Revolution #101, September 16, 2007
Norman Finkelstein Resigns
The Shame of DePaul Administration, The Seeds of Resistance, The Stakes of the Battle to Defend Critical Thinking
The case of Professor Norman Finkelstein, the noted Holocaust political scientist and author of critiques of Israel, came to a sad and disappointing resolution on September 5.
Under continuing pressure from the DePaul University administration, facing unrelenting attacks by rightwing ideologues and operatives like David Horowitz, and smeared in the local media, Finkelstein resigned as professor of political science. He resigned rather than continue to fight the egregious and unjust decision by the university to deny him tenure.
This was a day of shame for the administration of DePaul University. Coming on the heels of the firing of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado, this resignation is a serious blow to critical inquiry, academic freedom, and the integrity of the tenure process of faculty review and promotion.
But September 5 was also a day when many people demonstrated defiance, solidarity, and conscience. Faculty colleagues, students from DePaul, and other supporters came out to stand with Finkelstein. Many who threw in with Norman Finkelstein sensed that what happened at DePaul would have larger ramifications. Will dissenting voices and innovative and oppositional discourses be heard and defended, or will the universities be turned into institutions of intellectual conformism and political servility?
For the larger national battle to defend dissent and critical thinking, there are vital lessons to draw and valuable experience to build on.
A Travesty of Due Process
Norman Finkelstein is an accomplished scholar who has written extensively on the Nazi Holocaust. He is also an outspoken critic of Zionism and Israel. As a dedicated teacher, he has imbued students with the spirit of searching out uncomfortable truths. Finkelstein’s scholarship has been praised by people in the field, including the late Raul Hilberg, founder of Holocaust studies.
Professors like Norman Finkelstein are all too rare in the academy. But they are an important reason that the university is one of the few arenas in society where critical thinking has some initiative. And at a time when the U.S. is waging war in the Middle East, with Israel as its dependable strategic client-ally, Finkelstein’s research and teaching take on special relevance and urgency.
When Norman Finkelstein came up for tenure, his department and a college-wide committee unanimously recommended promotion. Students had flocked to his classes and looked forward to studying with him. But in June, Finkelstein was denied tenure. The president of the university overruled faculty recommendations. This unprecedented intervention was the culmination of a systematic and ugly campaign to destroy Finkelstein’s career at DePaul (and anywhere else he might go).
ITEM: The pro-Israel Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz inserted himself into the review process. He introduced briefs against granting tenure to Finkelstein and went into the media to repeat his bogus charges that Finkelstein is an anti-Semite. This external pressure was in total violation of standard faculty review practices.
ITEM: The president of the university claimed that Finkelstein was guilty of “ad hominem attacks on scholars” and of a tendency to “polarize and simplify conversation.” But as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has pointed out, “collegiality” is not a valid standard for judging a professor’s research and teaching and scholarship. If getting along, or going along with dominant ideas, were the acid test, then controversial, unsettling, and unpopular views would be ruled out of order.
ITEM: The normal protections afforded professors in these circumstances were trampled upon. After the denial of tenure, Finkelstein had no recourse to appeal. A professor denied tenure is normally allowed to teach his courses for another year. But Finkelstein was put on administrative leave, barred from teaching, and denied all relevant privileges.
ITEM: On September 3, the Chicago Tribune reported “leaked memos” from the administration accusing Finkelstein of “threatening and discourteous behavior.” But the only evidence cited of “physically” threatening behavior was that Finkelstein held open elevator doors while talking to a dean!
These are the tactics of a witch-hunt, of a smear campaign.
But Finkelstein’s cause was gaining notice and winning backers. Fellow faculty members and students were stepping forward. A letter signed by Howard Zinn, Immanuel Wallerstein, Derrick Bell, and other public intellectuals and academicians, called on people to fight “for the soul of DePaul.”
A Moment of Reckoning, A Situation of Real Potential
During the week before things came to a head, Norman Finkelstein had stated his intent to fight his firing: “I intend to go to my office on the first day of classes and, if my way is barred, to engage in civil disobedience. If arrested, I’ll go on a hunger strike. If released, I’ll do it all over again. I’ll fast in jail for as long as it takes.” (Chicago Tribune, August 28, 2007).
