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Blackballed at Yale

June 5, 2006

One of the most closely watched -- and criticized -- faculty searches this academic year is ending with Juan Cole apparently being rejected for a post in Middle Eastern history at Yale University.

Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and president of the Middle East Studies Association. He also has one of the largest audiences of Middle Eastern studies experts through his blog, Informed Comment, on which he publishes numerous updates a day about events in the Middle East. Cole is a tough critic of U.S. foreign policy and of Israel's government -- and his blog comments have been used for months by opponents of his appointment to kill it.

Yale officials are not commenting on Cole's status as a potential faculty member. Neither is Cole. A joint appointment in history and sociology had already been approved at the departmental levels. But on Friday, the blog Power Line reported that a senior appointments committee at Yale has overruled those votes, scuttling the move from Ann Arbor to New Haven. Power Line has been critical of Cole -- it declared its scoop to be "today's good news" -- but the report was confirmed by a professor with close knowledge of the search.

Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, called the campaign against Cole "an assault on academic freedom and the academic enterprise." Lockman is president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association. He stressed that he was speaking for himself, not the group, and that he didn't have firsthand knowledge of the Yale search.

Lockman said that Cole is "one of the preeminent historians of the modern Middle East and he's been attacked on political grounds -- because he's critical of the Bush administration and Israel." Given Cole's reputation and the departmental backing for his appointment, Lockman said of the decision to reject Cole: "Universities seem to be willing to kowtow to pressure from outside interest groups."

Cole's critics -- in The New York Sun, National Review, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, several of whom are now praising Yale for not hiring him -- have maintained that they aren't using political tests, but object to Cole's career on a variety of grounds. They point to numerous quotes he has made (generally in his blog) that they say show a willingness to blame the United States and Israel inappropriately (Cole has said that some of the quotes are taken out of context and that others represent legitimate opinion). Several have also criticized his scholarship, saying that he is spending too much time on blogging and questioning his output of serious scholarship. (His supporters point to a long publication list.) Campus Watch, a pro-Israel group, maintains a long list of articles about Cole, most of which it endorses for their criticism of him.

Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, summarized the anti-Cole arguments in an opinion piece in The Yale Daily News. "Cole is a major public figure. But the political popularity and punditry should not substitute for research accuracy and experience. Bush criticism may be trendy and perhaps even valid, but the reputation of Yale's faculty ... should be based on more," he wrote.

While it is unclear whether timing was a factor in Yale's decision, it probably didn't work in Cole's favor. The university has been facing considerable criticism in conservative circles since the publication in March of a profile in The New York Times Magazine of a former official of the Taliban government in Afghanistan who is studying at Yale. The headline on the Power Line article about the apparent end to Cole's candidacy at Yale was "No Teacher for Taliban Man."

Some of those expressing concern about the way Cole's candidacy was handled aren't scholars of the Middle East or political allies of Cole. Ralph E. Luker, who has criticized political litmus tests by a variety of political views, wrote on Cliopatria Saturday that "if a distinguished conservative scholar were denied an appointment at Yale because of her or his conservatism, partisans on the right would be, er, rightly outraged. Academic conservatives ... can't both take heart from the denial of Juan Cole's appointment and continue their campaign for a 'depoliticized classroom.' However ideological Juan Cole may be, he is no Ward Churchill and conservative ideologues sullied the decision-making process by their ideologically-motivated public campaign against Cole's appointment."

As for Cole, in an e-mail exchange, he repeatedly declined to say anything about the Yale search. But he did agree to comment on the criticism he has received during the Yale search. "These vicious attacks on my character and my views were riddled with with wild inaccuracies," he said, adding that the criticism was "motivated by a desire to punish me for daring to stand up for Palestinian rights, criticize Israeli policy, criticize Bush administration policies and, in general being a liberal Democrat."

Cole said that the experience will not lead him to change his views or his public expression of his views. "The campaign has inspired me to redouble my efforts. Attempts at blackballing and at making intellectuals taboo always demonstrate the fear of ideas in one's opponents."

 

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