Revolution #95, July 15, 2007
Denial of Tenure for Norman Finkelstein: Rising Outrage, and Raising Big Questions
On June 8, Norman Finkelstein, a highly respected scholar and a critic of U.S. policies in the Middle East, and of Israel, was denied tenure (and essentially fired) by DePaul University. This came after a ferocious political campaign against him, spearheaded by Harvard law professor and torture advocate Alan Dershowitz. Dr. Mehrene Larudee, another DePaul professor who had organized support for Finkelstein as he came under attack, was also denied tenure. This has provoked outrage from academics, who have rightly seen the case as an egregious violation of academic procedures and a serious blow to academic freedom.
It has also provoked considerable anguish and deep questioning among students and scholars, at DePaul and nationwide. Finkelstein is highly regarded by his students. He published five books while at DePaul, including one at the University of California Press after a rigorous peer-review process. He had been recommended for tenure by his department and his college, as had Dr. Larudee. How could such a scholar possibly be denied tenure?
Particularly disturbing and disorienting to many is that this happened at DePaul, a university with a reputation for being open to diversity and tolerant of dissent. And it was done by the President of DePaul, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, who is known as a "nice guy," someone willing to sit down with students and listen to their concerns.
It is very important to understand how outrageous the Finkelstein case is and its dangerous implications. The attack on Norman Finkelstein is an ominous threat to critical thinking and to any critical examination of the real agenda behind the so-called “war on terror.” It represents a major step forward in the nazification of the universities, a concerted program to bring the universities into line with a project of imperial conquest and the reordering of society along fascist lines. [For more on Norman Finkelstein’s contributions to critiquing the role of Israel, and more background on the attacks on him, see "Escalation in the Attacks on Dissent and Critical Thinking: DePaul University Denies Tenure to Norman Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee," Revolution #93, June 24, 2007, and “The Clash Over Prof. Finkelstein's Tenure…and the Assault on Critical Thinking on Campuses,” Revolution #85, April 22, 2007.]
Throwing Out Academic Standards
The granting of tenure is traditionally based upon three criteria. The most important is scholarship--the number of academic works published and where they were published. The other criteria are teaching (determined mainly by student evaluations) and service (meaning serving on department committees and the like).
At every step of the tenure process, Finkelstein was judged to have met these standards. His department's report stated that Finkelstein "clearly [has] a substantial and serious record of scholarly production and achievement. He exceeds our department's stated standards for scholarly production, and both the department and the outside experts we consulted recognize the intellectual merits of his work.” Even the President of DePaul, in his letter to Finkelstein denying tenure, made it clear that he found no fault in Finkelstein's scholarship. There is no record of questions being raised about his teaching or his service. Instead, the ONLY criteria cited by Holtschneider to deny Finkelstein tenure was "collegiality," in the particular form of "Vincentian personalism" (values attributed to St. Vincent de Paul).
As Finkelstein told the New York Times, “That’s just inventing a new standard.” He added that in the annual reviews he has gone through, like any other professor, “no one ever warned me that I wasn’t meeting the Vincentian standard of personalism." He added, “I would not have stayed at a university if it told me upfront that a condition for me getting tenure [was that] my views have to be filtered through Catholic values." ("A Bitter Spat Over Ideas, Israel and Tenure," 4/12/07)
In 1999, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) adopted a resolution entitled "On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation." It said the use of collegiality as a criterion was "inconsistent with the long-term vigor and health of academic institutions and dangerous to academic freedom." It expressed concern that a focus on collegiality "holds the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion," and would result in "practices that exclude persons on the basis of their difference from a perceived norm," as well as pressures which "are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom." Importantly, the resolution concluded that "[c]ertainly an absence of collegiality ought never, by itself, to constitute a basis for nonreappointment, denial of tenure, or dismissal for cause." [full text at: http://www.sfsu.edu/%7Esenate/documents/attachments/collegiali.pdf]
In sum, established academic criteria have been thrown out and replaced with a standard explicitly repudiated by the AAUP, all in order to deny tenure to a radical, and very popular, scholar.
An Established Pattern...and Something New
In one sense, what has happened to Finkelstein is nothing new. Professors who challenge established orthodoxies and the myths of U.S. imperialism have always been attacked and subjected to unfair criteria. Many of the hundreds of scholars who have written in support of Finkelstein have related their own similar experiences.
But there are important differences. This has been done not behind closed doors in anonymous department meetings, but on the national, even international, stage. And it has been done in the face of large-scale opposition from academics and other intellectuals, both in the U.S. and worldwide. The process was widely seen, even by those who are not in agreement with Finkelstein's scholarship, as violating the established procedures of tenure review.
In this context, the denial of tenure to Finkelstein is not just an outrage against an important scholar cherished by his students. It is that, and all efforts must be undertaken to demand that this decision be reversed. But more importantly, it is a significant attempt to legitimize and institutionalize the use of political and religious criteria in determining whether someone can be a professor at a university. This is particularly the case given that it has been done in a "liberal" university by a "liberal" president.
Finkelstein, like Ward Churchill, represents the aspect of academia which the Bush regime wants to suppress. Churchill, a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, originally became the target of a nationwide witch-hunt in January 2005, when his invitation to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York was cancelled because of an essay he’d written shortly after 9/11 entitled “Chickens Coming Home to Roost.” In that essay he included a very provocative formulation about how not all the people, but those people who worked particularly as functionaries for the large corporations with offices in the World Trade Center, were “Little Eichmanns”—comparing them to the functionaries of the Nazi regime.
The last thing they want is to have a new generation of students engaged in the unfettered search for the truth, in an atmosphere of intellectual ferment, critical thinking, and dissent. Finkelstein's scholarship had already been ruled out of bounds--his books were systematically ignored by the major media, for example. Now, he will find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to be allowed in a university. And a threatening message has been sent, loud and clear, to academics all over the country– keep your heads down, or else.
Outrage and Resistance
Students at DePaul, particularly Finkelstein's, met the President's decision forcefully by staging a sit-in, a fast, and protests at graduation. Many graduating students turned their back on the President when he gave his address. And one student unzipped his robe to show a picture of Finkelstein when he went on stage to receive his diploma from the President.
Finkelstein has posted on his website many hundreds of messages of support, from students, academics, progressive Christians, and others from all over the world. Many have expressed profound disgust at the actions of Rev. Holtschneider. One who described himself as "an anti-fascist Jewish son of Holocaust survivors" wrote to Finkelstein that "Who our enemies are reflect on us as much as our friends; yours are certainly a credit to you." A student at Harvard Law School (where Dershowitz teaches), wrote to Rev. Holtschneider that his actions represented "a disservice to your university, a mark of shame upon your office, and a troubling sign of the state of freedom of speech and thought on campus in America today," and that "the import of your recently utterly misguided decisions will follow you for the remainder of your own tenure, and beyond."
This is a remarkable expression of international outrage and solidarity and must be built upon. The outrage against Finkelstein cannot be allowed to stand, as it would establish a new and dangerous precedent for the nazification of the American university. This resistance needs to be taken up even more deeply by administrators, faculty, students and broader segments of society.
As we said in Revolution #81, a special issue titled "WARNING: The Nazification of the American University": "One way or another, this struggle over the university and intellectual life will have profound repercussions on what U.S. society will be like, and on the prospects for bringing a whole new society into being."
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