacks. But he never says how many reviewers, and what the precise nature of their concerns may be.  Accusations of ad hominem attacks, by their very nature, must be taken with a grain of salt. Just because a flustered, red-faced Alan Dershowitz claims he's been made the victim of an ad hominem attack does not make the attack real. It is entirely possible that an ad hominem charge is simply a defensive tactic to cover a weak or incoherent argument.  At the very least, DePaul has the duty to investigate these charges before making a decision on Finkelstein's application. There is no evidence this investigation ever took place.

Also, there may have been inappropriate outside interference in the tenure hearings. Shortly after Finkelstein made his application, Dershowitz began to actively campaign against a tenure appointment. He even sent DePaul faculty  dossier of what he categorised as the "most egregious academic sins, outright lies, misquotations, and distortions" of the political scientist. Dershowitz has no place interfering in Finkelstein's tenure application. He is not an external reviewer, and does not even teach within Finkelstein's discipline. Moreover, his intervention cannot be reasonably characterized as objective. Ad Hominem personal attacks, Mr. Dershowitz? You should talk.

All of this appears even more sketchy in light of a Chronicle of Higher Education report that a second DePaul professor was denied tenure, ostensibly for supporting Finkelstein.

To put this all in perspective, only a small proportion of tenure applications are denied every year. Denial of tenure is the exception, not the rule. Finkelstein's rejection is particularly bizarre, given his substantial publication record and high ratings as a teacher.

The upshot of all this is that DePaul's refusal to grant Finkelstein tenure appears to be a political decision. It is therefore hard not to agree with Finkelstein when he calls the decision an egregious violation of academic freedom.

“Rationally, [DePaul] has to deny me tenure. Any time I wrote or spoke would evoke another hysterical response and would be costly for them," said Finkelstein in the New York Times.

And he's not alone in his views. Here's what pre-eminent Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg had to say in the Chicago Tribune:

"I have a sinking feeling about the damage this will do to academic freedom."

Oxford professor and authority on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Avi Shlaim, has this to say:

"Professor Finkelstein specializes in exposing spurious scholarship on the Arab-Israeli conflict. And he has a very impressive track record in this respect. He was a very promising graduate student in history at Princeton, when a book by Joan Peters appeared, called From Time Immemorial, and he wrote the most savage exposition in critique of this book. It was a systematic demolition of this book. The book argued, incidentally, that Palestine was a land without a people for people without a land. And Professor Finkelstein exposed it as a hoax, and he showed how dishonest the scholarship or spurious scholarship was in the entire book. And he paid the price for his courage, and he has been a marked man, in a sense, in America ever since."

Incidentally, Shlaim also offers some insight into the bearing of Finkelstein's 'public persona' and his scholarly work:

I would like to make one last point, which is that [Finkelstein's] style is very polemical, and I don't particularly enjoy the strident polemical style that he employs. On the other hand, what really matters in the final analysis is the content, and the content of his books, in my judgment, is of very high quality.

In other words, you may disagree with how Finkelstein makes his arguments, but his arguments are ultimately sound. And style cannot be a justification for denying tenure.

Finally, The Guardian doesn't mince any words with its headline this morning: 'US college rejects Jewish professor over anti-Israel stance'.

These comments reflect a reality apparent to most observers. Denying Finkelstein tenure was a political act aimed at silencing a prescient, if highly controversial, voice. A combination of powerful opponents and skittish university administrators fearful of the fundraising implications of controversey have combined to attack Norman Finkelstein's academic freedom. This is an unacceptable outcome, one that cannot be endorsed by anyone interested in open, informed debate on difficult issues.

UPDATE: Check out Dr. Dawg for a pretty enlightening (and funny) exchange with David Horowitz on this topic.