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Middle East Wars Hit Princeton

April 25, 2005

A prominent professor of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University is up for a professorship at Princeton University -- and the controversy over his work and his views could follow him.

Rashid Khalidi is currently the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia. Many scholars in his field consider Khalidi an outstanding, influential scholar. He has been at Columbia only a short time, after being wooed there from the University of Chicago. Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, said in an e-mail interview this weekend that Khalidi was "a giant in the study of the modern Middle East" who has "used archival sources and the best of criticial theory to rethink the history of Arab and Palestinian nationalism."

But pro-Israel groups have denounced his work for several years, arguing that his Palestinian sympathies distort his scholarship.

Word that he is up for a job at Princeton has led some alumni there to urge the university not to hire him. The controversy comes at a time when Princeton is also receiving pressure over the tenure bid of a junior professor who studies the Middle East and is seen as taking positions more sympathetic to the West than do many scholars in the field.

On Friday, The Daily Princetonian reported that alumni are contacting the university to oppose Khalidi's candidacy for an endowed chair at the university. The newspaper quoted Arlene Pedovitch, interim director of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton, as saying "Some Princeton alumni are very concerned about the possibility of Princeton University hiring an individual who has a political agenda rather than a scholarly approach to history."

Pedovitch was not available for comment on Friday, but in her comments to the student paper, she said, "I've told Nassau Hall, the administration, that I'm getting a lot of phone calls and e-mails from alumni."

Others in the article were quoted as saying that the decision should be made on the basis of Khalidi's scholarship, not his stances on the Middle East. In an interview Friday, Robert K. Durkee, Princeton's vice president and secretary, said that the university would "take seriously any expressions of concern" about Khalidi's candidacy.

But he said that the decision would be made "on many bases, but they don't include political views."

Durkee said that Princeton also takes pride in its Near Eastern Studies program being "ecumenical" with "a variety of views represented." Added Durkee: "It doesn't have a political orientation and we don't want it to."

Khalidi declined to comment on the report.

While the department does have a variety of viewpoints, many critics of the field of Middle Eastern studies say that Princeton's program stands out for having scholars who are more sympathetic to the United States and Israel than are many of their colleagues. The best known of such scholars is Bernard Lewis, who is retired.

But a young scholar in the field -- Michael Doran -- is an assistant professor in the department and his tenure case is already dividing scholars at Princeton and elsewhere. A number of conservative Web sites, such as National Review Online, have suggested that he may have a tough time winning tenure because his views are in the minority in his field. Those articles have all cited an article in The Daily Princetonian that quoted some scholars who disagree with Doran's views saying that they would work against his receiving tenure.

In an interview Friday, Doran said that he did not want to talk about his tenure bid, but he did agree to talk about the field generally, and how he sees himself in it. "To me, the big question, the defining question in the field is, What went wrong? And the field is divided between those who say what went wrong was Western imperialism and Zionism, and those who think indigenous factors more than the policies of the great powers are responsible for what went wrong. I'm in the latter group."

While Doran said he considers himself in an extreme minority nationally, and in a minority at Princeton, he praised his department as having diverse views and professors who do not expect their colleagues to adhere to a party line.

"People who are fighting to assert the total monopoly of their dogma over the field impute to Princeton all kinds of party lines that do not exist," he said.

Durkee, the Princeton vice president, said that Doran's tenure case, when it comes up, will be reviewed without regard to his politics. But he said that some of those who fear he will be treated unfairly just don't understand how rigorous the tenure process is. "We have this issue periodically with popular assistant professors who are gifted teachers, and people want to know why we haven't given them tenure instantly," Durkee said. "There are many considerations."

 

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