It was a strongly stated stand that galvanized support and ignited hopes. It was a controversial stand that stirred debate and raised awareness. It was the stand called for under the circumstances. And it led to a sense that what happened at DePaul would powerfully reverberate.
At the August 31 convocation marking the new academic year, a contingent of students and professors showed up wearing T-shirts with the slogan “We Are All Professor Finkelstein.” Students were organizing on the DePaul campus, and surrounding campuses were just beginning find out about the situation. Discussions were breaking wide open. Some freshmen noted that some of their high school teachers had come under fire. A common refrain: “but I don’t understand, DePaul is supposed to be about diversity and openness.” Students watched debates between Finkelstein and Dershowitz on YouTube and got into the Israel debate.
On September 5, people gathered on the campus quad where Finkelstein planned to teach his class. They carried banners of support with demands for tenure and academic freedom and calls for courageous dissent. When Finkelstein arrived, he announced to the crowd that he was talking with representatives of the university and would come back to make a statement.
People organized a spirited march around campus, their numbers now reaching 150. At about 12:30, Finkelstein returned and announced that a private settlement had been reached with the university. The announcement, especially after he had made his bold statement to resist, took supporters by surprise and left many confused and deflated.
The details of the agreement have yet to be made public. But this much is known: the university now acknowledges that Finkelstein is a “prolific scholar and outstanding teacher”—while Finkelstein agrees to leave, ostensibly with his reputation intact (although he admits that his “prospects in academia are dim”).
The resolution of this case is a very bad one. Indeed, no sooner had Finkelstein resigned than David Horowitz’s FrontPage magazine was calling for the ouster of yet another progressive DePaul professor. The sharks smelled blood in the water.
A Missed Opportunity, Lessons To Be Learned
There were many favorable elements in the DePaul mix: the incipient groundswell of support for Professor Finkelstein, the electrifying impact that his original statement to resist had on people, the ways in which students and faculty were beginning to stir each other, the coming together of prominent voices nationally in support, and the possibility for building on and spreading what might have happened at DePaul if the political battle went forward. There are many ifs, but one thing is certain: a determined stand would have sent a powerful message.
This did not happen. For whatever complex of reasons, Norman Finkelstein chose not to fight. It cannot be minimized that Norman Finkelstein faced incredible strains and pressures. But these are times that demand that people be strong and stay strong.
Professor Finkelstein stated that he felt he had to leave DePaul because the atmosphere had grown so “poisoned.” Here we have to step back and look at the larger situation.
The atmosphere on campuses is growing thick with toxic fumes of right-wing hysteria, the demonization of critical, or unorthodox, thinking, and professional character assassination. It is an atmosphere that puts scholars like Finkelstein in a terrible position. They face enormous pressure to repeatedly backpedal to refute base distortions; constantly look over their shoulders to see who’s watching them; and expend enormous amounts of energy protecting their jobs and integrity. And that is precisely what the organized reactionary forces behind these attacks are trying to do: create an atmosphere where it becomes almost impossible for scholars like Norman Finkelstein and Ward Churchill to continue teaching.
This is completely unacceptable. It is one reason to continue to press the demand that DePaul apologize and repudiate the whole process and grounds on which Norman Finkelstein was forced to resign. We need to create an atmosphere that welcomes these scholars and that defends them. We need to develop a movement that can, with bold clarity and firmness, bring others to understand what's at stake—and actually defeat these attacks.
This program of bullying and purge and thought control—with powerful right-wing backing—has already resulted in the firing of Ward Churchill, attacks on Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University, and the targeting and hounding of progressive professors through books like David Horowitz’s The Professors: 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. It is not going away. It is becoming more emboldened and more vicious. (See accompanying article on “Islamo-Fascist Awareness Week.”)
The stakes of this battle are high: for the professors, academic programs, and universities in the crosshairs of these attacks; for the intellectual and political life of universities; and for the kind of society we are living in. Students and faculty and all those concerned for "the soul of the university” and the direction of society face great necessity and responsibility.
But there is also great possibility to take on and defeat this assault on dissent and critical thinking. The potential was in evidence at DePaul—as diverse forces rallied behind Norman Finkelstein, called out the administration for its moral cowardice, and mobilized to stand with an embattled professor as a showdown approached.
We need to the grasp the stakes of the situation. We need to build resistance with a broadness of vision. We need to act with commensurate courage.
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